Gatekeepers and ‘Bad’ Church Art

Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes. (Isaiah 54:2)

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Church buildings can be places of comfort and hope; and as much as we don’t like to acknowledge it, they can also be places of tension and strife.

The ‘fabric of the building’ and all those elements within can become such a source of debate that the very focus on community, on worshipping a living God, and on the mission of the church to the world falls by the wayside.

Over the last few years I’ve heard the same story, seemingly, over and again. The names are changed, even the country, but yet the story remains almost depressingly the same:

There is a wall hanging, a particularly distinctive pulpit, a painting or portrait that has hung in that spot ‘forever’, and it simply must not be moved.  The forever is usually somewhere around 30-40 years – it seems that a generation is sufficient – and on this seemingly essential matter the gatekeepers, as well meaning and passionate as they often are, simply will not budge. Even in the face of taste, a lack of artistic merit, or sheer common sense, this usually ends up becoming an issue larger than itself. This is the kind of issue that newer members of the community walk on eggshells around, and though some will rush in where angels fear to tread, most will simply make an aesthetic judgment and then decide there are more important matters to be concerned with and choose another battle to fight. Sometimes this decision to avoid directly addressing this kind of difference of opinion will be the right response for the purpose of preserving the community. In any case, it is perhaps an easier thing to pass judgement on the taste and priorities of another, separate of course to making a judgement on a work of church art, than to seek to understand the complex history of human relationships and the messiness of living in community with one another with all our flaws and failings.

Artistic works that have become part of the fabric of a church building – such as wall hangings and even some pieces of furniture – often become a source of conflict, especially if the work is not well-executed. Part of the reason could be an initial emotional connection between the community, the artist and the work; perhaps a less well-developed critical taste led the community to overlook the object’s flaws. As others move into the community and look at the work without the relational perspective, tensions can quickly arise. In an established church, there can be multiple elders meetings with intense discussions about a particular work in a church. (I suspect that this is more likely in Protestant contexts but I will stand corrected as appropriate.) These discussions are rarely resolved without at least some tension and hurt feelings. In reflecting on how one might approach such a situation I’ve been encouraged that it is always more positive to find a way to move forward rather than simply dismissing the depth of feeling and sense of ownership and involvement people feel in preserving the fabric of a church building; people tend to feel an intense personal connection with a ‘place’ they have invested either much time or much energy, oftentimes both. Their desire to preserve the familiar and resist change or upheaval often overshadows any notion of critical judgement or taste. Of course, blithely and recklessly seeking change for its own sake or demanding others accede to one’s notion of good taste without reference to, or care for, relationships and “lov[ing] one another” undermines the tenet that the church is the “body of Christ” and where we are to express love for one another and by which others, in seeing our love for one another, will know we are disciples of Christ.

Where does it leave those of us who have invested time and energy into exploring and appreciating good art?

We should, I think, approach gatekeepers with a spirit of understanding and patience, seeking to be positively and constructively creative. It is hard not to lose patience when you consider priorities are out of order, however rather than dismissing the connection often felt by gatekeepers with particular pieces by bluntly expressing a negative opinion or judgement openly, one may take care to seek to model artistic excellence in our communities. It may require open and honest challenge to pieces which either in their location or content hinder the ability of a community to worship or which do not serve the needs of the community now, though they may once have. This is not always an easy matter and I hesitate to be too prescriptive. Even determining if a piece of art is serving as an obstacle to worship or causing offence is a matter which is specific to both the circumstances and the people involved. I acknowledge that I am being purposefully vague in providing examples, but I have unity-minded reasons for doing so – I suspect many of you could provide your own examples. In any case, I want to suggest that it takes willingness to listen to differing points of view and even more discernment to be willing to appreciate and seek to understand the concerns of another.

Have you experienced this kind of situation? How do you approach things? Did you choose not to engage? Was there a positive resolution?

Images: Author.

Authored by Anna Blanch. Australian by birth, and inclination, Anna grew up surrounded by the Australian bush, a large extended family, bush poetry, and sport. Anna is currently writing her PhD in Theology and Literature.

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