To a preacher who kept saying, “We must put God in our lives,” the Master said, “He is already there. Our business is to recognize this.” 
I have cherished this imaginary dialogue all through my ministry, and it has been especially important to me throughout my seven years as Community Arts Chaplain in Gateshead (Northeast UK). When I first took up my post, this short but profound thought helped me to avoid the suspicions of an arts community that mistrusted the local church and expected it to misappropriate the arts for propagandistic purposes. Such judgements from the secular arts community are only to be expected; I myself have been the victim of a certain interpretation of Christian teaching that attempts to shoehorn people into restrictive ways of understanding their faith. However, I believe I have managed to gain the trust of local artists, agencies and institutions by interpreting the local church’s role in the arts as one that recognises and comments upon the best that the Gateshead arts scene has to offer. My premise for this praxis is simple; where there is genuinely good arts practice then there must surely also be God. In Gateshead, this has taken the form of running a contemporary art gallery within a small, local church.
This nuanced approach to missionary activity is one which the local church also needs to cherish. After five years of running arts workshops in the local community, I managed to get permission to convert one of the three churches I cover into a gallery. Sanctuary Artspace consists of four huge whitewashed MDF panels that span the length of the north wall of St Edmund’s Chapel, a former 13th century pilgrim’s hospital on Gateshead High Street. In this space, we offer local artists and art groups the opportunity to hold micro-exhibitions (between 2 – 4 weeks in length). While the artists have control over what is exhibited, we do reserve the right to reject individual pieces if the subject matter is too strong. While St Edmund’s has a small but faithful congregation, the majority of the artists our gallery represents are not practicing Christians and need reminding at times of the needs of the worshipping community.
The worshipping community at St Edmund’s is naturally conservative when it comes to art appreciation, and it has taken them time to embrace the artists and artwork which has replaced the whitewashed walls of the church. The artists have needed to learn that the art they bring into the church instantly becomes a visible part of the liturgy that can add value or detract from the worship experience. The worshipping community have learned to relinquish their image of the church as a spiritual time capsule to which they run to escape the moral and ethical grey areas of life. My role in this is to facilitate an ongoing dialogue between the church and the arts community. My hope is that this process will cultivate a renewed respect between both groups (the church and the world).
I have no artists in my congregation, and when it comes to art appreciation, the majority of local people are deeply conservative. It is perhaps to be expected that some of the contemporary art on display in the church will occasionally receive a hostile reception. The question I have asked myself on a regular basis is this: how far should a gallery that is installed in a working church actively try to avoid courting controversy? While the answer will differ from church to church, I have discovered that these opportunities need to be cherished rather than avoided. They can be harnessed to kick start the most profound theological conversations with individuals who consider themselves as well and truly outside of the Christian fold.
It has recently been suggested that a full-time Arts Chaplain is surplus to requirements in a diocese having to reduce the number of stipendiary clergy. My response to any concerns about the apparent extravagance of my job is to point out that our ancient building is now being used to tell the story of the inherent good that is being revealed through the prophetic work of the local arts community. My hope is that this inherent good might help people to find God because as the Master said, ‘He is already there. Our business is to recognize this.’
Jim Craig has worked full-time as Community Arts Chaplain in Gateshead for the last 7 years. He studied Painting as part of a BA in Fine Art at the University of Humberside before training for the ministry at Cranmer Hall, Durham. Anthony de Mello, One Minute Wisdom, (Gujarat, Anand Press, 1987), p. 147