God, Art, and the Local Church: An Art Chaplain’s Reflection

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.” [1] 

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.

[1] Anthony de Mello, One Minute Wisdom, (Gujarat, Anand Press, 1987),  p. 147

Please follow and like us:

9 Comments

  • Cole Matson says:

    Jim,

    Thanks very much for your post. I agree with you that “where there is genuinely good arts practice then there must surely also be God”, though He may be harder to see in some cases than in others.

    How to merge the two communities of your artists and your congregation, more than just putting a gallery into a church? Are there scheduled times when the two communities come together, to share experiences of art, worship, or just discussion?

    Thanks,
    Cole

  • Jim Craig says:

    Cole,

    Thanks for your comment. This is a tricky one, as the local arts community is really difficult to define, and most of the arts activities happen over the water in Newcastle (Gateshead has always seen itself as the poor cousin of Newcastle). I would love to hear suggestions of how to bring the two communities together… I have a classic apathetic congregation who dislike coming to activities outside of service times, so there are no obvious opportunities for conversations with artists. I’m open to suggestions about this issue if anyone has any ideas?

    Cheers,

    Jim.

    • Cole Matson says:

      Just brainstorming here, don’t know how many of these would fit your setting:

      -Discuss an artwork on display in your homily (as appropriate)
      -Hold a “Blessing of the Artists” (like the Franciscan “Blessing of the Animals”), perhaps on the feast day of St Luke (18 Oct), patron saint of artists. The Episcopal Cathedral in Pittsburgh does this annually: http://www.episcopalpgh.org/2011-blessing-of-the-artists/. Put out flyers at local artist hang-outs, and invite all the artists who have exhibited at your church to come (and ask them to tell their friends).
      -Set up an artist adoption programme – ask members of the congregation to volunteer to pray for an artist exhibiting at the church, and possibly invite that artist over for a meal. Ask the artists if they would be willing to create a small artwork (even if just a sketch) as a gift to (or in honour of) their congregant, to create a permanent marker of that prayer/fellowship relationship. This could involve a collaboration between artist and congregant, e.g., the artist painting a small panel inspired by a story the congregant told about her childhood over dinner.
      -Include an art sale at the summer fête. Advertise it both in the church’s literature, and at places where other art sales are advertised. This could introduce church and local community members to the artists (and hopefully lead to sales for the artists, possibly with the church receiving a small commission), and also introduce art buyers to the church.

  • Jim Craig says:

    Cole,

    Thanks for your comments. This is a tricky one, as it is very hard to define the arts community in Gateshead. Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, which is just over the river from Gateshead, is the city that artists relate to and gather in. Gateshead tends to see itself as the poorer couisin to Newcastle, and artists are less motivated to attend events on this side of the river. We also have a rather apathetic congregation and motivating them to gather together outside of church services can be a thankless task. If anyone has any similar experiences of solving this problem then please get in touch!

    Cheers,

    Jim.

  • elizabeth winder noyes says:

    I’m hoping the Director of Liturgy at St. James will be able to participate in this conversation because she has more information at hand than I do about some of the issues you raise, but the piece I contributed about a recent show might be helpful. The questions you raise about the doubts and fears ‘secular’ artists have about exhibiting in churches is real. I myself, though a practising Christian, was somewhat anxious and had many questions to sort through when I showed in a church last year. I do have a piece that was written by a ceramic artist who collaborated on a large sculpture, the Stations of the Cross, which stood in the Cathedral Chapel during Lent, about her fears. I would like to share that by posting it as a comment if I can fit it into the box. Please let me know if you’d be interested. I have the permission of the artist to publish it.

    • Cole Matson says:

      Elizabeth,

      We’d certainly be interested in reading it. If it’s too long to post here, you can e-mail it to me at ccem@st-andrews.ac.uk and I’ll share it with the Transpositions editors to see if it’s something we’d like to post as a guest contribution on the blog.

      Cole

  • Jim Craig says:

    Elizabeth,

    Absolutely interested! Either post your article here or email it to me directly at rev.jim@btopenworld.com. What I find really interesting is that artists are as afraid of entering a contemporary church as congregations are afraid of entering a contemporary gallery! I wonder if that means they both have something in common?

    Jim.

  • elizabeth winder noyes says:

    I am sending to you, Cole and Jim, the two letters I received from the sculptors of Stations of the Cross, Jesse Li and George Rodriguez, with 10 photos I took. Later.

    • Jim Craig says:

      Thanks for the file you sent. I really like the ceramic artwork the artists created, I only wish there were more sponsors in the UK willing to fund art in churches. Strangely enough we very rarely show ‘religious’ art in our church/gallery, largely because we rely on artists bringing in existing (rather than commissioned) artwork. I love the respect both artists had for the church environment, even though it was a new experience for both of them. Did you have a role in the commissioning process of this piece?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

1,468,601 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments