Thursday, 8 August 2013

The language of Faith and Art

On my day off this week we went into London and enjoyed two very different experiences. 

The first was a visit to the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea, housed at the old Duke of York barracks.  The current exhibition is on the theme of ‘paper’ and so we strolled through gallery after gallery of conceptual art trying to connect it to the theme – or at times just wondering what these pieces were trying to say to us.  Of course ‘modern art’ has a very different language from its ‘fine art’ cousin and in a way every piece we saw yesterday had an intrinsically ‘elastic’ breadth of interpretation. 

We finished our Saatchi experience with a visit to the print room where originals could be purchased.  A work by Damien Hirst comprising of four dots placed around the edge of a white canvas had an asking price of £4,600 – over a thousand pounds per dot!  We didn’t buy it.

I surprised myself – because I’m a Philistine when it comes to conceptual art – by being more inspired by some of the pieces I saw yesterday than I thought I might. 

We continued on something of a cultural pathway in the evening with a visit to Sadler’s Wells and the first night of their new production of West Side Story.  Now this was a medium whose language resonated with me.  The dancing and singing was simply stunning and the heartbreaking story of Romeo and Juliet set in New York with the Jets and Sharks seemed to touch every member of the audience. 

West Side Story contains so much which is, in essence, the contradiction of our humanity: a love match that crosses the divide but is unable to thrive because of the tragedy of suspicion and self-destructive conflict.  I understood this language and instantly appreciated it means of communication.

I suspect that art and faith have always been intimately connected and it is often the case that sometimes the deepest part of our spirituality finds its best expression through painting or music.

Yet the truth is I had a very different experience of two types of art yesterday.  At the gallery I battled with the language and came out confused – which may have been good.  In the theatre I seemed to understand instantly what Bernstein was trying to do with every tune I heard.

This issue of language (in its broadest sense) is important in our understanding of Church too. 

I have no problems singing 18th Century hymns and, most of the time, understanding theological sermons – but that’s because it’s what I’ve been doing now for over five decades!  But I sense fewer and fewer people in society speak this sort of language or appreciate this type of culture anymore.  Just the other day someone said to me with disarming honesty ‘I love the people at your church I’m just bored whenever I go to the services’ – I appreciated their honesty – really!

To counteract this ‘language/cultural gap’ some newer church groups are currently experimenting with what it means to be ‘church’.  So they don’t meet in gothic buildings, sing hymns, listen to sermons and take up an offering.  They gather in homes or coffee shops, discuss a home grown theme, pray without words and form an ongoing community without rigid structures or obvious leadership.

Although this seems to appeal to many I readily confess such a way ‘of being’ scares me silly!  But perhaps that’s the point – I have found a way that appeals to me and that’s ‘traditional church’ and I believe there is still a future for such an expression – but I’m deeply interested in alternative, or what are sometimes called, ‘fresh expressions’ because the truth is the ‘one size’ model of church doesn’t, and probably never has, fitted all. 

In all of this I suspect the core values are the same but the language is different – rather reminiscent of yesterday’s experience of Saatchi Gallery alongside Sadler’s Well Theatre!

With best wishes,

(Blog holiday now until September!!)

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Wonga and The Archbishop

I have to admit that until last week, even after seeing their rather charming TV advert many times before,  I hadn’t really grasped the reality that Wonga is a ‘Payday Loan’ company.  Not so the Archbishop of Canterbury who, with his financial background in the oil industry, has made this attack on the ‘loan shark’ industry one of his opening gambits at Canterbury.

However, as Jenny McCartney wrote in the Daily Telegraph, ‘no good intention goes unpunished’.  So just a few days after this foray into the complex world of finance Justin Welby had to face the music over revelations that C of E pensions funds had indirectly been invested in Wonga.  I think many of us felt he dealt with this criticism in an adult and intelligent way.

So is it worth national church leaders getting their hands dirty over socio-economic involvement or should they stick to just the ‘hatches, matches and despatches’ of regular church life?

Well – in my view Archbishop Welby has my admiration and respect both for what he said last week and the way he said it. 

One of the joys I have as minister of Amersham Free Church is a once a month opportunity of listening to a sermon preached by the Associate Minister.  I have not spent time ‘in the pew’ this way for over twenty years!  Last Sunday Erna challenged us in our understanding of ‘The Kingdom of God’ by emphasising it as a ‘process’ – a way of life in which Godly values of love and justice are to the fore in our thinking and ambition. 

I sense Justin Welby believes our society should strive for justice at every level and that includes the moral and ethical standards behind our huge financial institutions.  On a positive note he was advocating and supporting an alternative way of assisting those who are struggling through the creation of more Credit Unions.

Yet what of the stones that were then thrown, as it were, at the door of his glass cathedral?  Isn’t it too risky a thing these days to make any ‘grand’ statement for fear that a journalist ‘hack’ will bring you down?  I don’t think so.  In fact I believe that living as part of this ‘Kingdom of God’ means that we need to display the humility that openly admits that nothing about us is a ‘Counsel of Perfection’.  We in the Church try hard to do our research and get our facts right but we make mistakes.  Living in ‘The Kingdom’ should mean we readily acknowledge these – and that’s exactly what the Archbishop did with such good grace and wisdom last week.  In doing so I think he acted as an inspirational role model for us all and the way we ‘do’ church. How refreshing to hear any one in public life these days actually admit to making a mistake.

Of course Jesus never ever said that living with authentic faith in the real world was ever going to be easy – even for Archbishops!

With best wishes,


Friday 29th May 2020

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