Artists, the church and thinking differently

In an article on the Art and Sacred Places website (see Bishop John Gladwin speaks of the role that art can play in adding the voice of contemporary feeling and concern to the complex story of faith and culture embodied in the church building. I would like to consider another reason why artists have a great deal to offer the church and its community.

For centuries the church was at the centre of public life.  It defined it and provided both public and private meaning.  In these days the church is no longer at the centre of our culture and no longer a focus of unity.  (There will be many, including Christian believers, who do not regret this change reflecting a conviction, sometimes borne out in history, that political power does not bring out the best in religion.)  Instead, even though the Church of England remains established and its leaders are still public figures, the experience of being in the church is often that of being part of a rather embattled minority.

The story modern believers live with is of one of decline.  The church is adept at ignoring this much of the time but the facts remain: fewer people believe or even understand what the church believes than in the past; fewer people attend church and the church has far less influence on what happens in society.  In this atmosphere church people have tended to do what embattled people often do: they have retreated into safer places, that is, into the congenial world of the church.  They focus on internal concerns and keep their heads down.

Churches are now, typically, intellectually and culturally conservative.  And if the thought that they might be anything else surprises you then it shows how far we come from the revolutionary teaching of Jesus, from the subversive impact of the early church and even from the reforms of the sixteenth century which gave rise to the creation of the Church of England and spawned a number of other protestant churches.  The church changed the world.

And now, at just the moment when the church most needs to be engaging with the meaning of the world around it, thinking new thoughts and addressing the vital question “what does it mean to be a Christian in a world like this?” it is least willing to respond.  And yet, asking and answering this question intelligently is the only possible foundation for a renewal of the church.

I am not suggesting that a conversation between art and faith is ‘the answer’, but it can help.  It is one way in which the church can help itself to think differently, to engage. When a contemporary artist creates a work of art in response to a Christian building, or simply shows a work in that environment, the artist brings modern convictions, ideas, perceptions and questions into the church.  The physical proximity of the work and the sacred space sets up a dialogue between the traditional and modern worlds.  It provides an opportunity for the church to engage with a voice from outside and is a real opportunity to learn and grow.

Of course this is a two way street.  Each acts as a challenge and stimulus to the other. The dialogue between ancient and modern offers “insiders” and “outsiders”, believers of all stripes, agnostics and atheists even, the opportunity to arrive at a deeper and richer understanding of things that are important to us all.  We might all learn something.

This blog was written originally for the art commissioning organisation Art and Sacred Places and it also appears on that organisation’s website at the address given above.

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