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Sunday, 24 August 2014

Sabbatical art pilgrimage: Sermon

The rock band Switchfoot have a song called ‘Meant to Live’ which articulates the sense which, I suggest, we all have that there must be more to life than we are experiencing now. They sing:

‘We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
Somewhere we live inside

Maybe we've been livin' with our eyes half open
Maybe we're bent and broken

We want more than this world's got to offer
We want more than this world's got to offer
We want more than the wars of our fathers
And everything inside screams for second life’

The singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn expresses the same sense in a song called ‘More not More’ when he sings:

‘There must be more...
More songs, more warmth
More love, more life

More current, more spark
More touch, deep in the heart

More growth, more truth
More chains, more loose’

Christianity is about the something more of life. We believe that there is more to life than the material, more to life than just the visible and we express this through signs and symbols. So, bread and wine is not simply wheat and grapes or food and drink but is also the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself was a physical being – a human who could be touched and felt – but was also more by being, at one and the same time, divine; the Son of God.

One of the ways in which we express this sense of there being something more to life is through the Arts. When we make art – whether that is literature, performing arts or visual arts – we are essentially following what Jesus did when he made bread and wine into a symbol of his life and death; we are using something known to us to make the invisible visible. This happens most powerfully when the symbol connects us to something real; if Jesus had broken bread and shared wine with his disciples and said this is my body and blood but had not then died, we would not celebrate communion today. We celebrate using the symbols of bread and wine because they connect us with the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection and all that that opens out to us. When something visible and tangible connects us to the invisible reality of the divine that is what we call a sacrament and, at its best, that is what art can do.

During my sabbatical I heard Rev. Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields talk about the way his church using the Arts. He used a description of Jesus as prophet, priest and King, which he took from the writings of John Calvin, to illustrate how the Arts reveal the something more of life. Prophetic art holds a mirror up to society and asks, ‘Are you proud of what you see?’ This kind of art can create a vision of what society could be (the kingdom of God) and then brings home to us the painful gap between this possibility and our present reality. As a result, prophets and prophetic acts are often shocking.

Priestly art takes the opposite approach. The poet George Herbert wrote that when we look at glass we can either see ourselves reflected (like a mirror) or we can look through it to see the heavens. Priestly art gets us seeing beyond the stars. Through priestly art the ordinary stuff of life speaks or sings of the divine.

Kingly art, Wells suggested, is about glory; the glory of God and, through that, the glory of human beings reaching their full potential in God. Kingly art is art which stretches us by showing what humanity can be when we reach our full potential. 

The art made for churches often succeeds in doing all these things and that is why it can impact and change our lives. However, there have been periods in the life of the Church when the Arts haven’t been fully appreciated and understood and when artists have felt disconnected from and disillusioned with the Church.

The beginning of the twentieth century was just such a time. Modern art looked, sounded and felt very different from the art that had traditionally been made for the Church, meaning that the Church avoided using modern art while many modern artists were excitedly exploring new ways of creating art and couldn’t see any connection between what they were doing and the styles of art which the Church continued to use. As a result, there was a whole segment of society – artists and art lovers – that were not being impacted by Christianity.

Fortunately, there were some visionaries both in the Church and among modern artists who made it their life’s work to reconnect the Church with modern and contemporary art. The visits I have made during my sabbatical have been to places where they worked or had an influence.
My concern in making this story the focus of my sabbatical has been to encourage the Church to value, learn from and tell the story of what these people did. In my ordained ministry, particularly through commission4mission, I have seen the value of promoting and publicising the artworks which churches have commissioned. Art competitions, exhibitions, festivals, talks, trails, walks and workshops all bring new contacts to the churches that use them and build relationships between those churches and local artists/arts organisations.

Telling more fully the story of the engagement which the Church has had with modern and contemporary art, as I am trying to do using my sabbatical, can impact people in these ways and contribute to the wider mission of the Church. Ultimately, though, it brings me and others into contact with art which speaks powerfully and movingly of the Christian faith and informs the spirituality of those who see.

Next Sunday I will be leading an Evening Service at St Peter’s Chapel in Bradwell which will be a celebration of the Arts and during September I will share some of the artwork and other resources that I have found during my sabbatical in the Evening Services at St John's Seven Kings.

As we use the signs and symbols of the Arts to reflect in this way on the something more which Christianity reveals to us – the divine in the human, the invisible in the visible – we have the opportunity to become walking, talking, living works of art ourselves. Through the way we live and act we can be signs and symbols of the divine. As the singer-songwriter Keith Green sang:

“We are like windows, stained with colours of the rainbow,
Set in a darkened room, till the bridegroom comes to shining through,
Then the colours fall around our feet, over those we meet,
Covering all the grey that we see,
Rainbow colours of assorted hues, come exchange your blues,
For His love that you see shining through me.”


Keith Green - Stained Glass.

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