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Saturday, 14 November 2015

Society of Catholic Artists Private View

The Private View for the Society of Catholic Artist's 'Care of Creation' exhibition was held tonight at St Stephen Walbrook. I made the following remarks during the evening (using material from our website):

Welcome to St Stephen Walbrook in the City of London. For over a thousand years a place of worship has stood on this site. Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, the present church is the fourth to have stood here. At the time of its building the great dome was unique in England and it was from this church that Wren developed his plans for St Paul’s Cathedral.

Here Sir John Vanbrugh is buried and many distinguished men of letters and of the arts have graced the life of this place. John Dunstable the composer and past merchants and Lord Mayors have been a part of its life.

There is a plaque to the Rev’d Robert Stuart de Courcey Laffan, who with Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games in 1890. Bombed in the Second World War and restored to its present magnificent state in 1981, twentieth century artists and craftsmen have adorned its interior. Henry Moore’s travertine marble altar now stands at the centre under Wren’s dome surrounded by dazzling kneelers by Patrick Heron.

With an almost perfect acoustic for choral singing and a renowned organ famed for its regular recitals on Fridays at 12.30 pm for City workers, St Stephen stands witness next to the Lord Mayor’s residence and at the heart of the City it was built to serve. We seek to do this in a range of different ways, so, for example, on Tuesdays, between 7.30 and 9.30 am, there are ten minute reflections on work-based themes repeated every 15 minutes while, on Thursdays, the community gathers for a Sung Eucharist at 12.45 pm with mass settings designed to blend with its traditional liturgy and architectural environment. We also organise programmes exploring contemporary issues such as our current ‘Philanthropy in the City’ programme, a series of events including exhibitions, services and talks exploring both the history of philanthropy in the City and current opportunities for philanthropic activity. St Stephen is also the home of the London Internet Church and its ministry of prayer and praise.

The damaged St Stephen Walbrook needed repair after the war and until then the interior was filled with pews in dark stained wood and the conventional east end altar table with the reredos containing the Ten Commandments and paintings of the Old Testament figures of Moses and Abraham. The windows had been filled with stained glass and the pristine feeling of Christopher Wren’s classical building had become dark and Victorianised. The original clear glass windows reflecting the light had been lost and filled with stained glass.

In taking the controversial step of commissioning one of the world’s most original artists to devise a statement about belief as seen in the Walbrook altar was taking a risk. Dr Chad Varah and the people of St Stephens were engaged in a major social outreach programme in founding the Samaritans in 1953, a telephone ministry for those in serious trouble and they now wanted this iconic Wren building to express a theology of how they saw the gospel in relation to the workplace.

This meant that the 17th century placing of the altar away from the people with the priest standing with his back to the congregation no longer expressed what they felt to be the immanent nature of the God they worshipped and served. Thus Henry Moore conceived a centrally placed altar made of travertine marble cut from the very quarry which provided the marble for Michelangelo’s work.

By carving a round altar table with forms cut into the circular sides Moore suggested that the centre of the church reflected the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem commemorating the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac as a prefiguring of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross and the place for the offering of the Eucharist at the heart of Christian worship. This place was designed for people to gather as a community around the altar where God could be found at the centre.

This changed the way that Walbrook was to develop for the future, if you want to know what a community believe see how they worship. The restoration itself cost £1. 3. Million. The altar measuring 8ft across and weighing several tons was at the centre of a controversy and court case as a result of objections and eventually was resolved by going to the highest ecclesiastical court of the land, the Court of Ecclesiastical Cases Reserved where the judges ruled that the Moore altar was acceptable as an altar for the Church of England!

So, classical, modern and contemporary art and architecture beautifully combine at St Stephen Walbrook with significant examples of modern art within Sir Christopher Wren’s perfectly proportioned masterpiece, where the woodwork and carvings by William Newman lead to wonderful contrasts between dark and light. Newman’s dark wood panelling provides a dramatic backdrop to the regular programme of contemporary art exhibitions that the church now hosts. This marvellous blend of old and new provides a richly contemplative space in which to display and view art.

For these, we partner with either established art societies (such as the National Society of Painters, Sculptors & Printmakers or the Society of Catholic Artists) or significant art historians such Edward Lucie-Smith. In 2016 our programme will feature solo shows by the stuckist artist Joe Machine, artist-priest Alan Everett, Brazilian artist Kim Poor, and group shows by the National Society and commission4mission.

In putting together an exhibition programme of this kind, we are seeking to work across the primary debate that has occurred in the C20 and contemporary Church in relation to the engagement of the Church with the Arts. The call from Marie-Alain Couturier in France and Walter Hussey in Britain was to commission the best artists of the day regardless of faith commitment, as Couturier phrased it the ‘secular masters’ of the day. Their call resulted in challenging and exciting commissions by artists such as Pierre Bonnard, Marc Chagall, Cecil Collins, le Corbusier, Fernand L├ęger, Henri Matisse, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, and others. Theirs is a legacy which continues to this day in a significant number of church commissions.

But it is not the only legacy of commissioning from that period. Last year I used my sabbatical to visit churches in Britain, Belgium, France and Switzerland that had commissioned modern art, so saw for myself work by groups of artists founded by the likes of Maurice Denis, Alexandre Cingria and Eric Gill, among others, which primarily undertook church commissions. At the same time that Couturier and Hussey were commissioning, another equally valid and creative approach to church commissions was happening which resulted in commissions which, though different in style, were equality in creativity and liturgical value.

As a result, there remains a valid and creative place in the Church for groups such as the Society of Catholic Artists or commission4mission, the artists group of which I am part. The variety and verve of the work included in this exhibition is again a clear demonstration of our need in the Church for groups such the Society of Catholic Artists. Here at St Stephen Walbrook we want, in our exhibition programme, to work both with the ‘secular masters’ of our day and with groups like your own and commission4mission, among others. The vibrancy of the Churches engagement with the Arts, in my view, depends on encouragement and support for both. So, for these reasons, I want to welcome you warmly to St Stephen Walbrook and congratulate you on the strength of the exhibition that you have shared with us.


Felix Mendelssohn - Verleih uns Frieden.

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