It was one of the most animating gatherings there has been at Church Mission Society in Oxford as 100+ people gathered for conversation, participation and performance around the arts on Tuesday 3 March.
Sarah Clarke, undergraduate course leader, started the day by declaring why and how she is so passionate about the arts
Her defining point, repeated much during the day by other participants, was that as people made in the image of God we all possess the creative impulse whether or not we fit into the modern category of artist. In fact, she lamented the fact that we have ceded art to the experts, as well as divorcing it from its innate connection to God.
Audience feedback to her opening salvo highlighted the value of the way art provokes and evokes vastly different responses and perspectives, providing a way of gaining a new depth and richness to your understanding of the subject under discussion.
Martin Poole from Beyond in Brighton developed this core theme of the day in his workshop – that being creative is sharing in the nature of God. In their multifaceted work, Beyond try to create spaces where there is opportunity for God to do his thing “and that’s all we really care about” – said Martin.
Lou Baker makes weird and wonderful textiles under the banner of socially engaged art. She talked about her journey into making socially engaged art – art that intentionally sets out to engage people even to be provocative.
Lou drew parallels between her work and that of pioneers – and a number of people tried on some of her extraordinary costumes and become living sculptures.
She had also created an installation in the CMS prayer room called Safety Net – asking people to contemplate what made them feel safe or unsafe.
The day included a whole series of workshops including ‘Artiness is next to Godliness’, ‘Art and the Prophetic Imagination’, ‘Photography as Spiritual Practice’, and ‘Prophetic art down the Pub’. Another workshop, ‘Creative, Spiritual, Compassionate’, led by Betsy Blatchley, a pioneer minister in the arts in Nine Elms on London’s South Bank, one of the largest redevelopment areas in Europe, outlined the story of the emerging arts-based ministry where pioneers are using the arts to cross divides and dream of creating an arts church where people can encounter God.
The panel discussion dealt with questions around the perceived contrasts and potential conflicts between art and theology and between artists and church.
Sculptor Iain Cotton suggested that art was an ideal place of conversation and encounter – and that’s where its power lay. Theatre workshop leader Rachel Griffiths said drama was a great way to engage across cultures.
Musician David Benjamin Blower, who closed the day with a poignant solo set, said that it’s theology that loses out if it’s not plugged into art: “The issue is not that art or artists are excluded from the church but the real problem is that the church can be excluded from the creativity of God.”