Arts and Church
Arts and Church
by Anthony Howes
The setting was the Soldiers’ Chapel of St George’s Cathedral; it was a quiet time after evening prayer some years ago, when the then Dean, The Very Reverend Dr John Shepherd, and I were contemplating the details in the stained glass. As we defined ‘beauty’, Dean John prompted my thinking by saying: ‘God created a world of beauty for humanity to enjoy and delight in. Humanity’s response to God should therefore be based upon that world of beauty and the very best of human artistic expression’.
We talked about worship as a precious offering to God of the best of which humanity is capable. He said: ‘The importance of beauty in worship, as experienced through music, architecture, stained glass, drama, fine art, and the words of the liturgy themselves, is a fundamental cornerstone of Anglicanism; an imperative, not only in the daily routine of our lives, but in our Worship’. He continued: ‘It was not enough for worship to be ordinary for, as Lancelot Andrewes preached before the Court at St James’ Palace in 1593, worship provided the opportunity for the offering of the most precious and beautiful gifts, treasures and skills. Just as God related to humanity through beauty, so beauty should be offered in return to God’. This is the basis upon which I write, today.
I believe that a fundamental task to undergo in examining the Arts and the Church is to look deeply into two great and fundamental doctrines.
The first is the doctrine of the Creation, where we find that God is sovereign over both the spiritual and the material. So it is that the artist must be dealing with the things of God in observing and placing interpretation upon that creation. It is obvious, after examining the Old Testament, that the majesty and power of God is clearly seen in his imposition of order upon chaos; and this, of course is the function of both the Creator and the creative artist. To quote T S Eliot; ‘It is the function of all art to give us some perception of an order in life, by imposing an order upon it’.
The second, the doctrine of the Incarnation, tells us of the love of God, and directly relates him to the personal struggle of humankind. Therefore, whenever this action of God is investigated and shown, then Jesus Christ – God’s Word, be it in fine art, poetry, music, drama or literature - is being unveiled.
This defines the Christian Gospel; thus, St Paul is able to say ‘All Things are of Christ, in Him all the fullness of the created order dwells’. Simply, the whole of life is sacramental and we cannot forget that it the arts which enrich this life as they show us both the order and the discord present in our world.
We need to disallow the word ‘religious’ when we look to the artistic expressions of God, as all works of art can be seen as sheer imaginative works of creation, whatever their subject matter, and whatever the attitudes of the artist. These are the references for Eliot’s comment that God created humankind to be in turn, a creator. This may well be where our spiritual leaders need a deep understanding of the creative process, so as to be able to expand and link the Churches’ redemptive and educative mission to their people.
The mystic and poet, William Blake, a true artist spoke eloquently of the vitality and clarity which comes with the marriage of the artist and the Christian faith:
I feel that a man may be happy in this world and I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see everything I paint in this world but everybody does not see alike. To the eye of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the sun and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. As a man is, so he sees.
When the sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire something like a gold piece? O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty’. I do not question my bodily eye any more than I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it and not with it.
My hope and belief is that through the Arts, the Church is able to worship God with the greatest beauty, clarity and humility; and in so doing is serving humankind with a glorious access to the One in Three who sustains us forever.