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Spotlight Interview with Revd. Martin Poole, Founder of BEYOND

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Revd. Martin Poole is a vicar of a church in Brighton, a curator of Arts, and Founder of BEYOND.  Using art, poetry, philosophy and theology, BEYOND curates provocative spaces in order to inspire and stimulate discussion.  The installations and events create environments for questions and grappling with ideas about God without signing up to an established line of dogmatic thought.  Mandy Carr went to meet him.

Tell me about your background.
I trained at St. John’s Nottingham to be a full-time priest but I was already involved in performing. It was when Christian theatre was a big thing and Riding Lights and other theatre companies were touring around, so I choose to finish the course and go to drama school instead. I did a one-year postgrad at drama school.

How did people respond to that?
Mostly positively. Some people thought I was abandoning my calling and were upset but most people could see that it was right for me. Then I went into acting and I worked as a professional actor for five years. During that time I was able to be ordained non-stipendiary and was based in a parish in South London. Then my career drifted from acting into TV production work and I fell into the field of television identity design. I discovered I was fairly good at it so it started a 20 year career in working as a TV producer. Then we moved down to Brighton. I was working for the BBC then and a non-stipendiary priest in a parish in Hove. I then set up my own consulting business working with international television channels. At the same time, I found myself without a church and that’s when I decided that I would start Beyond.

I’d noticed that the Church was not very connected to the Arts culture in Brighton. Brighton is a fantastic media-heavy, artistic city but if you went into most churches you wouldn’t know that. I had this vision for setting up something that was organising artistic events. I think having spent a lot of time trying to drag parish churches into that kind of culture and not being very successful at it, I thought it would be better to start something that wasn’t in the parish but was in that culture already and bring some church to it. That’s where Beyond came from.

Can you tell me a bit more about Beyond?
The objective with Beyond was always, and still is, to organise artistic events that have some Christian spiritual core. There was always an intention that it shouldn’t be a church. I felt this was about doing something very specific and doing it well rather than try and be a ‘catch all’. We were very clear that our target audience was anyone who was interested in art and spirituality, particularly the ‘de-churched’. We also wanted to do stuff that would feed or provoke those who had been around the church for a long time so we tried to organise what we were doing in a way that meant that people who were busy in their own churches in the morning could come.

We started by putting together a business plan and we approached the Diocese to get some money from the Mission Fund to cover the cost for hiring a theatre and doing publicity – no people – just the physical costs. Then I put together a presentation and we did two or three evenings when we got together people that we thought would be interested and presented the idea to them and said, right, who would like to be involved? From that we got an original team of about 10 people who committed to plan events together. It’s been running for eight years. We got three years of funding from the mission fund which we stretched. We’re now mostly self-funding.

What have been the highlights of Beyond for you?
The Beach Hut Advent Calendars has been a huge thing – our signature thing. I love that it works really well. It’s giving people an opportunity to respond to Advent and Christmas in a way that they feel is appropriate. One of the secrets of Beyond is that we’re not trying to say to people you need to fit into this box to be able to come along. We’d like to hear how you would interpret ‘While Shepherds watched their flocks by night’.

Probably the highlights for me have been the Lent activities. We have done the Stations of the Cross with different art works in shop windows in the Lanes in Brighton. We did an audio meditation using silent disco technology. So you pick up a pair of wireless headphones and go on a set walk through the centre of Brighton and you pick up different audio meditations that would have a spiritual focus as you approach different places. We also did a guerrilla event where we took over an underground car park for an evening. We set up some artworks, we had some neon, we had some interactive stuff and some performers there.

Then there’s the more traditional things. Some of the ancient traditions are fantastically rich and give an opportunity to explore and breathe new life into faith. We now hold an annual event in a local park where there’s a labyrinth and we always run a meditation there. We also got inspired by tenebrae services. We found this hotel on the sea front who had these amazing cellars they don’t use so for a couple of years we ran a tenebrae in their cellars and it felt we were literally in the tomb and it finished in the dark.

For me as a Priest, the Eucharist is the perfect combination of faith and symbol and everything we are doing with Beyond is some kind of symbolic action which helps people to understand something about their faith. That’s what I think a priest should be doing.

The highlight for me is when people’s lives have been changed in ways that we don’t or can’t predict. We talk a lot about creating opportunities for epiphany. God brings the epiphany and we just try to create an environment where that’s possible and it may not be in the way we expect.

What does the Established church think of Beyond?
I think my colleagues seem to appreciate what we do and I hope that the Bishops feel that we’re doing something that is worthwhile. I think we’re helping to rehabilitate the reputation of the church in this city because we’ve got a high profile. In fact we have a higher profile outside the church than inside. We’re in the Chichester diocese and we are constantly hearing bad news about past abuse and then alongside that I get called in to do a TV interview about how we look at Lent creatively. We get lots of opportunities to do positive media which I think has helped.

Obviously connecting with venues outside the Church is really important – for example using the cellars for the Tenebrae meal – how do you go about connecting with your community?
We find it really easy. I’ve never had anyone refuse. We use pubs a lot. If you’re prepared to pay their hire charge which is not very much then they don’t mind. But more often than not we don’t pay now because it’s a Sunday night, most pubs are quiet then and people buy drinks. We found the Council amazingly helpful with the stuff we’ve been doing on the seafront. They usually start calling me in October about the beach huts. It’s seen as something positive about the city.

So it’s just having the guts to do it?
Yes, if you don’t ask you don’t get. I guess my job has always been as a marketing person, to be outward facing. I’m quite happy to ask and if people say no then that’s fine.

So talk me through the beach huts. What started it? How did it grow? And where is it now?
I have a beach hut myself and I was moaning because the doors open inwards, I think it might be a health and safety thing. I thought how nice it would be if they did open outwards because then it would be like an advent calendar and suddenly that idea was born. The way it works is you get 24 different huts and one opens each night. Generally the art is done by the hut owners but increasingly we are finding people are volunteering their huts and asking whether we can put them in touch with an artist. This is partly because the quality of work is getting better year by year and partly because more people want to be involved. So we put artists who don’t have huts in touch with those who do have huts and they work together. Whatever the installation is, it’s a surprise to me. We ask people to choose a Christmas carol on which to base their hut. It’s the easiest theme. The nice thing about the Christmas carols is it links it straight to the Christmas story in a very simple way but gives them masses of freedom to interpret it whatever way they like.

We promote it through the schools as it’s a good family event. We produce 15000 fliers and we put them into packs of 30 and they go into the children’s book bags. We’ve had 4 schools get involved. They treat it as a Christmas craft project and the school choir comes down. It gives them an instant audience because all the parents want to see it. The council promote it for us and we usually get a sponsor because we run a loyalty scheme. Every night you come you get a stamp on your card and whoever gets the most stamps gets a prize on Christmas Eve which, in the last couple of years, has been a Christmas Hamper from the Co-op. It also ensures you always get 10-12 people who are determined to get a full set which means, even when the weather is terrible, you know there’s going to be an audience for each opening.

 

On a regular night people start turning up at 5.30pm and someone from Beyond will arrive with flasks of mulled wine and boxes of mince pies. If you have a choir there is a programme of singing. Sometimes we’ve had quizzes or interactive things to do. On Christmas Eve, which Beyond always does as a ‘special’ it’s almost like a service. We have carol singing; we usually have a reading at some point. We’ve developed the ‘breaking of the light’ which is a ‘pseudo sacrament’. We might read John 1 then pass out glow sticks and everyone breaks a glow stick and I will talk about the light coming into the world at Christmas and they take these lights back to their homes ready for Christmas Day. We’ll probably have a blessing and usually I will offer for people to be blessed individually and a massive queue forms of people who want to receive. I usually use myrrh oil. We often focus on the Three Kings as a lead into a myrrh blessing.

Being in this creative field, how does it feed your own faith and how does it challenge your faith?
It feeds me to see people’s different interpretations of things. Even after eight years of doing this there are still huts I come to and they make me cry because they are so meaningful or beautiful. So I receive moments of epiphany myself. I get enormous inspiration from the people who come along and because I’m usually there every night. The relationships that form over a month or even over the course of years have sometimes meant that I’ve kind of become their priest.

One of the principles behind Beyond is that the act of Creation is divine itself, we’re sharing in the divine nature of our Creator God. So I love seeing people get some kind of understanding of God because they’re making something.
It challenges me because we receive these off-the-wall, sometimes, as the church would say, ‘heretical’ art installations. These give me insight as well. It challenges me all the time on the need to get out of church, particularly now that I’m a vicar. The building pulls you in. Beyond runs monthly events and because it’s easier and we have free access to a venue we’ve run them here at St. Luke’s. Somebody pointed out to me ‘you’ve got back into a model which is come into our space rather than be out in the world’s space,’ which is part of what Beyond was all about. It’s important to remind ourselves not to stay just behind our walls. I am very keen to challenge the church about how we look at these things.

You did something recently about ritual. Tell me about that.
It was called ‘The Art of Ritual’ and it was about the nexus between art, performance and ritual. Lots of live art and performance art is about relying on or developing ritual. Then lots of rites of passage are being taken over, or done better, by celebrants who are often using art. In Brighton, the churches have seen a massive decrease in the number of funerals we have been doing partly because the church hasn’t been doing a good job. Also there is a big growth industry in Independent Celebrants who frankly quite often do a better job than we do and want to be creative in the way they do it. I was interested to explore that. I’ve become friends with Linda Woodhead, the Professor of Lancaster University whose research around the sociology of religion shows that there is no less ritual in people’s lives, it’s just moved out of church into other areas. People are doing baby naming ceremonies, and their own funerals, then there’s marriage and civil partnerships and same-sex marriage. We focused the conference around the artists who are doing ritual stuff, and discussion with the Celebrants around funerals and death. Some of the feedback has been can we do something again and this time focus around weddings?

What will you take away from the conference?
There were some funny stories! I guess what I take away is the passion that so many of the people had to explore really deep things about life through art; we can lose that so easily when we’re parish priests because we’re dealing with it every day. I can feel weighed down with church stuff that makes it hard.

Where does Beyond go next?
We’ve talked about how to support the disparate community that has gathered around. Having said that Beyond is not a church, we’ve not begun to think about how that might be the case and what that might look like.

Like a Fresh Expression? Does that make you a Pioneer or do you shy away from that language?
I tend to shy away from what the Church tries to establish. I also shy away from it is because the way that Fresh Expressions has been framed has been Fresh Expressions of Church and I’m more interested in Fresh Expressions of Faith. It does push you closer to risk and the possibility of straying into heresy but I think that’s been the history of the Church from the beginning. We need to be more adventurous about the way we frame our faith and what that faith is about and I’d love to be part of that. In the Reform and Renewal programme that the Archbishop is spearheading I’d love there to be a creative element rather than it being shaped by what looks like the business side of it.

If you were going to give advice to the wider church about the interface between creativity, mission and ministry, what would you want to say?
The advice would be ‘just get out more’. Find some way to look at what you’re doing and find how appropriate it is in your set. So if you’re in a rural parish it’s unlikely to be about commissioning fantastically whacky live art, but it is important to know what is happening in the village pub. Those things are not a million miles away from what most parish priests are doing. I think it differs if you’re in a city. In a small town or village then your duty as a parish priest is to do something that somehow catches everyone. When you’re in a city it’s different. Don’t just accept that what has been the case is in the past is necessarily the right thing and don’t worry too much about upsetting that. That’s easier for me to say because I am a disrupter. I do like to disrupt things.

Are you a thorn in the side of the Establishment Martin? Or are you a blessing in disguise?
I’d like to think I’m both.

Photographs used with the kind permission of beyondchurch.co.uk

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