It is with sadness that we are announcing that Rochester Arts in Mission will be closing down shortly.
It has been a painful decision to make but it has brought to a close two years of uncertainty. With a significant squeeze on diocesan finances, priorities naturally change and vision shifts. New ministries are particularly vulnerable during these times because they have yet to be embedded in the shared life of the diocese. There is an additional difficulty for a ministry with the Arts because not everyone ‘gets it’. If the Arts are seen as an eccentric add-on, then they are easy to dismiss. This point was made in the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s report ‘Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing’ published in July 2017. Rt. Hon. Lord Howarth of Newport, the Co-Chair of the group writes:
‘The conundrum that we have found ourselves pondering is why, if there is so much evidence of the efficacy of the arts in health and social care, it is so little appreciated and acted upon. In our discussions, we have identified a number of barriers to recognition and embrace of the potential contribution of the arts. These barriers are attitudinal rather than legislative or inherent in formal policy.’ (p. 5 full report)
Rochester Arts in Mission was a pioneering ministry that began in September 2015. It started from scratch, like a seed planted in the soil. It needed favourable conditions to grow, develop and become rooted in the surrounding culture. One of the crucial lessons to learn in trying to grow a creative ministry is the importance of having champions who will speak up for it. One of AIM’s early advocates was Canon Jean Kerr. She did her utmost to bring about this creative ministry and to foster its vision. Sadly, when she retired, her influence and support were greatly missed and this has had implications for the profile of AIM.
Although funding was offered for next year, it is shared vision that is more important for flourishing. Without this ongoing connection, running a ministry such as AIM can feel like an uphill struggle. It is easy to feel out of step with others and this is an isolating experience. It has caused me to conclude that AIM is premature for where Rochester currently finds itself. It is therefore, with regret, that I have made the decision to finish at the end of this year.
A celebration of what has been achieved
Despite this gloomy message, it’s important to celebrate what has been. In the last three and a quarter years AIM has achieved a great deal. 40 articles have been published on a huge variety of subjects and the site has featured many guest writers. There have been spotlight interviews on practitioners who have shared their work and what inspires them. The ‘So you want to…?’ series has given our online community an opportunity to learn from projects elsewhere, to pick up basic knowledge and ideas and to consider applying them in their own context. There is a lot to be grateful for and I would like to thank all the writers and contributors who have made this such a rich and varied website, sharing ideas, expertise and celebrating creativity everywhere.
Film-making has been an increasing part of the ministry at AIM and it has been good to offer films to download and use in churches and schools, often with accompanying materials for study or discussion groups. It has also been my pleasure to join with Caroline Clarke and make short films under the title ‘Stories That Need To Be Told’ for HOPE 2018. These have showcased community engagement across the diocese, with the most recent ones featuring work with those affected by domestic abuse.
Alongside this website and Facebook page, my responsibility as AIM Co-ordinator has involved speaking at Quiet Days and residential conferences, running workshops, writing articles and promoting AIM both in the diocese and further afield. I have been grateful to have the support of others and I would particularly wish to mention the Comms. Team of Rochester Diocese, Katerina Gerhardt and Jenny Ross, who have helped get the message out. I would also like to acknowledge my clerical colleagues in the AIM Advisory Group: Rosheen Browning, Karl Carpani, David Green, Mark Montgomery and Trudi Oliver, and of course the large debt that is owed to Jean Kerr.
Although I am laying aside this ministry at this time I would like to say a few things about the Arts in the hope that it encourages others to seek a creative ministry where they are.
The Arts are for everyone, everywhere – even those who don’t believe that they have a creative bone in their body. Some simply conclude that the Arts are ‘just not for them‘ but they may be ignoring the everyday creativity that is weaved throughout the fabric of their lives. Creativity is, and has always been, a vehicle by which we consider the great questions of our existence. These include – who we are, why we’re here, what is truth, and the eternal issues of life, death and re-creation. A trawl through the narratives of the films listed at the cinema or streaming platforms will illustrate this. We engage with creative forms all the time and we, ourselves, create. It is a natural response of a people made in the image of their Creator God, whether we acknowledge Him or not. It is in our DNA.
The Arts will always speak and they are prophetic in nature. They often speak from the margins, in encouraging and subversive ways. Critics might accuse AIM of hijacking the Arts for Christian propaganda, but that has never been the intention. I recognise the inherent power of the Arts to challenge. This means we accept that challenge ourselves, as individuals and as the Christian Church. The Arts will always point to something beyond themselves and at times they will mirror back to us the image we present to the world. This new revelation may lead to encouragement, motivation and further inspiration. Alternatively it may lead to humility, confession and repentance. Karen Covell, the film producer states ‘what we create is prophetic – we can prophecy the light or the darkness. Artists shape and change culture. Art is so powerful – so what am I offering the world?’
If what we create speaks anyway, let’s desire to create something beautiful. Art is made in the soul which is why creating something beautiful is appreciated because we are hard-wired to love beauty. It speaks a universal language. Beauty can be subversive too. When we are oppressed by performance-related agendas and market forces – of which the Church is not immune, the very uselessness of beauty speaks prophetically. It is the calling card of God and in some deep, intangible way, it reminds us of our eternal home.
There is plenty to be said about the mystical element of creativity and being in the flow of a process that somehow recreates us. God works in the gaps, when we give up control to something greater. When we are totally absorbed in an activity, not only does it deliver a sense of well-being, but we seem to be more in tune with the numinous. We become open to God and more receptive to the movement of The Spirit. In a Church concerned with making confident disciples, enabling people to encounter the living God for themselves must be a positive way forward.
There are also many good practical reasons for pursuing creativity. Offering creative projects is a different way of being Church. It often appeals to those who, for whatever reason, don’t find it easy to find their place in our communities on a Sunday morning. Creative projects are good at expressing the kingdom value of inclusion, and its partner, social justice. There is a wealth of evidence that the Arts work against the effects of injustice and health inequality and as Kingdom people, shouldn’t we in the Church be concerned with pursuing this in every way we can?
The Arts also help us to belong. We may feel as if we are on the untidy fringes of the Church or totally unconnected, but a project helps us to become a part of something. We may belong before we believe. The gentle process of working together towards a shared goal creates a place for natural evangelism to flourish through relationships and the building of community. It has been a repeated theme in our blogs. Undertaking a project has brought benefits for the church and the community, bringing them closer together. New contacts have been made, new life and vigour has come into the church, and pastoral care has been extended. What is there not to love about this simple way of looking at the mission of God in our communities?
Returning to the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s report ‘Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing’ I would like to outline a number of recommendations for next steps. Some of these are transferable to The Church as we think about how we can increase vision for ministry with the Arts. One is to share personal stories more widely and allow these to stimulate public interest and demand. There is so much creativity being expressed in our communities. We should be promoting it, sharing it and celebrating it. With the rise of social media we don’t need to wait for a news story to be picked up by our local media, we can do it ourselves and spread the word.
Another point is to mobilise effective local leadership and networking. Working together makes us stronger and enables us to learn from one another. The Report states ‘Education must underpin culture change.’ The Arts are often already included in some shape or form in an option for Continuing Ministerial Development and lay leadership courses. This could be extended to be offered more widely and to cross disciplines so that the Arts are applied rather than seen as purely stand-alone. There is much scope for development in this area.
Finally, let us keep our imaginations alive. Ministry can be a hard slog at times. With pressures on numbers and finances we can easily slip down into the siege mentality of maintenance rather than mission. The last thing we want to do when we feel beleaguered is to take risks and starting a creative project can feel risky. However, this may be just the thing that is needed to get a church moving again and reconnecting with its community. It may become a vehicle for resurrection life as we allow the wind of the Holy Spirit to blow away the cobwebs and fill us anew. Let’s hope that the vision for the Arts is not lost, because when that happens we have given away an opportunity for a new season for us all.
Thank you to all of our online community, who have read the blogs, used the resources and cheered AIM on. For the last couple of months I will be doing some consultancy work with a parish in the diocese and then in 2019 will be taking some time to reflect on this journey. If anyone wishes to use the films or study resources they will need to be downloaded shortly because the website will close down before the end of the year. I hope that people have found AIM inspiring and helpful and I wish you all the best for developing your own creativity.
For any feedback or comments about the website or Arts in Mission ministry please contact Revd. Mandy Carr at firstname.lastname@example.org