Charles Card-Reynolds on an exhibition displaying items of art, craftsmanship and devotion from the churches in and around Tottenham
The Fellowship of St John Trust Association continues the charitable work once carried out by the monastic community of the Society of St John the Evangelist (the Cowley Fathers). In 2012 Community life for SSJE in the UK came to an end but the work of mission, the bringing-in of the Kingdom of Christ, very much continues through the Trust. We support a range of mission ministries throughout the UK and also overseas where SSJE formerly ministered. Over time the Fellowship will develop a network of people and projects and a store of knowledge of how both traditional and new forms of mission can work in contemporary society. The Trust also provides a seedbed where experiments in mission can be tested. Many of the projects we support are parish based and the variety speaks much of the Holy Spirit kindling life where he will – a computer suite and classroom in a village church for the local school, the revitalizing of a church in a university setting with community choir, pastoral assistant and an engaging ministry of welcome (after many years of interregnum), a parish centre that ministers to those who are not quite homeless but sofa-jumping from night to night providing food, showers and friendship, a ministry into a high-tech industrial estate where on weekdays thousands come to work. The charism of the Cowley Fathers was often to ask: where does the Church need to be new or new again? – for Christianity is a child-like faith.
The project’s origins
The Trust is sponsoring a project this summer and autumn with the churches of Tottenham, London. In partnership with Haringey Council we have initiated an exhibition at the borough museum, Bruce Castle. The exhibition is free and open to all and is entitled Behind Sacred Doors. The origins of the exhibition were twofold.
Some years ago Alistair MacGregor, then Director of the British Museum, led a symposium at St Paul’s Cathedral. He reflected on how museums have become increasingly popular in recent years, indeed attracting far more visitors than sporting events – and that museums were serving a purpose like secular cathedrals where all people were comfortable to gather. How could the Church be present in such places in ways that could be authentic to the faith while at the same time accessible to a new and growing audience? Placing sacred objects into a museum can have the effect of making them sterile – taken so far from context they can appear as only curiosities or equivalents of secular works of art, instead of being objects that enliven devotion. These questions and challenges where the first origin of the exhibition. Museums are a busy market place; how might the Church sensitively be present there? Could this be done on a manageable and local scale?
A wider audience
The exhibition’s other background are the hard memories of the Tottenham riots or Tottenham Uprising of 2011. Set in one of the country’s economically poorest areas the Church in Haringey is there for the long haul – grafting away to bring a sense of stability and optimism. In contradiction to so much destruction in 2011 the churches are places of much creativity, past and present – might there be ways that we could celebrate that and reach beyond ourselves to a wider audience?
The exhibition displays items of art, craftsmanship and devotion from the churches in and around Tottenham and they have been curated into material groups: wood, stone, glass, fabric and metal. The title, Behind Sacred Doors, gives a clue to the exhibition – the items are rarely seen or located in churches so that we do not see them so easily. There is an element of surprise (and pride) when parishioners see an exhibit from their own church and wonder that they have never really looked at it before.
One of the prime aims of the project was to open the Church to those who might not otherwise know of her life and so we commissioned a short film that people could watch at home or school. It was made by a local filmmaker and presented by an actor of Tottenham Theatre. You can see the film, which lasts about 25 minutes, on-line at www.behindsacreddoors.org. It is a journey around ten local churches – the commentary tells of 700 years of architectural and artistic history – and the accompanying music and peals were all recorded on location. The commission was deliberately given to a young filmmaker so that the approach would be that of fresh eyes. What would three 20-something men make of a series of mostly Victorian churches?
It was interesting seeing their social media posts and listening to their comments during the period of production. From the outside the buildings were familiar but the first salutary lesson was to discover that for them the interior, and why it is as it is, was a mystery – but one that fascinated. ‘No one has ever expected us to be interested in these buildings,’ and yet they were. They studied funerary monuments, wanted to know every aspect of how an organ speaks, took pains to read the building and how the architect had worked the natural light, and opened every drawer and door they could find. The film captures much of this excitement and a relish of the richness that they found. It was a reminder that mission might well be served just by making room and giving permission for people to explore our buildings and sacred objects for themselves. The artists and architects have left enough clues.
Around the exhibition there are a series of events – lectures, art classes, family activity days and, when term starts, supported school visits – information is available from Bruce Castle Museum. There were more exhibits lent than room to display and so there will be some rotation of items. At present you could see a medieval brass of a corpse in his shroud, a Wren font cover, a Georgian beadle’s staff, Victorian embroidery, church plate from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries, works of contemporary church art and much else besides.
The exhibition was opened in July by the Mayor of Haringey and David Lammy MP and brought together the clergy, laity, representatives of heritage bodies, local teachers, councillors and many artists. And unexpected spin-offs are occurring – the graduation of the borough’s police cadets will happen in the exhibition room (on the basis that the room speaks of pride in Tottenham), the J.M.W. Turner Society have identified an important link into one of the exhibits, and for many parishes we have rediscovered significant artists associated with our churches.
We are very grateful for the brilliant work of the staff of Bruce Castle Museum and to the Deanery of East Haringey for all the support that has been given. ND
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