Paul West on a project aimed at exploring the conversation between Christian mission and the visual arts
There is no greater joy than welcoming families into the life of Christ, the perfect image of God. St Peter’s, Wisbech, in the Diocese of Ely, is the headquarters of an important catholic mission research project for the Church of England Here, catholic restoration is the new innovation, and traditionalism is no stale expression of being Church.
In May 2012, we were awarded a grant from the Developing Church Growth in Deprived Areas fund from the Archbishops’ Council and the Church Commissioners. We were invited to explore the conversation between Christian mission and the visual arts, in more ways than just filling Sunday morning pews.
Wisbech is an ancient market town and inland seaport, in Northern Cambridgeshire. While it is regularly dismissed as a hopeless struggle-street of socio-economic deprivation, crime, and anti-immigration bluster, it is instead a wonderfully multicultural town full of hope and signs of renewal. Our funded project is called Sensing Salvation Wisbech: Arts-Enabled Evangelisation. It is based in St Peter’s Lodge – the former curate’s house and now an international artist and theologian in residence centre. We have established creative partnerships with local businesses and schools, especially Elm Road Primary School and Ramnoth Junior School. By placing Jesus in plain sight and stepping inside his Gospel, we seek to love people into his Church. The project has many programmes such as: Artist and Theologian in Residence; Network of International Towns of Child-Saints; Storytelling Festivals; Anglican/Roman Catholic Youth Arts Mission Internship; International Triennale of Children’s Religious Art; Provocative Billboards; and Son et Lumière.
Our way of making Christian disciples involves an incarnational theology that values our restored image in Christ, discovered through the catholic imagination. We are traditional Anglo-Catholics serious about winning souls for Jesus. As traditionalists we respond to Jesus’ invitation to ‘come and see.’ Our developing theological programme is called Flourishing Orthodoxy.
The school children and their families experience St Peter’s Lodge as a safe house to explore and receive the Christian faith through the joy of making things together. That creative process is very powerful – amazing conversations take place in a sacred space that sponsors a growth in confidence within a supportive community. In a textiles residency last year, a group of nine-year-old girls made memory quilts. As they sat around a large table gossiping and laughing, they surprised themselves by launching into spontaneous singing and then, without adult prompting, they started to pray for one another. These children are starting to see the local parish church as a generous and welcoming second home – always there to help them realize who they are in God.
In Lent this year, we hosted a film-making residency – 24 primary school students stepped inside the Easter story and created their own indie film: The Wisbech Passion. We formed a partnership with the local arts house cinema. The Luxe Cinema put out the red carpet and shovelled popcorn into deep buckets for the premiere of the film. A full house of over 70 people watched enthralled: families, school and parish church communities supporting the young people, who found themselves very close to Jesus and Mary.
Through Sensing Salvation programmes we earn trust and invite families to come to our Opus Gratiae Youth Group, catechism classes, family Masses and pilgrimages to Walsingham. Our youth group has 26 members: we took 16 of them to the National Children’s Pilgrimage to Walsingham earlier this year.
Our special ecumenical partners are Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. Last Advent, two Eastern Orthodox women, mothers of children involved in Sensing Salvation programmes, asked me if I would consider making an Ecumenical Eastern Orthodox chapel in our parish church. One of them is Russian, the other Ukrainian, and so we constructed the chapel with prayers for peace in Eastern Ukraine. The chapel of St Nicholas and St Seraphim is in our Lady Chapel and is also a special place to pray for Christian unity. At Easter, a Russian Orthodox priest arrived from his London cathedral to celebrate the Resurrection with liturgy and a lavish Easter banquet. A week later, a well-timed residency in icon writing linked this ecumenical experience to students’ understanding of prayer and devotion.
The Church Commissioners’ funding has helped us find creative ways to be a growing, generous and compassionate parish family. We hope our research and experiences will inspire similar rural town parish churches to love families and transform their lives through the Gospel and the catholic imagination. ND
Fr Paul John West ssc is a parish priest and artistic director of Sensing Salvation Wisbech