Yesterday I erected a prayer tent at Occupy Newcastle; a very different protest to London. The aims are similar but the tiny size of the camp and it’s location within the middle of a “party” city has made it much more vulnerable. This tent has had to face passing students urinating up the sides of tents and so forth.This means many of those there have been operating on little sleep, and they were worried that a prayer tent – if I was not going to be on site the whole time – would be just one more thing to worry about. This meant I did give serious consideration as to whether erecting the tent or not in the first place would be appropriate. In the end after discussion with a multi-faith minister, (whose own base is Wicken), who is involved in the protest it was decided it was right for the tent to be there – and I was helped to produce a great sign to put on the side of the tent.
My original tent remains outside St. Pauls. The Cathedral had to close yesterday because of the protests and here are the statements from the Dean of the Cathedral and from the Occupy group. My own view is that the Dean and Chapter have not taken the decision lightly, but I think it is more a decision taken from worries about litigation from visitors than conviction. The protesters I think should reduce the camp to a token number, (say five tents) on the original site and the majority should move to one of the London parks….unfortunately something I don’t think the police would allow. I think that it would be useful if the Cathedral clergy and staff joined in a general assembly to sort out a solution rather than the small meetings which have been occurring.
The statements and my own actions highlight the complex relationship between protest and faith. I want to share my own experiences and reflection before connecting it with the Turner Prize which opened at the Baltic and which I found myself viewing last night at the preview party which was a public event.
On Sunday evening I was part of a group of people of faith who met to discuss prayer. We hoped to use a corner of the space at the top of the steps, but that produced concern and so we cleared the area and agreed to use elsewhere.
On Monday morning at very silly o’clock I had the privilege of praying with two Muslim brothers. They talked me through their ritual purification, which they were doing using a street tap near St. Paul’s. Then we found a grass area and prayed together. They did some initial prayer and I prayed silently; as they went through a three part repetitive prayer chant I did a meditative repetitive prayer of praise and then we joined together in prayers of intercession with a confessional aspect. Unsure of the gender thing I let them pray, but they then invited me to give my prayer out loud – joining with theirs.
After this prayer time we sat and chatted about theology and the links to to environmentalism as well as Islamic and Christian theology more generally and the responses of members of our differing congregations to matters of faith and social justice. Islam and Christianity have more in common in terms of both the frustrations and joys than I realised.
Other faith conversations went on which I was blessed by and was often challenged by. This happened in Newcastle yesterday as I was putting the tent up too. One of the hardest conversations for me was with a guy, who warned from experience, the effect of being a local preacher speaking out truth to congregations and the way that there are clear lines about how far you can go.
I also have been challenged, following on from Bishop Alan and the CODEC seminar the other week, by the experience of this occupation. I feel just being there I was engaging with people and was in solidarity with people who were acting prophetically; I was engaging positively and relationally with “The Missing Generation” age group; I was having faith conversations; I was seeking to creatively develop prayer via the prayer tent idea and I was engaging in inter-faith work. I did this by acting on impulse and catching the moment and I was doing it without a clear agenda – for me it was about living my faith full stop. If I do get accepted into training and become a member of the Methodist Diaconal Order I will not be able to engage in such acts, atleast not as easily. I realised taking this route may stifle my ministry in some ways rather than enable it and indeed I would have to largely give up on what might be referred to as “random acts of mission”.
The demands of being part of an established, public organisation also require me to think about what I say and do publicly and the fact is that truth might be compromised by convienient silence. So ironically what the past week has done is illustrate very strongly to me why I am called to a diaconal style of ministry whilst showing me why it may make doing those very things more difficult for me. In many ways I think this is part of the wider issue that the staff at St. Pauls are facing.
Now don’t get me wrong I am not perfect and my actions this week have not been without mistakes – trust me I recognise that I have had to ask for forgiveness about pride, mixed motives and so forth. I also have a question mark hanging over the prayer tent and Jesus instruction we take ourselves of privately. There has been a real tension for me about awareness raising and whether I should have been keeping quiter. I also know at times I have been the wrong side of the line between self-promotion and evangelism – if this has hurt anybody reading I ask your forgiveness. I recognise I am very much a work in process.
As I said earlier I was going to connect this all to the Turner Prize exhibition which I went to last night. The prize itself is something which is mocked by some and taken seriously by others, whilst many simply ignore it. This is similar to the way both the church and the protests are often viewed.
There are four artists who have been nominated who all have different styles and work in different mediums. They are all artists but in many ways the similarity ends there because their work is so different. So it is with faith organisations and protest groups. The simple fact is that whilst they may all be doing the same thing they do it in such different ways that some will be attractive to some people whilst others will be repelled by the same thing and so prefer something else.
Personally my favourite stuff came from George Shaw whose work is painted but looks photographic and which dwells on the depressingly ordinary. His work is accessible to all – as he says in a film being shown in the exhibition cafe area his mum could discuss it on an equal basis with a uni professor of art.
Karla Black’s multi media sculpture is beautiful but fragile and whilst slightly abstract has a sensitivity which appeals. Whilst not as easily accessible as Shaw her work has a beauty and use of colour which somehow attracts.
Hilary Lloyd’s films I just didn’t get – they were intellectual art and I just don’t get that stuff. Yet, I know for those who work on a deep philosophical level and “get” this stuff it would be great.
Then there is Martin Boyce – his work just seemed, to me, to be pretentious – but that again is because I get obvious art rather than the more abstract modern stuff.
These are the works getting accolade, like the churches getting aclaim for their work and the protests getting the media and public attention. However, also within the gallery were other works – some of which I actually preferred to the Turner Prize stuff. These to me are like the smaller places that just get on with it without the same level of attention. Mike Kelley and Michael Smith’s A Voyage of Growth and Discovery is strangely wonderful. Combining science fiction with childrens toys and playground equipment.
Matt Stokes work apparently finishes today, but that was amazing. It was a film installation which mixed grindcore with a choral style to building up music. (Grindcore Third Party tells me is the same as screamo). This is an exhibit which is only there for a short while and would not be understood by many but which opens up space for those who art does not normally engage with….no prizes for guessing the connections here between emerging church/ fresh expression stuff and with Occupy style actions.
The point is with everything that it does not have the definative answer about how stuff should be done and what the solutions and answers are. The mix of art shows that you cannot easily answer the question “what is art?” and “what form should it take?”….the exhibitions merely start discussions on different levels and personal journeys into exploring art or certain styles of art further. Similarly with faith and protests at the core are acts of trying to kick start journeys and discussions.