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26 April 2017

The reverend, the priest, the arts and the Reformation

Healing the DivideWhen thinking about the arts, the Reformation is probably not the first thing that springs to mind. Sacred art, far from being transcendent, was another battlefield in the religious, political and cultural wars of the Reformation. My history is close to kindergarten-level, but even I recall the stories of reformers burning religious iconography and purging churches of ornate paintings and sculptures. 

However, it would be wrong to think that the reformers rejected art per se, rather than the excesses and idolatry they alleged to be bound up in its forms within the Church. The following Renaissance saw the rise of more ‘secular art’, a shift away from religious iconography to the painting of portraits and landscapes. In Church architecture, the legacy lives on and many would even say that the minimal lines and simplicity of design famed in Denmark and Sweden – think the on-trend scandi-look – are products of the protestant inclination towards plain functional design. 

So what happens when a reformed Presbyterian minister and a Catholic priest join together to form an arts festival in a place where the political and religious fall-out from the Reformation lives on most acutely? As part of a recent reconciliation project we recently interviewed Rev Steve Stockman and Father Martin Magill, cofounders of the Four Corners Festival in Belfast to ask them about peace-making and the arts. 

Rev Stockman said: “Father Martin and I were at a peace-making conference a while back when Professor John Brewer suggested that those present needed to understand that the Northern Ireland Troubles were not a “religious conflict”. This is, of course, true. For those 35 bloody years of conflict, the paramilitaries were not bombing and shooting over definitions of ‘justification by faith’ or ‘transubstantiation’. 

However, although the conflict on the streets was not a religious war, there was another war going on. Alongside the heat of the murders on our streets, there was the cold war between churches. There are Protestant and Catholic clergy all across Northern Ireland who didn’t even get into the task of peace building.

What that cold war did was not only give credence to the political and paramilitary conflict, it meant that the people called by Jesus to be peacemakers were not doing their job. They couldn’t be involved in the ministry of reconciliation that Paul wrote about in 2 Corinthians 5 or Ephesians 2. 

With our caricatures, stereotypes, myths and indeed lies, we have almost de-humanised one another. It’s dishonouring of the humanity that God created in His image and which, after our rebellion, He sent Jesus to die for. When we honour one another, we release God’s grace into our society.” 

Father Martin commented: “I had arranged to meet Steve to talk about holding an Irish class in the halls of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in South Belfast. From our very first conversation in a coffee shop in Botanic Avenue, I was aware of how my stereotypes were challenged as I listened to Steve. During the course of our friendship, I find again and again that I have had to let go of my assumptions and prejudices. 

Through our involvement with the Four Corners Festival, we have taken part in events such as Listening to Your Enemies in east Belfast, and lived with the sadness that some chose to riot outside the meeting at the Skainos building. We have also been getting to know and love all four corners of our wonderful but wounded city of Belfast. Honour in the present means getting to know the people and parts of the city that were no go areas. Meeting with Loyalist bandsmen after the showing of the documentary More than a Flag has helped me in that. 

In the most recent Four Corners Festival, 85 young leaders from 25 primary schools in Belfast met to share their concerns, frustrations and hopes for Belfast in the future. 

Rev Stockman added: “I wish I could say that I went into my friendship with Father Martin with such good intentions. When we had that coffee that Martin mentioned, I came away feeling that something had been birthed. I knew we would do more than have another coffee, but I had no idea where we would end up. Honouring was something that happened between us, uncontrived. We took the courage to cross our corner and find a space to share and listen. We formed a very dear friendship, and that friendship draws others from our different communities into the space where they too can honour one another with warmth, hospitality, and even friendship.” 

I also asked Martin how the Reformation is viewed in the Catholic community and how can art transform things. 

Martin told me that many Catholics still feel a sense of loss and apprehension when it comes to the Reformation. As someone with a degree of Anabaptist bent, I can understand that while there is much to be celebrated about the Reformation, the Church has also much to learn. He would like to see more awareness among Catholics and Protestants about the existence of more recent shared understandings between the Catholic and Lutheran churches around issues like justification and salvation. This is not ecumenism, but the sharing of better understanding about the other. Martin thinks art can help with this, and added: “Art gives us opportunities to explore spaces in a different way, it can transform and transcend things.” 

The last Four Corners Festival featured an exhibition called ‘Silent Testimonies’ by world-renowned local artist Colin Davidson. This series of portraits captures people who lost relatives in the troubles. The works were displayed in a church for the festival creating what Eamon Mallie called “an almost sacred atmosphere”. In response to the exhibition, someone anonymously wrote: “Art can tread where words and politics often can’t. Art can powerfully capture what words fail to.” 

This reminded me of the heart behind the Four Corners Festival itself, to encourage people to venture into corners of the city where they once feared to tread. To encourage relationships across political and religious divides. In many small ways the friendship of a priest and a Presbyterian minister and their co-shaping of an arts festival is an act of redemption. Theological differences remain between the churches when we look at the Reformation, but common ground emerges when we look at each other as friends.

Picture: Healing the Divide by Emma Skerratt. emmaskerratt.co.uk 


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