A Sermon preached by the Very Reverend June Osborne
2 Corinthians 13: 11-end; Matthew 28: 16-end
Salisbury has got used to its International Arts Festival and we rather like what it adds to this time of year. If that sounds a bit mealy mouthed let me say to Toby Smith the Director and to Helen Birchenough the Chairman of the excellent Board of the Festival that there’re plenty of us who share your passion for what the arts contribute to the quality of our shared life. We’re profoundly grateful to those of you who promote cultural creativity and find the funding to make it possible.
This year has been a particularly tough year for the Festival which is why I draw attention to its importance, lest we’ve learnt to take it for granted after 43 years. Many of us’ll know that it’s been a time of reorganisation and merger for the Festival, the Playhouse and the Arts Centre.
At the same time the Festival this year has had to operate within an immensely noisy environment. The unexpected noise of political campaigning. The cacophonous noise of brutal terrorism assaulting our spirits. These last weeks our ears and minds have been filled with sirens and gunfire and the stridency of studio audiences. I’ve found myself contrasting that Babel noisiness of human power asserting itself with the cathartic noises there’ve been in our Festival at the same time. Of whale song and orchestras, of laughter and the silence of absorption as someone tells an inspiring story. After I’d interviewed Terry Waite at the Playhouse last weekend someone said to me that what they heard that evening was the quality of silence as everyone listened to the story of his captivity and coping. ‘You could’ve heard a pin drop’ he said.
So it’s been a particularly tough environment within which the Festival has operated. And yet at the same time the questions I’ve heard from people about our experience of art are the familiar ones.
What does it mean? Do I like it? What’s it for?
What does it mean? People often come away from a performance or viewing fine art asking their companions what was that about? Did I understand it? Explain it to me because I want to know what I’m meant to know about it. Here in the Cathedral over the years I’ve found myself explaining many times our introductions of contemporary art as if there’s an answer people wish to know. Why is the Elizabeth Frink ‘Walking Madonna’ striding out of the Close? Why does the Gabriel Loire ‘Prisoners of Conscience’ window have little figures within it? Why does the water flow out of the William Pye font?
Just now the Cathedral Chapter is in conversation with the internationally renowned glass artist Brian Clarke about the possibility of new windows on the theme of ‘resurrection’ on the West side of the North Transept. Some of you will’ve heard Brian lecture here last autumn. It’s a big project and typical of Brian’s work will add both light and colour to that important but frankly underperforming area of the Cathedral. It’s already funded so won’t put financial pressure on the Cathedral and I hope you’ll give it your support as my colleagues tell you more in the months ahead and then see it through with care and patience.
In our conversations with Brian Clarke and as he develops various options people have inevitably quizzed him about what his designs mean. He will go so far in answering that question, but he’s also very adamant that he won’t tell the wider world what is his interpretation of the glass. He says that once the artist has said ‘this is what my work means’ they’ve closed the creative process and people will then forever see what the artist has told them is there to be seen. Whereas really good art goes on interpreting itself through different people, different perspectives and different generations experiencing it.
So when you eventually see the final design and ask, ‘What does it mean?’ you may not get an answer which satisfies you for very good reason.
Then we also ask about art: Do I like it?
We can’t help ourselves but we often assess a work of artistic endeavour by whether we like it or not. We sit in judgment and listen out for the judgment of others to see if we agree. And we choose what to expose ourselves to by what we think we’ll enjoy. It must make the Director of the Festival’s life pretty difficult as he puts together a programme which he thinks is interesting but which also has to cater for what people think they’ll like, and for which they’ll buy tickets. Having bought our tickets for this year’s Festival which of us hasn’t come away from the events and instantly offered an opinion on what we’ve seen and heard?
And thirdly I suspect we often want to know: What’s it for?
Does it entertain? Does it educate? Does it inspire? Does it intrigue or interpret the world or satisfy my curiosity? Does it make me feel better or disturb me? We again justify what we experience of cultural creativity through our responses to it. But this time we ask - What is its function, what does it do for us? Even beauty and harmony and form have become utilitarian to us these days – we’re always asking ‘what are they for’?
The questions which trip off our tongues. What does it mean? Do I like it? What’s it for?
They’re our familiar ways of responding to what we call art. What they all have in common as questions is that they detach the art from ourselves.
· There’s a meaning to be had out there and I need to harness it.
· There’s a judgment to be made and what matters is that I express my preference.
· There’s a function to be utilised and I wish to benefit from it.
Today we’re in the business of imagining God. It’s Trinity Sunday when our readings and hymns remind us that the Christian language about God has always referred to three manifestations of Father, Son and Spirit. Three persons, one God.
I suggest to you that we bring to that task of imagining God the same questions we bring to our experience of art.
God as Trinity is something to be understood. I could have spent this sermon telling you how Christians have understood what it means for God to be three persons yet one essential unity. Why from the earliest disputes of the Church it was considered so very important. We’d have then treated it as a doctrine, a concept to be probed and explored. An intellectual and theological reality, a creedal statement. We’d have asked, what does it mean?
Or alternatively I could have encouraged you to imagine God through the judgments we believe he makes about our lives. The Trinity is then an expression of how we’re under scrutiny by a heavenly panel of assessors: a bit like a divine Len, Darcey and Craig or if you’d rather a Bruno; who sit as critical spectators of how we’re doing, especially how moral and well-behaved we’re being. The Trinity is an expression of what God likes or doesn’t like, a matter of judgment or preferences.
Or then again, we could approach God as a divine helpline especially for subscribers, those who bother to pay their dues or check in regularly. What is the Trinity for? Because we like to know about the usefulness of things, even what function God has. How might God in all three persons be helpful to us in our daily life.
None of those three approaches would have been unworthy but again they each have a flaw within them. They all assume that there’s a detachment. We observe God as he observes us. Whereas the important thing about imagining God, as there is about art, is to know that there’s a creative process in which God is woven into our every movement, our every thought, our every day. Trinity is about relationships. It’s a dance between us and the divine in us.
The most influential image of the Trinity in recent years has come not from the Bible or Christian history but from art, if you can call iconography art. Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity is of a meal, a table of hospitality, a safe place of invitation and encounter, where there is food and wine but also conversation. Relationships are made and strengthened. There you don’t ask what it means, you simply take up the seat which has been left for you, inviting you to participate. There no judgments are made, for relationships are built on trust not scrutiny. There you don’t ask what is this meal for, you simply sit and eat.
Imagining God is about relationships. The Trinity is about the divine nature of relationships. And if I might say, with the events of this week in our minds, our future will be strong and stable only if we attend to relationships.