Geoffrey Stevenson reports on the Christian Artists Europe conference
Every August for many of the last 30 years I have travelled to Holland to attend the annual Seminar held by Christian Artists Europe. Around 70 musicians, dancers, actors, painters and others meet with over 120 participants to give performances,workshops, exhibitions lectures and masterclasses. The conference moved last year to the charming town of Bad Honnef, just outside Cologne, Germany where we enjoyed the fine hospitality of the beautifully appointed KSI (Katholic Social Institut). They are busy days: if you attended your first workshop at 8.30 am, and powered through the day’s programme, enjoyed the evening concert, rounding off the day in the bar for an extremely important time of fellowship… then by the end of the five days you would have been very tired.
CTPI’s Peacebuilding Through Media Arts project is sponsoring three screenings at this year’s Africa in Motion Film Festival in Edinburgh, including a UK premiere. Come along, and see some of the best contemporary African cinema! You can find more information about the African in Motion film festival here: http://www.africa-in-motion.org.uk/
What has Carmelite spirituality got to do with camping?
It might sounds like an obscure question on a radio quiz, but the relationship between camping and Carmelite spirituality is one of the things I’m exploring after my recent research in Ireland.
The trip involved three nights in my trusty one-man tent (pictured left!) at Knock, Ireland’s national Catholic shrine. During my stay, I spent time talking with pilgrims from all over Ireland and further afield, as well as young adults taking part in the annual Knock Youth Festival. I wanted to hear them talk about their experience of the church in recent years, and particularly about how the abuse crisis might have affected them.
Reflecting on all the conversations I had with people during the research trip, I noticed that people seemed to tell their stories in two ways. One group of people focused on practical ways of getting the church out of the mess they felt it was currently in – some people proposed reforming the church as an institution, other people proposed renewed dedication to the rosary. The other group of people were not so much focussed on getting out of the current situation as acknowledging it and learning from it.
Perhaps because of the proximity of Knock’s own Carmelite convent, I began to think about the ways in which Carmelite spirituality might be a useful resource for peacebuilding in the Catholic church in Ireland. Among other things, Carmelite spirituality is known for the idea of the ‘dark night of the soul’ – a period of difficulty, darkness and sorrow in prayer where, although the person feels they have been abandoned by God, God is using the experience to draw them closer to himself. Some of the people I spoke to were explaining their experience of the church using language a bit like this. Putting it in Carmelite terms, they were explaining the church’s current situation as a sort of ‘dark night of the soul’ – a harrowing experience in which the hand of God could be seen at work.
So I’m currently re-reading the spiritual classics in which the sixteenth century Carmelite mystic explores the idea of the ‘Dark Night’ (no, not Batman) – The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul, and exploring a bit more that connection between Carmelites and camping.
Religion causes violence.
You might not agree with the statement, but you will probably agree that broadcasting media regularly make a connection between religion and violence. We often hear journalists, analysts and broadcasters on television talking about the role of religion in conflict situations around the world. From Nigeria to Northern Ireland, there is no shortage of film footage and broadcasting commentary linking religious places and people to violent conflict.
The link between religion and violence in the media is one of the things we are exploring in the Peacebuilding Through Media Arts project. We’re not out to prove that there is no link between religion and violence. We’re more interested in exploring what peace studies expert Scott Appleby calls ‘the ambivalence of the sacred’ – the ways in which religious narratives, identities and emotions can be used to further violent ends, or to create peace. (You can read more about his book here.)
We’re particularly interested in exploring the work of religious people and communities involved in peacebuilding efforts. Their work is often left out of the journalistic picture when analysis focuses on how religion causes violence.
The Sant’Egidio community is a good example of a religious community committed to peacebuilding work. You may not have heard of Sant’Egidio, but the community was instrumental in mediating the 1990-1992 peace process that eventually brought an end to the civil war in Mozambique, and has been involved in peace processes in the Balkans and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Sant’Egidio Community is currently making efforts to hold peace talks with Syrian representatives in an effort to bring about a peaceful and stable future for Syria. You can read about their work here.
‘Violence happens whenever a story can’t be told or it isn’t being listened to.’
These are the words of Sister Hilda, Benedictine nun and unlikely star of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s series The Abbey, a reality TV documentary in which five ordinary Australian women lived the life of enclosed Benedictine nuns for a month.
Monasteries are not places we associate with violence. Quite the opposite – we think of them as places of peace, contemplation, prayer and a strong community life. We might even think of them as places removed from the troubles and stresses of the world, and it might surprise us that a Benedictine nun has anything to say about violence at all.
Sister Hilda’s words are not born from extensive experience of conflict, but from years of community life, and deep practical wisdom about what it takes to build a community of peace. And what does it take to build such a community? Listening – ‘Listen’ is the first word of St Benedict’s Rule of life. Violence happens whenever a story can’t be told, or isn’t being listened to.
As part of my work on the Peacebuilding Through Media Arts project, I am researching the process of practical peacebuilding happening in the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland in the wake of the abuse crisis. In recent months, I have spent time in Ireland listening to ordinary Catholics, both laypeople and members of religious orders. I have become aware that the process of peacebuilding depends on allowing people to tell their stories, and making sure they are listened to.
Where do the arts come in to this process of peacebuilding? Dublin’s museums and galleries bear witness to the fact that the arts – music, writing, poetry, painting, drama – are some of the most basic and instinctive ways in which human beings tell stories, about who they are, and about where they have come from. Arts can help us to tell stories, and help others to listen.
The photographs above show a hoarding in central Dublin. Part art installation, part protest, this hoarding is covered with the pages of official reports. The first time I was in Dublin, it was covered by the pages of the Ryan Report – the official report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA). On my most recent visit, it was covered in the pages of a report into the deaths of children in the care of the Irish state. By plastering a hoarding with these pages, the artist has made these public reports even more public, more visible – listened to, photographed, read, as well as walked past and ignored. He is treating these reports not as archives, but as living witness and testimonies – making sure these stories are told, and making people listen.
Theodora Hawksley, Peacebuilding Through Media Arts project researcher
Check back for more reports on the Peacebuilding Through Media Arts project.
Geoffrey Stevenson, researcher on the Peacebuilding Through Media Arts project, reports on a summer Church and Media Conference
Professor Jolyon Mitchell and I braved the rains and the trains to attend a two day conference in MediaCityUK, Salford, held for Christians working professionally in the mass media. Journalists, radio presenters, producers, publicity officers and student wannabes came for a packed and varied programme of presentations and panel discussions. The Church and Media Conference has been going for 30 years, but this was the first time it was held in a city rather than the rural retreat of The Hayes in Derbyshire. We assembled in the glamorous Lowry Arts Centre, with its double-story glass windows looking across the newly developed Salford Quayside towards the even newer BBC North production centre. I was delighted to attend and to renew contact with many I knew from my time as director of the Centre for Christian Communication at Durham, and the whole thing had a very buzzy and busy feel to it. Even while the rain lashed the windows and the wind whipped up the water in the canals.
As academics we were a little in the position of fish enjoying a day out in the forest, but time and again the subjects turned to media issues that continue to require careful ethical study and informed theological debate. Under the overarching title, the Media We Deserve, the conference looked at live and pertinent questions such as, Does freedom of the press mean that it is always permissible to print pictures that invade privacy or count as blasphemy? Is publishing what the public is interested in the same as publishing what is in the public interest? Are the Christian values inculcated into the BBC by Lord Reith still discernible in the BBC today?
To give but one example, the conference opened with a pointed and entertaining keynote from Giles Fraser, priest and columnist and formerly at St Pauls Cathedral at the time of the Occupy protest. He took as his starting point the question, Why do Bishops find it so difficult to speak to the media? There is (often justifiably) fear, yes, but there is also a reluctance to speak out definitively in a way that might upset one of the many different and opposing groups who historically have come to shelter under the ‘big tent’ that is the Anglican Church. A useful historical and ecclesial analysis led nevertheless to the observation that the church does a lot of newsworthy and profoundly important things at all levels of society, fulfilling the commissions of its Founder, but would do better in our media dominated society if it could ‘preach what it practiced’.
There was much more, including input from Labour MP Chris Bryant (no stranger to media hounding), the director of BBC Children’s Television Joe Godwin, Times religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill, and His Grace Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who gave a perceptive account of the role of both social an broadcast media in world events.
The playwright Murray Watts observed once that Christians complain so loudly about the filth and corruption of the theatre – but is it not the case that the meat has gone bad because the salt never got to it? This conference, and the Church and Media Network behind it (over 800 members meet online at http://www.themedianet.org) are vital ways of providing encouragement, support and challenge to Christians who are trying to be like salt, and light in dark places. It was a encouraging and thought-provoking to be there.