David Hawkins – Private View Talk

DpkUtkoXcAAwVnqTalk given by David Hawkins at the private view of the ‘Journey’ exhibition: All Hallows by the Tower, London, Monday 15th October 6.30pm 2018

Welcome to the ‘Journey’ at All Hallows by the Tower – and very many thanks to the staff and Churchwardens for allowing us to exhibit in this beautiful, ancient church.

As the former Bishop of Barking for twelve years, I have to confess that I didn’t know, until yesterday, that All Hallows was founded by the Abbess of Barking Abbey.

44223980_1905051303135458_6334066821515182080_nJonathan Evens has asked me to recount how commission4mission came into being ten years ago.  The story goes something like this.  I was invited, by the vicar of All Saints Goodmayes, to dedicate twelve window etchings by the artist Henry Shelton, who was a member of the congregation.  These had been designed in memory of some loved ones of All Saints parish.  I was delighted to do this and to meet the artist, who I invited to come and talk with me about his work.  Henry came to my office clutching a portfolio and an hour and a half passed quickly in animated conversation.  It soon became apparent that, in spite of Henry’s substantial artistic career, he felt somewhat isolated and short of opportunities to exhibit and fulfil commissions.  Having had two or three rather similar conversations over the previous few months, I decided it might be worth testing the waters for a network of Christian artists to provide mutual support, affordable commissions and exhibition opportunities.  I suggested Henry should talk to an artist/poet priest of mine in the Barking Area, and the wife of another of my clergy who was working out of a small studio in the vicarage.  I knew that if Jonathan could elbow some room in his diary, the project would be in capable hands.  The rest is history, and we are still in Jonathan’s busy, capable hands ten years on.  On behalf of us all I want to thank Jonathan for his dedication, creativity and perseverance.

44060620_1905051413135447_1716823678047485952_nTowards the end of his life Henry Moore put the situation like this: ‘One knows that Christianity has been the inspiration of most of Europe’s greatest painting and sculpture, and that the Church in the past has encouraged and employed the greatest artists; but the great tradition of religious art seems to have got lost completely in the present day, and the general level of church art has fallen very low as anyone can see from the affected and sentimental prettiness sold for church decoration in church art shops.’

So long as we shun ‘affected, sentimental prettiness’, it’s my assertion that there has never been a more important time to be communicating the Christian message through the visual arts, except in the days before wide spread literacy and when church services were conducted in Latin!  Plato’s ‘triad’, or three doorways to reality, were Truth, Morality and Aesthetics, or the True, the Good and the Beautiful – God is Truth, God is Good and God is Beauty.  In today’s culture it’s never been harder to talk about truth, when everything is assumed to be relative and ‘fake news’ has become popular entertainment.  Any way if you bang on about truth you’re soon written off as narrow-minded and yesterday’s person.  And it’s never been harder to talk about morality, when people outside the church accuse Christians of being hung up about gender and homosexuality.  And if you dare to mention morality you are written off as holier-than-thou.  When it comes to beauty, however, this is something everyone responds to, regardless of age, race or social background.  The emotion ‘wow’ is universal, and it speaks louder than words.  This is the calling of all artists, and when it comes to communicating something of the author of beauty, it’s the special calling of Christian artists.  Through our art we make statements that are provocative and prophetic and sometimes disturbing, as well as drawing people in by their qualities of beauty. We can encounter our audience with a message that would be pedantic, preachy and patronising if it were conveyed in words.

DpkUtknXgAYmGxyWhen I was growing up the notion of ‘modern art’ was derided by the vast majority of society, who just didn’t get it.  It was the butt of jokes and cartoons.  How that’s changed. Last year 5.8 million people visited Tate Modern, the third highest visitor numbers for UK attractions.  Now, while we are in church on Sunday, a popular thing to do among many (if you’re not taking children to football practice) is to have brunch and go to an art gallery.  Who would have thought it just a couple of generations ago?

Let me be clear, I’m not saying, as Sister Wendy Beckett, appears to imply, that a love of art alone is a doorway to a relationship with God, any more than a love of cathedral evensong opens a door to God.  What I am saying is that beauty often stands a better chance, in these days of relative truth and anything- goes- morality, of attracting those who are not yet Christians to an encounter with God through Christ.  Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  It’s only through him that we encounter God, whether we stumble through the doorway of truth, morality or beauty.  So I encourage you to continue to use your gifts and imagination to help open the door of beauty and entice people to explore the way that leads to God.

I close with the words of a beautiful unaccompanied chorale by Camille Saint Seans, which I heard for the first time, sung by a chamber choir yesterday afternoon.  The French rhymes perfectly, but this English translation still conveys the sentiment pretty well.

‘Flowers and trees, bronzes, marbles, golds, enamels, the sea, the fountains, the mountains and the plains, console our ills.  Eternal nature, you seem more beautiful viewed from the pain of our sorrows, and art overcomes us, its flame illuminates both laughter and tears.’

I invite you to be upstanding, if not already on your feet, as I propose a toast to the ‘Journey’ at All Hallows by the Tower 2018.