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St Matthew's Bethnal Green art on show in the nave
/ 9 February 2017

Welcoming ‘holy impulses’: the arts at St Matthew’s Bethnal Green

Erin Clark, a curate at St Matthew’s Bethnal Green, discusses how the church’s rich history of being involved in the arts is influencing its most recent choice for installations in its hallowed nave.

On Friday 13 January, St Matthew’s Bethnal Green was pleased to host an exhibition of new work by Nelson Cunha, a local artist. Entitled Plan F, the exhibition was held in collaboration with the East London Gallery and the Fine Art Society and took up the whole of the church’s ground floor.

Bringing together sculpture and painting, the figurative and the abstract, Cunha’s work shifted the viewer’s perception back and forth between precise representation and dreamlike suggestion. With the church’s artwork in the background, it made for fascinating viewing.

St Matthew’s is a church well used to the arts: in the past year alone we have hosted concerts, theatre and orchestral rehearsals, a book launch, recordings for choral work, film crews and fashion projects. It is not as often, however, that we get to host installations of visual artwork.

It was for this reason that Plan F was an exciting step for us, as we hope to host many future installations. Building links with local galleries and local artists will, we hope, yields interest in the church as an exhibition space for artists working with visual, sound, audiovisual and site-specific projects.

As a church with a living congregation, St Matthew’s is learning how best to balance the worshipping life of the church with arts opportunities. We don’t host events on Sundays, usually, because of our morning Parish Mass and the regular use of the church for visiting, quiet prayer and meditation throughout the day. Our daily prayers and weekday services continue to be held even while we are hosting arts events, either in an upstairs chapel or right down among the artwork, if it’s quiet.

Besides time management, another issue of balance is around finances: we need to make money hiring our space, but we are also committed to supporting artists. To this end, we discuss each project individually and agree on hiring and other costs.

We also look to our history for inspiration about how to support the arts. During the 19th century, St Matthew’s was at the heart of the ‘Anglo-Catholic socialist’ revolution in Anglican attitudes to arts, particularly the theatre. Clergy and laypeople who preached and prayed for those who worked in the theatres and music halls, welcoming them into the church with open arms, were controversial figures in those days.

Presently, although the Church of England is developing a certain professionalism in its PR, there can still be widespread distrust towards art in churches, especially that which is not explicitly Christian. The arts can be seen all too easily as simply an expensive hobby, a distraction from the ‘real’ Christian vocation of sharing the gospel.

At St Matthew’s we believe differently: with the Anglo-Catholic socialists, we believe that the impulse to create is a holy impulse and that God shows up in the most surprising of places. It’s an honour for us to host artwork of high quality — to suggest, by our hospitality, that there is generous room in the church, in God’s family, for those who make art.

St Matthew’s has been blessed with an engaging collection of explicitly Christian artwork of its own. After almost complete destruction on the first night of the Blitz in 1941, it was nearly two decades before the church was re-completed, on account of which our interior contains a brilliant mixture of modernist styles in painting, sculpture, and metalwork. Because our own space witnesses to the stories and power of our faith, we would love to hear from and collaborate with artists who make work in response to faith or motivated by their faith.

Some of the world’s most breathtaking — and subversive — art has been created in highly religious contexts. Bethnal Green in 2017 is hardly Renaissance Italy, of course, but we do believe that churches continue to have an important part to play in supporting the arts, as they have done for millennia. Whether in the context of worship, exhibition, education, or some combination of all three — art belongs in church.

If you’d like to get in touch with us at St Matthew’s Bethnal Green about hiring our church for exhibitions, filming, rehearsals, or otherwise, email me Erin Clark or call me on 020 7739 7586.


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