Now I look at my own experience and feel the intimate rightness of Lear’s words: ‘I have taken too little care of this.’…Today it is clear that one’s isolated efforts are straws in the wind, and we can do nothing alone – we need others, all the time… we only begin to exist when we are serving an aim beyond our own likes and aversions.
– Peter Brook
Make visible what, without you, might never be seen.
– Robert Bresson
During a 6-hour layover at London’s Heathrow Airport last spring, my friends Neil and Helen Lambert, who live nearby, spirited me away to a picnic in the green fields of Runnymede, where the Magna Carta had been signed 799 years and 50 weeks earlier. Rain fell as we arrived, so Helen and I retreated to the site’s tea room while Neil got the lunch together under the shelter of a great oak. While drinking our tea, we met a British army veteran who had played the trumpet solo at Winston Churchill’s funeral.
When the rain let up, Neil summoned us out to the feast he had prepared with colored tablecloth, English china, three different courses and a fine local wine. As an Anglican artist/priest with a gift for ceremonial whimsey, he had successfully answered the Psalmist’s question, “Can God make a banquet in the wilderness?” And so it was that over a delightful lunch we conceived the idea of the Venice Colloquium: an intimate international gathering of Christian creatives to “dream the Church that wants to be.”
As artists of faith, Neil and I had been discussing the need for more imagination and creativity in the churches, not only in the way we worship, learn and grow, but also in the way we engage with the world we exist to serve. Part of the challenge, we agreed, was fostering community among the scattered creatives whose isolated efforts, in Peter Brook’s words, are too often “straws in the wind.”
So in the days following that Runnymede picnic, we began to ask around, starting with some people we knew, who knew some other people, and pretty soon we had collected a group of ten creatives, young and old, from the United States, Great Britain (including a man born in Peru), and New Zealand. There are seven Anglicans, two Methodists and one Baptist. Three are women, seven are clergy. All are practitioners in one or more art forms, including painting, music, film, conceptual and installation art, printmaking, writing and poetry. All have been leaders in the exploration of alternative worship.
In three weeks, we will gather in Venice to spend seven days in conversation with each other, not only exchanging ideas, dreams and stories, but also listening attentively to whatever the Spirit might have to say through the experimental chemistry of ten such people thrown together in one place.
Why Venice? We had to meet somewhere, and monastic housing made it amazingly affordable. And “La Serenissima’s” haunting beauty makes a doubly inspiring venue for creatives, since its renowned wealth of historic art and architecture is augmented by the cutting-edge work on display at Biennale, one of the world’s leading exhibitions of contemporary art.
What can emerge from such a collective interplay and cross-pollination of practitioners and thinkers over the course of a week together in the intimacy of a small-group setting? While we believe our gathering will be inspiring and enriching for everyone’s personal ministry and creativity, we think it can bear fruit as well in the wider communities to which we will return. We also hope that it will stimulate further networking among creatives within and beyond the church, and become a useful prototype for similar gatherings in the future. But as the biblical God repeatedly demonstrates, faith means not falling in love with planned outcomes. As T. S. Eliot put it, “wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing … / Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.”
Of course we will each arrive in Venice with our share of specific hopes and dreams. We have been exchanging some of these online already. On the one hand, we all care deeply about the nature, quality and purpose of our common life. On the other hand, we also want to look beyond our walls, making sure the boundaries necessary for identity are sufficiently porous to allow flow both inward and outward. What about those who don’t fit the inherited definitions of Christian? How much diversity can we incorporate and still be the Body of Christ? What do the unchurched or uninitiated have to tell us about who we might be for them – and how they might change us? How can we listen to voices from the margins, and cultures beyond our own? Where might interfaith collaboration lead?
As the angel of Resurrection famously said, The tomb is empty and Jesus has left the building. Where should we be looking for Jesus now? In the “other.” In the “elsewhere.” And what does this sometimes unsettling centrifugal dynamic mean for how we are to do and be church?
One participant has asked, “Are artists called to a particular way of being in the world, and if so how do we nurture environments that foster that way of being?” Another calls us to dream collectively a “rebirth of wonder.” Another wants to explore “the salvific power of beauty.” Another envisions doing for church what Cirque du Soleil has done for circus, so that imagination, creativity, and art are not frills or strategies or institutional departments, but “the DNA of who we are as God’s people.”
They say democracy was born at Runnymede. To dream that a rebirth of wonder began there as well would be, of course, ridiculously grandiose. We are simply a few of God’s friends gathering in a small room to see what happens.