Why do we as humans crave acceptance and the space to be seen and heard? That was the initial driving force behind wanting to bring together like-minded individuals who share an interest in the interdisciplinary field of theology and the arts. It was out of sheer frustration and loneliness that I decided to do something about finding my theological/artistic tribe. So earlier this year, on the weekend of 12–14 July, the Anglican Parish of Woy Woy hosted ‘Vessels: Theology and the Arts Symposium’.
The goal of this symposium was to draw together theologians, practicing artists, clerics, philosophers, and poets to explore the relationships, intersections, and challenges that exist when the arts and theology come together. The three-day forum offered participants a multimodal and experiential platform to encounter the interdisciplinary interactions between the creative arts and theological theory. Over the three-day event, seventy participants listened to and interacted with five extraordinary keynote speakers, and a further seventeen short paper presentations. Additionally, those involved had the opportunity to participate in three creative workshops, listen to poetry performances, an interactive prayer space, and engage with the artworks displayed in the exhibition.
The organisation of a symposium, however, is an interesting adventure. I would first like to thank all the keynote speakers – Glenn Loughrey, Dorothy Lee, John McDowell, Rod Pattenden, and Chris Bedding – who, thanks to their wonderful contribution, and their commitment to continuing the conversation in the interdisciplinary space, enabled many others to experience a wide range of creative theological intersections. From Chris Bedding’s Pirate Faith to John McDowell’s analysis of theology and the art of popular cinema. From the confronting truths of Glenn Loughrey’s investigation of the impact of neo-colonialism and nostalgia on the perception of Aboriginal art and spirituality to the poetry of Dorothy Lee and her exploration of the transfiguration in the Gospel and poetry. To, finally, a reflection on what’s next by Rod Pattenden with his exploration of the tensions that exist between art and theology. These contributions gave us much food for thought and conversation.
Throughout the process of developing the program for the ‘Vessels’ symposium, liturgy and music was an important consideration. As I believe it is in our communal expression of praise and worship through liturgy where we are immersed at the intersection between human creativity and the grace of God. As such it was imperative to reflect on and create a liturgical space where the participants felt that the worship was not separate from the proceedings, but a natural part of the experience. The driving force behind the liturgical landscape of the event was the consummate teacher, composer, and musical liturgist Michael Mangan. Michael worked with the St Luke’s community, made informed musical choices and contributed significantly to the liturgical style of the event. His passion for liturgical music and liturgy is palpable, and one cannot but be impressed with his skills at bringing a community into the worship space.
It takes courage to walk into a theological space that is for many, outside their comfort zone. I have been asked on a number of occasions: Are you wanting to be an artist or a theologian, because surely you cannot be both? I believe, that for me, I cannot be one without the other. It is who I am, and who I am becoming. In light of this observation looking at the creative arts theologically is not just an academic pursuit, but it is in fact deeply practical in consequence and orientation. My thanks go to all participants who proposed and presented short papers, workshops, interactive prayer spaces, artworks, and poetry performances. It is heartening to hear so many people adding their voices and creative skill to this growing area of inquiry. The diversity of the creative input at this symposium was astonishing, and it highlighted the wonderful contributions of people in the fields of ecclesiastical ornamentation, poetry, philosophy, and many other disciplines.
I would like to make special mention of Rebekah Pryor, without whom this event would not have been as well organised. Rebekah is responsible for the professional curation of the exhibition, artist statements, exhibition catalogue, and co-convener. Working with Rebekah on this project was incredibly beneficial, as creative collaboration is key to having the opportunity to challenge oneself and take on board exciting perspectives and ideas.
It is my hope that from this event further conferences, communities, grants, prizes, and conversations are initialised. I now believe I have found my tribe, and I look forward to the next event.