It is almost three years since Burning Bush Barn was established as a place of creativity and contemplation. Wendy Shaw has seen how the quiet space has become a place of blessing for many.
The barn is in the grounds of the Rectory at St Mary's Church, Rockland, near Norwich. It was disused and very run down when we first arrived in the area but through a lot of hard work, successful grant applications, diocesan funding and wider fundraising, the barn is now a wonderful, quiet place for people to come and be.
I wouldn't describe it as a church or an art gallery but it has the potential to be more than both can be individually. It is rooted in the understanding that creativity is the language of a God who created and continues to create in us – and through us.
The journey for me involved traditional Church of England training and curacy but I had been trying for many years to find my own voice for prayer and healing through arts. In 2003 my path crossed with that of artist Kate Litchfield and we started prayer painting together and exploring the depth of non-verbal prayer. We began with canvas, making marks and line and colour that enabled us to be honest and play in prayer like we hadn-t done before.
We had wanted to try a prayer painting workshop day and very quickly we had a long waiting list. It was very difficult initially because we had to hire venues, get all the furniture out of the way, 'declutter' the space we were using, put out the art materials and pack them all away again at the end of the session.
The context is crucial, and a silent still space was integral to this way of praying. Word started to spread about what we were doing and we quickly got calls from other dioceses to stage similar days but we eventually took the decision to stay within Norwich Diocese, the place we had been called to and supported by.
When my husband became Rector at Rockland St Mary, the barn was derelict in the garden but we could see how the building could be used in a new way for our developing needs. The fundraising appeal for £203,000 was launched in May 2007 to renovate and preserve it. Much has been done because we now have a worship/gallery space and studio space but there's more to do because we'd love to have a hospitality space too. We have got planning permission to do that but have still got to raise about £65,000 to pay for it.
We have up to 26 people, Christians and non-Christians, for the Thursday morning breakfast sessions and it's a wonderful time to be together. If God comes up during our conversations during those sessions then that's great but we are not there to evangelise. Our belief is that this creativity is a language of God; it's not art and faith, they're inseparable. Art is not something we do; art is a way of living.
Burning Bush Barn regularly welcomes people from ages 9 to 84, it's a great joy! It is not about making fantastic works of art but instead our focus is on the process; it's in the waiting, of making marks.
So many artists say to me, 'I'm a Christian but I don't go to church, I struggle with it'. How do we gather these people together? We are continuing to grow; people want to be here but they don't have to commit to anything. A hospitality space would allow us to develop the community here because we need to be grounding and acknowledging that and seeing it grow.
We implicitly break bread in recognition of gathering as a body and the presence of Jesus Christ here. We try to pitch it so it's open enough for everybody to be able to find a place; we believe in accepting people where they're at.
We often say we don't know where we're going here but the important thing is to watch and wait for the move of the wave. As a result we don't know how long to be on that wave but that's OK. I may want to know what I'm doing this time next year but I can't tell you that. We have to wait.
In all of the questions about this being a fresh expression of church there is a presumption that we want to make church. Do we? As an ordained priest I know that anything we do is rooted in the gospel – otherwise you can't be flexible – but people ask, 'What sort of shape are you at Burning Bush Barn?' I would say it's not church shaped, it's probably amoeba shaped because the edges of it are ready to change at any time. And we are people who live on the edge. We are edge dwellers.
We are not here to make something permanent because we hold what we have lightly, allowing it to move, and one day it may disappear. We began doing something because we felt that God was calling us to it. The sacrament is at the heart of what we do here; the whole thing is rooted in it; that holds us – but we are a transient group of people that allows freedom of movement. The authorities have had to struggle with that a bit and funding is quite difficult because Christian funders are uncertain about the arts and arts funders tend to be more uncertain about anything that seems to be based around faith or religion in any way.
I am asked, 'How many people do you have?', 'What are your donations like?' Well, as far as the money goes, sometimes it comes in and sometimes it doesn't. But, to us, it is important that what we do here is offered without charge, to ensure that they are truly accessible. We are very grateful to the Diocese of Norwich which pays our services' bills.
We have to live responsibly as artists, as a faith community. We are here to work that out creatively; to live from what we have, not for what we haven't.