The cities of Brighton & Hove are in many ways iconic of the changing landscape of British contemporary culture. They are a regional hub for a holistic mix of alternative spiritualities, world religions and twenty-four hour entertainment. It is in this mix that Beyond seeks to explore what it means to be new forms of church and mission in an emerging culture.
In the run up to Christmas, Martin Poole and Beyond, a fresh expression of church in the Diocese of Chichester, sought to explore an 'arts-as-mission' event using the beach huts on the city waterfront. Martin Poole explains the story of the 'Advent Beach Hut Calendar'.
Brighton and Hove annually hosts the largest arts festival in England and is well known as a centre for creativity and culture. Art is in the DNA of the place because it is about experience, and experience is how many people today explore what they feel and think about things. As with other parts of the UK, there is an increased interest in spirituality and a rejection of traditional religion.
So the challenge then for us in Beyond, is to explore how we engage in using art to inspire and stimulate people to think about Christian spirituality. We use art as a media for mission in this way, partly because of the context but also because we are committed to create artistic parables about spirituality to allow people to come to their own conclusions about God, and art is the best way to do that.
Beyond is an opportunity for people to explore spirituality through a variety of creative approaches. We hold events that provide an opportunity for exploration and discovery, and the Advent Beach Hut Calendar is one of these.
The aims of Beyond are:
- to help people to a deeper understanding of spirituality through the arts and other creative activities;
- to explore non-traditional ways of being Christian;
- to be a resource for church people who wish to further explore their relationship with God.
Every day from the 1st to the 24th December 2008 a beach hut will open its doors at 5.30pm for an hour to reveal a festive display in a life-size variation on the traditional calendar used by children to count down the days to Christmas. The beach huts are all built to the same design and could be described simply as reasonablly sized sheds on the beach (which is why popular website www.shedworking.co.uk has kept track of each night on their site throughout December).
The similarity between a beach hut and the cattle shed in which Jesus was born has not gone unnoticed to a few of our hut owners and some have fully exploited this. Eileen at hut 382 saw this potential early on and booked 'Away in a Manger' as her carol and gave us the full stable experience, with a manger, the baby Jesus, Mary and even a donkey peering out from the back of the stable. Sadly Mary, Joseph and Jesus didn't have mince pies and mulled wine to keep them warm as we did, but the wise men and the shepherds did bring them lots of other gifts to celebrate the holy birth.
The response has been unbelievable. I expected ten to twenty people each night and for us to see a lot of familiar faces. The lowest numbers we've had were thirty or so and on some nights we've had over a hundred. Our local television news and local newspapers have also got behind the event, so many people know its happening. Every night I meet new people who have simply heard about it on the radio or read a poster or heard of it through a friend and decided to come down. People have been coming from all over Sussex and beyond to see it and some people have made it a personal pilgrimage to be at each hut every night.
But the true value has been the opportunity to speak to individuals about their spirituality in an open and honest way and begin a dialogue about that. We are really pleased that the beach hut owners and artists have formed a real bond with each other. A community of care is beginning to develop in that group, even in this short time.