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Interview: Graham Sparkes president, Martin Luther King House, and patron, Retreat Association

27 September 2013

'Great art inevitably it brings us into touch with the spiritual'

I have never been very happy with the word "retreat". It can easily be regarded as some kind of escape, but that is not what they are about. They're opportunities to encounter the deepest realities - about God, ourselves, and our world. At their best, they will open us up and tear us apart, and so give us renewed spiritual vision and understanding.

My worst experience of retreats is when they fail to connect with the realities of living in our world today.

I have been part of the Retreat Association for many years, in one way or another. So when the RA decided to identify individuals from different denominations who might be willing to serve as Patrons, I was privileged to be one of those approached. I guess we're only beginning to work out what the role might mean, but I hope I can be some kind of ambassador for the RA as well as supporting its work in practical ways.

I'm particularly anxious to explore what might be termed "political holiness" - a recognition that spirituality has to do with issues of justice, poverty, racism, globalisation, human rights, and the care of creation. If you're serious about deepening your journey with God, then you have to be involved with these issues.

I was involved in leading a retreat in Coventry, which had a particular emphasis on the peace-and-reconciliation ministry of the cathedral, and dealing with issues of violence, personal and national, and how we respond. The Baptist Union Retreat Group has done retreats in inner-cities which also engage with these issues directly. I'm sure other denominations do similar things.

Again, spiritual direction, which is a more individual form of retreat, is less about making people comfortable with the way things are, and more about challenging them with their engagement with the world. This is used a lot by people.

My full-time job is as President of Luther King House [a theological college in Manchester]. In the spirituality module I teach, it's exciting to see people of all ages and backgrounds discovering what the Rule of Benedict and the Ignatian way of reading the Bible can do for their own spiritual lives. These are rich resources that speak into our own culture in very new and relevant ways.

Luther King House is ecumenical. I help give direction to the spiritual and educational life of the community, alongside the principals of our constituent colleges: Baptist, URC, Methodist, and Unitarian. LKH is a wonderfully diverse place to be.

Our aim is to enable theology to be in creative dialogue with the different contexts in which we all find ourselves. Unitarians are a long-standing partner here, and very prominent in this area, though their presence here creates interesting debates. They're a very small presence - a couple of students a year - but they are extremely gracious.

URC students and Baptists are the largest groups. We have a growing Open College, which embraces Eritrean Orthodox to Black Pentecostal and everything in between - usually not training for ordination but lay ministry. There are about 150 students in total. Some are quite conservative, others less so, but we've always tried to stretch people's imagination.

I have been there two years now, having previously served as a Baptist minister and, more recently, as the National Ecumenical Officer for the Baptist Union of Great Britain. I'd struggle a little bit if I was working in a very narrow environment.

As a child growing up in a Baptist family in south-east London, I remember regularly walking past a German church dedicated to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is still there. That provoked my curiosity, and no doubt it played a part in my decision fairly early on to seek ordination. Bonhoeffer has remained a formative influence on me - a great example of what political holiness is all about.

I fell in love with Anglican liturgy, particularly evensong, when I lived in an Anglican chaplaincy in Wales. But I remain a Baptist because I like the radical equality of congregational government; and believers' baptism makes sense to me.

I love the later chapters of the book of Isaiah. They are beautiful and poetic. Alongside their deep hopefulness is a passionate call for justice, and I find the linking together of those two themes deeply moving and inspiring.

The work of Christian Aid has been a big part of my life. I was a trustee until recently, and I often saw that commitment to hope and justice lived out by our partners around the world. I am less inspired by the Apostle Paul. I prefer story and poetry to doctrine.

One of the most important choices I made was to study for an MA in Christian Spirituality at Heythrop College in London. I learned much from studying with Christians from different traditions, and, even though I was the only Baptist, I felt entirely at home. It was there I began to explore the ways art can resource the spiritual journey. This is where my writing and research interests lie.

I use the visual often, both in retreats and teaching. Great art has to do with issues of ultimate concern, and so inevitably it brings us into touch with the spiritual. It doesn't have to be what many would describe as "Christian art". In fact, I prefer to engage with art that appears to have no Christian content.

The Rothko Room is a favourite place of mine. It invites contemplation as you sit surrounded by his huge, dark canvases, which invite you to peer into the mysterious depths. It is somehow limitless. It is a place just to be.

Our daughter is at college in the United States. When I hear about the opportunities open to her to study, travel, and explore, I can't help but be envious. If I have regrets, it would be about not taking more risks earlier in my life.

I'm not sure I have a desire to be remembered. What matters is the integrity with which we live the present moment.

Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev is a particular favourite. I love R. S. Thomas's poetry, the novels of D. H. Lawrence, the diaries of Thomas Merton, and the biblical writings of Ched Myers.

The failure of institutional ecumenism makes me angry. I hear a lot of rhetoric, but there's little evidence of real commitment to seeking the unity of God's people. I do try to prevent my anger resulting in a loss of vision - and I'm glad that Luther King House continues to be a wonderful example of what can be achieved together. Linked with that is my anger with the consistent discrimination of the Church against women that shames us all.

Karl Rahner said: "The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all." I think that is a powerful and important message for the Church to hear - and it is one that guides my own prayer. The beauty of the liturgy means much to me, but I need silence and space, not least in order to hear the cries of the world.

I'd like to be locked in a church with Georgia O'Keeffe. She was an artist who knew how to see, and I'd like her to teach me to do the same. Though she wouldn't have described herself as a Christian, she had a deep spirituality, and it would be an immense privilege to get to know her.

Graham Sparkes was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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