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Pursuing peace at St Martin’s

26 June 2015

Nicholas Cranfield sees an exhibition seeking to build bridges

Peaceable message: Transition by Marwa Adel, a work in the exhibition in the international touring exhibition "The Bridge"

Peaceable message: Transition by Marwa Adel, a work in the exhibition in the international touring exhibition "The Bridge"

THE diocesan newspaper where I serve is called The Bridge. As the Bishop of London loses few opportunities to remind those of us south of the Thames, the "river runs deeply".

At each Epiphanytide, clergy from the parishes on both sides of London Bridge come together to bless the Thames, but that is about as close as it gets. Stipends in the ancient see of London are distinct from those offered in Southwark, and our churches are rated very differently for the "quota".

The establishment of the mega-diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales might suggest a way to bridge the gap to bring together two dioceses where the Church Commissioners currently pay for two diocesan bishops, a suffragan bishop, eight area bishops (soon to be nine), and 11 archdeacons, all largely within the M25.

By their nature, bridges span a gap between two fixed points that never can meet. Although they may allow for passage and engagement, that can only be by mutual recognition and deliberate agreement. Horatius valiantly defended the Sublician Bridge against Lars Porsena in the sixth century BC and, in J. I. M. Stewart's short story, the self-preoccupied buffoon Charles Hornett quite failed to recognise his former wife on the Bridge of Arta.

Caravan is an American NGO, based in Chicago, that seeks to build bridges between the creeds and cultures of the Middle East and the West by using the arts. It has now brought a show of contemporary visual art to London.

The artists exhibiting in this seventh exhibition come from the three great monotheistic faiths, and live in the Middle East and throughout the diaspora, coming from 13 countries. Forty-seven contemporary Arab, Persian, and Jewish men and women have each been invited to treat of the theme "The Bridge" in frames of the same size (60×80cm).

The cavalcade (News, 16 January) set off from Paris in February, and was welcomed into Trafalgar Square by the Primates of All England and of Jerusalem and the Middle East, both of whom spoke of the need for a greater understanding between people of all faiths at the London opening of the exhibition earlier this month.

No religious leaders from the Muslim or Jewish communities spoke, leaving it to the artists to do the work for them, although none of the artists' statements (perhaps deliberately) included any indication of their individual faith background.

When St Martin-in-the-Fields has staged exhibitions previously, they have been shown to good effect in one of the larger rooms in the complex around the crypt. In July 2014, the evocative line drawings of Annie Vallotton for the Good News Bible were showcased here. Previously, illuminated pages from the seven volumes of the St John's College Bible, from a scriptorium in Wales, for a Benedictine abbey at Collegeville, Minnesota, were exhibited here to great acclaim.

Regrettably, the 47 works forming the current exhibition are hung too closely together on wall panels lumped in behind the crowded brass-rubbing tables, the box office, and shelves of publicity material, as if they are an afterthought for a year-end graduate show. This does not make it easy to assess the hang, for which there appears to be no obvious curatorial intervention.

Although I understand that several artists are represented internationally (two with Janet Rady, for instance), few of the works cried out for more than a second glance over the shoulders of the good and great. The artists use a range of media, including volcanic ash on paper (Valérie Rauchbach), photography (Nagla Samir), and, inevitably, acrylic, but there seems little diversity in the overall effect.

The cause supported by the exhibition is, without doubt, a worthy one, and it cannot be just about money. Forty per cent of sales will support an educational project in a deprived part of Cairo, but a year-long tour seems a hard way to raise just $35,000.

Rather, the invitation for us is to cross the bridge and to embrace those whom we encounter.

The opening reception was sponsored by the Ambassador of Egypt at the Court of St James, Nasser Kamel. Minority groups in Egypt, whether members of the previous administration or Copts or gay, might see in this a sign of the present Egyptian Government's greater willingness to meet diversity, and to engage with difference.


"The Bridge" runs at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 31 July.


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