Canon Rosalind Brown writes:
CANON William Cameron Hall, who died on 20 May, aged 77, was well known in the north-east for his work at the interface of Christianity with the arts. After a few years in parish ministry, his “parish” became the whole leisure world; and his CV included Arts and Recreation Chaplain, Senior Chaplain to the Actors’ Church Union, and Chaplain to the Showmen’s Guild, Middlesbrough Football Club, and several cabaret clubs in Teesside. In 1999, he was named a “Creative Briton” by Arts Council England.
Bill, the son of a labourer, was born in 1940 in Billingham, County Durham. After reading theology at King’s College, London, and ordination in 1965, he returned north to a curacy in Thornaby, near Stockton-on-Tees, where he met Jeanette, whom he married in 1968. In an area where unemployment in some communities could reach 70 per cent, his response was to research what it was really like to be unemployed, and then, having swayed Middlesbrough Council into collaboration, to found Impasse in 1976.
Impasse’s provisions included a helpline, advice centre, facilities and the loan of tools for people wanting to learn skills, trades or art forms, and to gain the confidence to find work. Similar centres followed in the north-east and Scotland, and Bill worked with trainee teachers to help them catch the vision.
Bill described his vocation as motivated by belief that divine and artistic inspiration were linked. He believed the arts to be vital to the health of any society, “art” being understood in the broadest sense of creativity deriving from God and part of a person’s contribution to society — something denied to unemployed people if “paid work” was the measure of their value.
Always a lover of jazz, early in his curacy he arranged a jazz concert in the church; then, having helped to set up the Chaplaincy to the Arts and Recreation for the dioceses of York and Durham (later joined by Newcastle), in 1968, he was appointed its first full-time chaplain, and, in 1970, turned Wolviston Rectory into a meeting place for artists. In 1973, Jack Charlton invited him to become chaplain to Middlesbrough Football Club.
Bill achieved much across the north-east to bring hope and opportunity to many people, but, inevitably, he is remembered publicly for his sometimes controversial promotion of the arts in Durham Cathedral. Of Bill Viola’s 1996 installation, The Messenger, Bill Hall wrote: “in [this] work we glimpse mystery through the ordinary and everyday, just as the Cathedral . . . speaks of the eternal through the human.”
Six years earlier, he had masterminded the Ellington Mass project, including three of Duke Ellington’s sacred works within the cathedral liturgy. Bill saw similarities between the liminal environments of jazz and the Church, describing the Christian faith as a continual journey of discovery requiring improvisation and imagination. Bill also supported charities that enabled adults and children with special needs to participate in arts and crafts, bringing their work, too, to Durham Cathedral.
The Durham Cathedral Artist in Residence programme, which ran from 1983 to 2012, was Bill’s inspiration. It was widely respected in the arts world, and, as is typical of Bill, it was a wider collaboration that included St Chad’s College, the University of Sunderland School of Art, and the Arts Council.
Typically of Bill’s deeply incarnational theology, its focus was not the needs of the contributing partners, but the development of artists at a turning point in their careers. Inevitably, this led to vigorous discussions at the time of the annual selection of the next artist, Bill always reiterating firmly where the priority lay.
Bill spoke of “Jesus Christ showing the potential for humanity.” His incarnational and sacramental approach to faith and life valued the material as sign or symbol of God’s presence. His creative, visionary, determined and sometimes uncomfortable prophetic voice was not always appreciated, at least on first hearing. Gregarious, known for his warm friendship and humour, he could be both frustrated and frustrating, a man who did not hear “no” readily; perhaps that is how he achieved all that he did.
Bill’s contribution to the ministry of the Church and the arts was recognised, in 2005, by the award of the Cross of St Augustine by Archbishop Rowan Williams.