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Visual Arts in the Worshipping Church, by Lisa J. DeBoer

01 June 2018

Nicholas Cranfield on recent art in churches in the United States

PROFESSOR Lisa DeBoer’s useful study seeks to establish how congregations of a range of theological and ecclesiological opinion can better be engaged with their buildings. A professor of the history of art at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, she addresses herself to the visual arts, but much that she says about aesthetics, taste, and “fittingness”, for instance, could be applied equally to music in church.

Her perceptions focus on the American experiment and derive in part from a sabbatical spent in West Michigan. After a chapter on the history of icons since the pre-Byzantine era, her considerations do not stray to Gothic Europe or to post-Conquest Spain; so she need not worry overly about, for example, the constraints that medieval churches can make for otherwise valid bids for artistic modernity.

She finds encouraging examples of shared sensitivities between artist, minister, and people. Most English diocesan advisory committees have experience of community projects and will receive well-meaning applications to install bad art simply because it has been locally sourced. But the layfolk of St Cyril and St Methodius Catholic Church, Wayland, Michigan, can be justly proud of their stained glass.

One chapter celebrates six Protestant churches in Grand Rapids. It includes vignettes of how art can be used to confront social injustice and charts ambitiously designed summer camps that attract younger members to explore their faith.

DeBoer emphasises the need for inclusivity, but also the demands of ecumenical awareness, citing the emergence of liturgical consulting; it is heartening to learn that the archdiocese of Chicago has set up a panel of volunteers with relevant artistic and architectural expertise, regardless of confessional membership. She cites, and could explore more, St John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists.

The book was in part sponsored by work undertaken by students who were challenged to find works of art to reflect how the different Christian traditions on campus worshipped, concentrating on “life as worship”, “learning as worship”, and collective worship. All three threads might challenge our own ecclesial communities to find artistic ways of expressing themselves, even if only to make the most use of archdeacons’ temporary licences.


Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.


Visual Arts in the Worshipping Church
Lisa J. DeBoer
Eerdmans £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

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