IN NORMAL times, there would have been a launch, a première, and “a bit of a splash” for the screening of five short films commissioned by the Progressive Christianity Network (PCN) and intended as a resource for discussing some of the big issues of life and faith.
Instead, Made of Stories — a £25,000-project funded by the Westhill educational trust and the PCN membership — has been made freely available online. In some ways, the chairman of PCN Britain, Canon Adrian Alker, said, the fact that people were “watching screens all the time” had fed into a need, and the films were being well received.
“It’s a new venture for us,” Canon Alker said. “We’ve gone along the path of conferences, books, speakers, and so on, but we began to think that what really matters is how people generally in their lives face up to situations and issues that are around; and, if you’re coming from a religious background, what experience do you have to face that? Life stories are a powerful way into theological discussion.”
A BBC recommendation led PCN to ShortForm (now Boca Films), a video-production company in Manchester run by Pedro Labanca and David Bewick. “Thanks to Pedro and Dave, we have hit on something that is pressing buttons for a whole lot of people,” Canon Alker said.
The first was From Saddleworth With Love: a piece about the reality of interfaith relationships, and featuring Gemma, a very hands-on sheep farmer married to a priest, reflecting on how life events have shaped her faith. She now identifies as a Hindu, but continues to find comfort and solace from the quiet and the residual peace to be found in a church building.
Then there IS the story of Holly, a passionate Christian climate activist and a member of Extinction Rebellion. Jesus was an activist who used the politics of the time against people in power, she argues, inviting reflection on where theology might go at a time when so much of the natural world is threatened with destruction.
For Nathaniel, who had a “picture-perfect childhood” in a Christian family, there have been two comings-out: once, to tell his mother that he was gay (she knew already); another, a decade later, to tell her that he had been HIV-positive since he was 17. There is a quietly emotional reflection from his mother, who says that the HIV revelation “hit me like a bullet. I wasn’t angry. I was upset [that he hadn’t told me sooner]. I might cry now,” she warns.
The stigma, not the virus, is what led Nathaniel to breaking-point, he says in the piece. People who use the film are asked: “If you showed this film to a church community, what do you think their reaction would be, and why?”
Greg lives on an inner-city estate in Wythenshawe. His film is a challenge to understand working-class culture better; leadership in this marginalised community comes from the leader of the local bodybuilding gym, he suggests, not from elected officials.
He reflects on the church building here — “dirty and bruised, because it’s in the street” — where he came as a young boy, and asks: “Where’s the spirit, the life, the support, the vibrancy gone? So I said I’d develop a church and put a gym in it. We invited the Spirit back in, and he came.” The Church has become middle-class, he suggests: decisions are made from Westminster by people with no grasp of the area or its people.
And, finally, there is Across the Divide, evocatively filmed in Belfast with Patrick, a Roman Catholic, and Davy, a Protestant, brought together by a shared passion for the Belfast Giants ice-hockey team. “It was a new sport; brand new, shiny. . . It came at a time when Belfast needed it. It gave young people somewhere to go. In the land of the Giants, everyone is equal,” they say.
PCN is hoping to raise more money to make more films: the next is likely to relate to Black Lives Matter. “All we want out of it is parishes to know that, if they want a resource to use, it’s there for people. We are a campaigning organisation. We want to say that issues are complex and don’t fit into neat religious compartments — why should they? — and we want to encourage people to discuss and debate.”
The CEO of the Student Christian Movement, Naomi Nixon, said that the films “invite and inspire us to engage in the holy complexity of Christianity”. The creative director of Greenbelt, Paul Northup, has described the project as “gentle and engaging film-making.”