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Portrait of a parish

13 October 2023

A parish in Northumberland has found a new way of portraying its vision for the future

Hannah Thorpe

Hannah Thorpe’s image of St James’s, Riding Hill, in Northumberland: “It’s definitely bonkers, but hopefully in a good way,” she says

Hannah Thorpe’s image of St James’s, Riding Hill, in Northumberland: “It’s definitely bonkers, but hopefully in a good way,” she says

ST JAMES’s, Riding Mill, recently published a vision document, Towards our Third Century: the result of more than three years of dedicated thought, work, and debate. As its Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Diana Johnson, says, the document is “excellent in its content — that’s solid gold — yet maybe a little dull in its necessary wordiness. It does not quicken the pulse. It’s inspired. It’s not gripping.”

As she was mulling over “how we could describe our Church of St James; how we should point to our vision for the future; how most easily we could see what actions we could take; and how best to show what we are at present”, a chance conversation between her and a Riding Mill artist, Hannah Thorpe, inspired them both.

Hannah had produced some artwork for commercial firms to illustrate their values, including a well-known sandwich-maker based in the north-east, in whose honour she had designed a “pasty map”. Her new brief was to represent the church’s vision, Towards our Third Century, in “a mainly pictorial, joyful, accessible, and not stuffy way: with a nod to our local context as well as wider theology (and less pastry)”.

The resultant image describes St James’s in its place: Riding Mill, in the Tyne valley. The artist has used what she refers to as “OS map geekery” to depict the river, roads, hills, fields, and wild country around the parish. In the circle that represents the church, the symbolism includes air/fire/earth references. Some allude to the story of Moses and the Burning Bush, although the artist has set fire to the heather on the hillside as a much more Northumbrian way than a simple burning bush. Moses’s sandals and bare footprints are still there, though, pointing towards God’s holy places.

Two of the multiple focus points are the two great commandments of Jesus: “Love God”, and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” The local Methodist congregation, and the Passionists from Minsteracres are included — Churches Together, working together like a jigsaw — as is Broomhaugh First School. The work of the congregation is celebrated, alongside visual clues about the parish’s desire to be truly inclusive, the sociable quality of its coffee, its commitment to the environment, and the beauty of its buildings.

Just as the sharing of the bread in communion is a remembrance of the Body of Christ, given for us, and the congregation of a church can be Christ’s body here on earth, so the resemblance of the circle of church, held by God’s hands, to the communion wafer is no idle coincidence.

On the church’s website, Diana Johnson writes: “Already, people have said how useful the image will be to focus prayer, to inspire action, to celebrate what we are already, to affirm what people do, to see where we might one day be, and to remind us all why we need our lovely church in Riding Mill.

“I pray and hope that Hannah’s icon-like painting, with its depth of imagery, will serve to remind us where we are going here in Riding Mill, as we head towards our third century.

“And what of the Priest — for you’ll see there is no minister visible in the image? That is deliberate, for we should not be a clergy-centred parish: rather we are a congregation that needs and values everyone, and stands tall with every person in the parish. In the scheme of things, priests come, stay as long as they are needed, and go. You remain.

“So I have pitched my tent on the hillside — it’s a Terra Nova Voyager, faithfully drawn in Hannah’s picture — and from it I can pray, teach, bless, worship, observe, support, encourage, lead, baptise, marry, and commend to God for as long as you’ll have me. In time, not too soon I trust, in a jolly long time I hope, but one day — I will strike camp and move on. For it is your parish, the parish of St James, Riding Mill. And Hannah’s picture is a Riding Mill view, of what is, after all, yours to have, to hold, and to enjoy.”


The Revd Diana Johnson is Priest-in-Charge of St James’s, Riding Mill, in the diocese of Newcastle.



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