Theologian Andrew Grinnell and artist Suman Kaur are working collaboratively on the LCI Arts and Theology Bursary. This opening reflection from Andrew gives us an insight into his approach to the bursary, and the lenses he brings to exploring faith and friendship in Leeds.

Have you ever wished that you could start something new? You might have been in the same job for a while, held a particular position within your church for a while, or lived in the same place for a long time. You want a new challenge. You begin to long for a fresh start.

Recently I accepted a bursary from the Leeds Church Institute. I did so not because I feel particularly stuck in what I am doing, more I wonder if some of my thinking is in a bit of a cul-de-sac. Having the opportunity to think, reflect, write, observe the practice of others, and work with new people for part of each week for a 6-month period might be the blank piece of paper I need to ‘unstick’ me. Yet, being given a blank sheet of paper isn’t always the kind of gift you imagine it to be. If the fear that you have nothing to fill it doesn’t kick in, the doubt that what you fill it with is not what is wanted is likely to.

Thankfully the bursary isn’t an entirely blank piece of paper. Whether that’s the pre-scribed theme of friendship as good news, the requirement to blog monthly, the suggestion to work with people who are engaged in mission within marginalised neighbourhoods in the city, or the relationship with an artist to construct a final ‘exhibition’ together, all make you aware that the paper has at least some margins (pardon the pun), if not contains some faint lines. These lines do not form a complete painting by numbers picture. Yet, they do begin to suggest how the painting might take form.

As I look at this paper, what do I see? The fact that those faint lines suggest something to work with obviously connects with something in my history. If you like, I look at them through lenses that have been shaped by my experiences, my traditions, and the way I think. I guess before beginning this work, it is important to name the lenses that I’m looking at the paper through.

Instantly when I contemplate my experiences it is the profound moments that spring to mind. Sitting in a favela in Brazil, hanging out with a gang in Thamesmead (South London), living in East End Park for the best part of 10 years. All these experiences have taught me that faith makes most sense to me when it’s sought out near those who know what it means to struggle.

There are also the lenses of tradition that I bring. Growing up in the Salvation Army taught me that there was a connection between social action and faith; that good news needed to be shared; that behaviour really mattered; that following a ‘method’ might enable me to approach life with authenticity and a consistency. Engagement in the charismatic movement revealed to me that God was not remote, but that the spirit continued to be at work within the world. Living in a small Christian community helped me understand the need for a daily pattern of prayer; that reading the bible as an imagination factory might enable a re-imagining of what the life of faith might look like. Journeying alongside those who still have faith but have left organised religion has alerted me to be suspicious of power structures that control and condition people to accept the status quo.

Opportunities to study theology academically have arguably taught me to think a more clearly even if that is just to realise how little I know. It has trained me to realise that faith is not entirely contained in the statements that we make but is also contained in the spaces between those words and the grammar (how I sometimes wish I’d listened more to my English teachers at school). It has provided me with conversation partners who articulate some of the thoughts and instincts that help me see the world and enabled me to explore some of my own categories that I bring to this blank page.

There are also those lenses that I’m more scared about owning up to that I see the bursary through. If my fear that I am insignificant is left undealt with, I will be driven by a desire to create something that is profound. My imposter syndrome fuels an anxiety that I lack authenticity and credibility as a theologian. The paradox of recognising my privilege as a white, middle-class, heterosexual male shouldn’t entitle me to speak whilst at the same time I believe that what I say should be heard. These feelings form some of the lens that I view this blank piece of paper through.

The more I seek to create categories for these lenses, the more the categories bleed into one another. I’ve worn glasses since I was 5 years old, so I’m used to looking through lenses. Last year I was prescribed varifocal lenses for the first time. A varifocal lens combines a variety of prescriptions for different aspects of seeing that are layered on one another to help with all facets of your vision (reading, horizon scanning etc). To get used to them you must train yourself to look through a specific part of the lens so that the object you are viewing comes into focus.

I wonder if the lenses through which I view a blank sheet of paper operate in a similar way to the varifocal lens. Each individual aspect may be more helpful for a certain part of the picture but together they help you see the whole. Like all analogies, this one too may break down if pushed too far. In fact, I might even suggest that this is also true if it’s used for the wider task of writing or speaking theologically. You see once an optical lens is made; it is made finally. It’s not that you can change its prescription. It doesn’t change in tandem with a failing eyesight. Rather, when the prescription changes you simply must buy new lenses.

I anticipate that the dynamics of the bursary programme will mean that the prescription of the lenses I need will not be fixed for long and will need to be regularly changed. By attending to the enterprise of theology whilst engaging with people who know what it means to minister in the margins, I will see new things. Through working with an artist, particularly one from another faith tradition who has different experiences and ways of thinking to myself, my eyesight will be tested. Even the discipline of blogging monthly will hopefully enable me to articulate what I see in new ways. This in turn will mean that the lenses become two-way. Through them I see more clearly how God is at work in the world and, at the same time, the divine changes my ability to ‘see’.

As I approach this bursary’s blank sheet of paper, I can embrace it as a gift that will enable fresh perspective to emerge. By working with the faint lines that are already there, my hope is to begin to see more clearly how friendship both nurtures and embodies good news in some marginalised communities within Leeds. I hope that my journey through this may enable you to see more clearly faith and our city as well.