Bishop of Chichester warns it would be tragic "not to learn from the pandemic"

The Bishop of Chichester has spoken of all that he hopes we might learn from the pandemic we are emerging from.

the Right Rev Dr Martin Warner, Bishop of Chichester
the Right Rev Dr Martin Warner, Bishop of Chichester

He is convinced that the arts will be key to the process as we absorb an extraordinary period, one – he is quick to stress – which isn’t over yet.

And that’s why Chichester Cathedral, the mother church to the Diocese of Chichester, is at the heart of the #SussexTogether Festival of the Arts, a major new festival which will bring together East and West Sussex to capture the spirit of togetherness which has seen us through the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

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The festival is a collaboration between Chichester Cathedral and all the newspapers which come under the title Sussex Newspapers – all your favourite local trusted newspapers and websites including the Chichester Observer Series, the Worthing Herald Series, the West Sussex County Times, the West Sussex Gazette, Crawley Observer, Littlehampton Gazette, Mid Sussex Times, Eastbourne Herald, Sussex Express, Hastings Observer Series and Brighton and Hove Independent.

The festival will be a powerful celebration of our strength in adversity and will also look forward with optimism – testimony to the talent, strength, endurance and hopes of the people of Sussex in a difficult year.

It will offer an exhibition of art, sculpture and photography alongside evenings of poetry, music and possibly theatrical performance – all in celebration of the way our communities negotiated and survived the darkest days of March, April and May and the way we moved into the renewed optimism of the summer with significant areas of lockdown starting to ease.

As the Right Rev Dr Martin Warner, Bishop of Chichester, says: “One of the things about the arts that makes them so important is the social cohesion.

“The arts offer ways for us to be together and ways to find things that unite us, whether it is the experience of music or the atmosphere of drama and dance or in the appreciation of beauty in paintings and buildings.

“After lockdown we have been so isolated from each other.

“Through the arts we can find areas where we can come together safely to find common experience and to find things with a common language… to find things which sometimes words cannot express.

“For us as Christians the use of the arts has been integral to our practice, to our Christian form of worship. Music and drama and the visual arts impact in terms of our buildings and stained glass windows and textiles.

“It all comes into worship where it speaks to us about a sense of dimension which cannot be quantified, which defines what gives life meaning, the journey, the questions of grief and death and the life-giving virtue of hope.

“All of these things emerge as narratives as part of the story that the churches and faith try to tell.

The hope is that through art we might perhaps start to understand the experience that we have all been through – “even if only to understand our own emotions, what it means for us and how others feel.

“And that’s why the arts are so important.

“They act as a symbol to articulate our feelings, and that’s why they are so important to the Christian faith. If you have got a faith, when you are sad, music can help give expression to your sadness in ways that perhaps words and analysis just cannot do.

“One of the most important human things is that we are all very different, and celebrating the differences in the human condition is very important.

“Some of us experience our lives quite rationally; others emote much more readily. But there is also that diversity in the arts.

“There is no one size fits all for the human condition, but the variety of the arts can meet every person’s need.”

Whether we will emerge unchanged from the crisis is probably too soon to say, but Bishop Martin hopes not, that we won’t simply go back to the way we were.

“Habits will assert themselves and that is a good thing. We are creatures of habit.

“But I think it would be tragic if we didn’t learn some lessons from this pandemic, if we didn’t emerge with a stronger sense of what really matters to us.

“We can live without shopping. We need food and drink and we need clothing, but it is the relationships in life, the quality of the time that we spend together… those are the things that enrich us. It is not about the possessions that we have. And I hope we can come back to that realisation.

“We are seeing this in terms of the economy rather alarmingly, that so much of our life is about consumerism. It’s the retail and the market place, and that is important, certainly in terms of the basic things in life.

“But talk to the grandparents separated from their grandchildren; talk to the grandchildren separated from their grandparents; talk to the parents who have had newborn children that they haven’t been able to share with their wider families; and talk to the children that have missed friends.

“I think one of the things that we can take away from this pandemic is that it has shown us that we can do an enormous amount on social media.

“But none of that can replace the human connection, that moment of looking into someone’s face when they are smiling.

“You just cannot get that out of a Zoom meeting.

“And if there is one other thing that I would like to think we might learn out of this and that’s an urgent respect for the environment and to reorganise how we treat our environment.

“We have seen how dramatically fast pollution levels have dropped when we stopped driving cars and we have had the joy again of hearing birdsong just around our domestic context.

“And it is also about recognising on the basis of scientific inquiry how the spread of the virus does throw up certain patterns of behaviour.

“I saw a very interesting review of a book about the collapse of the Roman Empire, this extraordinary transformation of the city of Rome from a city of one million people to a city of 20,000 people.

“It was a pandemic that did it, a pandemic that happened through misuse and misunderstanding of the environment – and I definitely see that as a parallel.

“We have our own lessons to learn as the church, and one of the things that I try to avoid is simply saying negative statements about you must not do this, you must do that – and trying to avoid making dreary statements about doom and gloom for the future.

“But alongside that I think we have to invite people to observe and learn for themselves and ask people what they are going to take from this. We (as the church) need to contribute to the debate in the public square and ensure that people are asking the questions. I think the church has got some wisdom to contribute, but certainly to contribute to the debate and to get people to ask these questions is the part of the church’s role.”

As for Bishop Martin’s own experience of lockdown, he has felt a sense of continuity – and humility.

“I am immensely privileged that in my house there is the chapel for the Bishops of Chichester that goes right back down the centuries. I have been able to continue praying and worshipping alone in a chapel where Bishops of Chichester have prayed and worshipped for hundreds of years.

“St Richard of Chichester prayed in that chapel. He offered prayers long into the night.

“I was very aware that I was in there praying where St Richard prayed. I was very aware that as the plague and Black Death spread through England, the Bishops of Chichester were praying in there.

“And during the great threat of the Armada, of Napoleon, of Hitler, the Bishops of Chichester prayed in that chapel. It has been a wonderful sense of continuity.”

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The idea behind the #SussexTogether Festival of the Arts is to encourage people across Sussex to get creative during the lockdown and the subsequent easing – painting, sculpting, photographing, writing prose, poetry and drama and composing – around the theme of #sussextogether however people wish to interpret it.

People can exhibit online during the lockdown and its aftermath, posting their creations on social media using the hashtag #sussextogetherfest or tagging @sussextogether on Twitter and Instagram.

If social distancing permits, the most inspiring artistic contributions will be showcased in a two-week festival in Chichester Cathedral in the first two weeks of November. It is hoped that talks will also features as part of the festival.

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