Sunday 10th June 2012, Right Reverend Lord Harries of Pentregarth, Former Bishop of Oxford
It is a great pleasure to preach at this wonderful
exhibition of John Piper and the Church. Not least it is good
to be able to pay tribute to a man who was not only such a
distinguished artist but who served on the Oxford DAC
faithfully for 37 years.
The success of John Piper as an artist, and in particular as an artist for the Church, was the result of bringing together two fundamental elements in his artistic vision to form a genuinely fresh, creative fusion. The first element in this was his love of the local and the particular.
Piper was born and brought up in Epsom and (like Graham Sutherland) went to Epsom College. He early wanted to be an artist, but his father wanted him to qualify first as a solicitor. He did his best to resist this but when his elder brother Charles, who was going into his father’s firm, was killed in the war, John felt he had no alternative but to conform. However, when his father died five years later, he felt released from this obligation and went to Richmond School of Art and then on to the Royal College. The key influences however, had already entered his psyche. One was, a love of places in all their particularity, and with this, a love of guidebooks about them. On his tenth birthday he was given a guide book to the county of Kent and his earliest drawings are copies of the vignettes in this guide. He cycled around the countryside with his father, developing an interest in both architecture and archaeology. At 16 he wrote his first article for the Architectural Journal and at 17 became the secretary of the Wiltshire Archaeological Society.
From a Christian point of view we cannot help seeing this love of the local and the particular against the background our belief in the incarnation. For Christianity is committed to what has been termed “the scandal of particularity”, the fact that the Eternal Son of God took form as a particular human being, at a particular time in a particular place. It is not surprising that this love of the specific has been a characteristic feature of many of our best poets and writers as well as painters. Indeed it is a mark of the genuine artist, whether painter or poet, to open our eyes to the singular beauty of a detail that our dull eyes tend to ignore and pass over in our daily routine
The second element in John Piper was his full immersion in the international modern movement of his time, and his period as an abstract artist. In the 1930’s he was a member of the exclusive “7 and 5” seven painters and five sculptors, whose criteria for admission was adherence to a strictly abstract style. This too, I believe, needs to be understood against a Christian background. In a recent lecture Roger Wagner said that when he was at the Royal Academy experimenting with 16th century painting techniques one of his tutors asked him whether he would not think it odd if a modern playwright wrote a play in Elizabethan English and wasn’t he doing something similar. This, said Roger is a serious and searching question, as was the question of the philosopher Bernard Williams to his then young doctoral student, Jonathan Sacks “Don’t you think there is an obligation to live within ones time?”
John Piper did live within his time. But this is not all that is involved. Roger Fry in the years 191-12 influenced people to see that art was not primarily about responding to nature but had to do with form, with the formal relationships of line and colour. This great discovery, which liberated a person like David Jones, meant that art could be understood not as being primarily about representation, but as valid it itself, for itself. For Piper this meant an exploration of form and colour for their own sake. So he became an enthusiast for the abstract movement and a leading member in Britain of it.
Nevertheless what happened from the mid 1930’s was that he began to feel that this particular seam was exhausted, or undernourished, to use his word. This turn away from the purely abstract was reflected in his paintings of mountains especially of Snowdonia, his discovery of people like Palmer and Cotman and his work with John Betjeman on churches. This move was not an isolated one. As Rebecca Harris brings out in her book Romantic Moderns, it was change that happened to a whole generation as they began to rediscover a native tradition and local style. It was not confined to the arts, but included garden design, cookery books and other activities. Nevertheless, as she says, John Piper’s was one of the most remarkable artistic trajectories in the 20th century. From this time onwards there came some of his best known paintings of churches and buildings of all kinds.
These are not representational in any straightforward sense. First of all they are imbued with a strong sense of archeology and history, and they convey a sense of continuing continuity in time. It is no accident that just earliet T.S.Eliot was saying that any worthwhile writer must write with a sense of the whole literary tradition of Europe in their bones.
So those paintings, whilst focusing on the local and the particular, take us wider into a brooding historical dimension. Nor is that all. It is no accident that this was also the period when John Piper became excited about Romanesque art. The point about Romanesque art is that it is not representational in any straightforward sense, but through its lines and angles, through its abstract stylistic qualities, it can indicate another dimension altogether. And this I think brings out the great strength of the international modernist movement from a religious point of view. It liberated the best religious artists from literalism, from antiquarianism, from trying to “march to an antique drum”, to use Eliot’s phrase, recently taken as a title for a lecture by Roger Wagner. I believe this helps the challenge faced by all Christian artists from the time of the first paintings in the catacombs onwards. How can you indicate the universal through the particular, the eternal through the finite, the divine through the human? The abstract can at least indicate to the viewer that something else is going on here, something more than can be seen by the physical eye alone.
So it was that for John Piper, the re-emergence of his early passion for the local and particular merged with his immersion in international modernism to bring about a creative fusion that found a very natural place in a sacred setting. Above all of course, it was in glass that he found a natural outlet. And the counties of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire are particularly fortunate in the number of Piper windows that they contain. His love of glass in fact began early, on a visit to France when he was 11. As he said, “I still remember a thrilling shock at the first sight of the stained glass.” Later in life he was to say that it was through copying a small 13th century piece of glass that he learned more about colour that he had learned before or since. Another early influence was William Blake, not least his saying “Shall painting be confined to the sordid drudgery of facsimile representation of merely mortal and perishing substances and not be, as poetry and music are, elevated to its own proper sphere of invention and visionary conception."
For John Piper, the visionary conception that was expressed in his glass was above all Divine Glory; the glory that comes through light and colour, and of course we think particularly of the great baptistery window in Coventry Cathedral. Most of his windows have a semi-representational element, which is probably what makes them particularly suitable for churches, committed as the Christian faith is to the belief that the word has become flesh, the invisible has made himself visible. But these are in no sense literalistic. They reflect the fact that the local and the particular has raised to a universal contemporaneity. They lift the spirit by their form and colour. They take us beyond the mundane, and touch us with the delight and joy of the Eternal.
As William Blake put it
To see a world in a grain of sand,
and a heaven in a wild flower.
John Piper helped to open our eyes to that wider vision, and for that we give thanks to the giver of all beauty, truth and goodness: God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Quoted in Frances Spalding, John Piper and Myfannwy Piper, OUP, 2009, p.14  Spalding, p.18
Buildings are important to usStanding here that seems like a bit of a non sentence. But it isn’t just buildings like this one.
Next year Berinsfield church will celebrate 50 years and by an odd chance so will the church of St James Galeshewe in which I spent part of my sabbatical.
I visited quite a lot of church buildings on sabbatical not least because one of the interests I was following up was the way church congregations use their buildings. Whether we like it of not our buildings say a great deal about the people who inhabit them – how often for example do you look at people’s books, photographs or music collections? Are interested if they have chosen a picture by the same artist? Or are altering their house in same way that you have in the past or are thinking about in the future?
My house often shouts of someone who has had a busy week, who never quite finishes one thing before the next needs to be started. My mum once brought me one of those funny notices for my kitchen – it said ‘a tidy house is a sign of a wasted life’ another visiting relative took huge exception to it – they would have preferred a sign that said ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’.
Almost all the churches in South Africa were designed and built by English or European architects and mostly commissioned and congregations ministered to by white missionaries. Many of those brought with them not only their styles of architecture but also those of decoration. One interesting feature of many of the churches were the devotional pictures, Jesus the Good Shepherd, stations of the cross – all of a Jesus who looked as if he had stepped straight out of the pages of my childhood bible story picture book. This bothered me … I would have like to have seen a black Jesus – or at the very least a Middle Eastern looking one – in a black church. When I spoke to Reggie about it he agreed – but he said the pictures had been a gift from England and the people who had founded the church – some of whom were still involved in it – were absolutely opposed to changing them! Some oft eh young people found them almost offensive.
So it was possible to worship in a church which was extraordinarily familiar even when you didn’t understand a word that was being said. And when the service was extraordinarily long and where it wasn’t at all strange to mix charismatic African choruses with the lord’s my shepherd and guide me o thou great redeemer. The pattern or shape of the liturgy was noticeably the same even when the execution and the context was greatly different.
But the church is not the building and the worship that goes
on inside it – the church is the building we make with our
hearts and lives – it is the people of God gathered in a
particular place and then sent out to build the Kingdom for
that place. That’s what St Peter is talking about when he
writes of living stones building a spiritual temple. There‘s
something really important in the language here – these living
stones are chosen and precious and they allow themselves to be
Contrast this with something that we much more often feel about our discipleship and our membership of a church…
That we have chosen, though worthless, to become part of a Christian community and it is therefore our responsibility is to make sure that it runs well, doesn’t fall down and has decent attendance at services.
This fairly common picture couldn’t be further from what Peter is saying –
That God chooses precious individuals to be the church,
That if we will only allow it, God will build us into the church that God wants
That we are to be focussed on Christ because without Jesus the whole edifice will crumble
That we are called to be priests – ministers serving others in the likeness of Christ.
I wonder what we would have to do to make that picture come truer here.
In the gospel we hear those all too familiar words in my
father’s house there are many dwelling places. If we take this
to be speaking of the future Kingdom – the one that is to come
it is comforting because it indicates that whoever we are
there will be room for us – and I believe congenial room. So
you will have heard me say – following great Christian writers
that the kingdom of heaven could be just like the very best
expression of what makes you feel most completely yourself –
but most importantly it is where united with Christ we finally
understand the creature that the creator intended us to be.
But our calling here is to build the Kingdom now – a present reality which may be a foretaste of the future. We are called to live the kingdom – to be committed to being built into one expression of God’s love for all humanity.
But how can we do this? I don’t really know what the kingdom is like? I have some words that are my favourites to express it – famous poets and theologians have found language better than mine to describe it. But like you I sometimes I have an inkling of what God may want for the world and this particular part of it – like the sound of a distant trumpet carried on the wind – or a haunting melody captured in a larger orchestral piece that almost, but doesn’t quite, drown it out; like the majesty of the wave that thunders on the sea shore or the light in a child’s eyes when they receive something that they never dared hope for.
And we sigh and think – or even say...
’Now if I could bottle that…’
And the truth is we can’t – well, not in our own strength or
even within our own understanding.
And that is where we are most likely to go wrong. For what we do is not in our own strength. Indeed it may not always be what we want. For if we are living stones, called to be here and to allow ourselves to be built into God’s temple – and if, living in Christ and following him as St John promises we area also part of God and part of God’s understanding of the world. Then we can begin to build the kingdom – and in particular God’s expression of the kingdom meant for this place now.
How might we do it – well, by listening carefully to one another and to God. By dismissing our assumptions about what is best, about what we know the other person really wants, about our certainty that a Godly church is a church made in my image.