by lefever on June 29, 2011
Rector of St. john’s Memphis
Father John Sewell
This first interview conducted for the Foundation for the Biblical Arts is a reconstructed conversation between FBA President and founder, Jeff LeFever and Father John W. Sewell, Rector of Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Jeff was in Memphis photographing the consecrated when he was introduced to Father John. They talked for well over an hour on the ideas of the aesthetic and life, life and the church, soul cure, and gift economy.
In Jeff’s words, “Father John and I made a connection quickly. Thoroughly enjoying our conversation, I was a bit saddened that I could not share this with others. So I asked if he would be willing to write something for the FBA. Then the idea for an interview came since few people these days have the time to write (for free contribution). Father John is engaging, knowledgeable about art and worship, theology, and the caring for people in community. With Father John, I sensed the present, future, and past, all in one alluring possibility that suggests forward movement and revelation. The kind of experience one senses in the presence of Holy Love. It is the kind of experience that I as an artist feel in the moment of creation.”
With that said, our first FBA interview with Father John Sewell, revisiting his conversation with Jeff that day in Memphis.
Jeff: Father John, you have expressed a deep interest in aesthetics, especially liturgical art and church aesthetics. Is art essential in a church setting?
Father John (F.J.): I am blessed to worship in a space filled with the most amazing murals painted by John DeRosen in the early 1950’s. The high level of these paintings constantly challenges me and my colleagues to do our very best work. All the arts come together in the liturgy. For example, the flower guild with great creative skill arrange flowers so that their beauty draws the eye to the cross they surround. Like a picture frame our creative contributions enhance but must not obscure the central sign, the cross.
The great news of God in Christ is the painting and all our work, vestments, music, reading & chanting, all in a great dance celebrate creation and for Christians the great news of the resurrection. It is all done as a great choreography of grace
Jeff: What is essential about Beauty? How is Beauty important in relation to Truth and Goodness?
F.J.: The beautiful strikes our senses as true and authentic. I believe that creation did not end in the past but continues. As stewards we are called to conserve and protect creation. Not all are painters or composers but a life well lived with integrity is perhaps the greatest art form.
Jeff: And for you personally, Father. John, you have fine tastes, how were those developed in you and what does it mean to cultivate one’s senses so acutely? Why bother? What good does a developed aesthetic bring to anyone?
F.J.: Thank you. I am very visual which is ironic in that I have a degree in music. I am very curious and from childhood noticed details. The saying not to sweat the small stuff is true in some parts of life but not here. Beauty is details arrayed in subtle patterns. The whole is the sum of details.
Why do this? Just for fun is my first thought. Noticing and appreciating enriches life. Such acuity can tell many things even to the point of learning the subtle sensations of our body so when there is a change we recognize it. Paying attention may save our life.
People constantly communicate with very subtle signals that we recognize if sometimes unconsciously. What is kindness but a gentle response to the signals from another. So for me “noticing” is a much greater enterprise.
Jeff: You mentioned to me in our time in Memphis, that “all church is theater” – I like that phrase. Can you expound upon that and maybe include why this is necessary?
F.J.: Good Liturgy and good theater come from the same place in that they speak to the deepest concerns of the human heart and do so honestly. Akin to Opera, all the arts are present expressing the message of the heart, the Great News of God in Christ. I think it was Kierkegaard who said that those vested at the front are not performers to the passive congregation, no, in fact all those present, the congregation plus those vested, are the performers and God is the audience. Worship is the great dance of grace and each person has a crucial part that no one can perform for them. Each absence diminishes the dance for each has a unique gift to give the whole.
Jeff: I started my quest of documenting the consecrated originally motivated by the question of “why aren’t churches open all the time?” I began to think this notion was a romantic idea of my own creation, maybe something from an old B&W Jimmy Stewart movie… John, when we first met and talked, you told me of your church in Alabama…
F.J.: Just out of seminary I served a small parish in Albertville Alabama. Christ Church was antebellum, simple and quite beautiful. In the early 1980’s the church was never locked. That is amazing in itself but it was never disturbed. Many people would tell me of going to the Church in the middle of the night to pray. Also the police were attentive knowing that the church was unlocked. Of course now the insurance company would cancel coverage in a second, but like Camelot there was that brief shining moment when an unlocked church served the souls of many people in that town.
Jeff: A time when a church was available for community need around the clock. I am glad I am not imagining that. I am sure that was a blessing to the community for those in particular who made use. Sometimes, just knowing something is available is enough.
Father John, You mentioned one of the factors to churches being closed was insurance. Can you tell me about those restrictions?
F.J.: There have been at least a half-dozen break-ins at Saint John’s in the past couple of years. There was a time that even thieves respected the sanctity of a house of worship. Not so anymore. The church is not longer at the center of society but now on the side-lines (even though churches occupy prime real-estate in every city center). It would never even register that an open building would be respected and I am afraid that the insurance companies are largely correct when they demand that we keep the property secured.
Jeff: Yes, I have noticed bullet and rock proofing of the historic decorated windows of churches around Memphis. It is a sad commentary.
I have been hearing some interesting solutions to making a church available to those seeking entry to pray, reflect, find shelter from their own storms… seek solace. Here are a few that some churches have implemented. A gate that can be locked inside that separates the main Nave from the entrance, providing prayer nooks, and allowing the art of the sanctuary to still be reflected on with a view of the Tabernacle or Altar.
Another solution is the handing out of keys, or key codes to worshipers in the body of the church to a side prayer chapel…. And in some cases there are some architects now considering side chapels that can be left open full time for the sole purpose of prayer. At some churches, (Episcopal and Catholic with Rectories) a priest will open the door if someone rings the bell after hours… or in the case of during the day, a church employee will buzz open the locked door (but this does not extend to evening hours.
F.J.: Many years ago I attended a great historic parish church while in graduate school. There, a chapel separated from the nave by a wrought iron grill, was open during the week while the main church was locked. People did come to pray but quite often the pawn broker down the street would phone the parish office telling them that he had the cross and candle sticks again. Someone would steal them and the pawnbroker illegally “fenced” the stolen property in order to preserve it. Such a place of prayer would have to be very empty without objects that could be easily taken. In point of fact a bare, simple place is a great place to pray without distraction, sometimes circumstances motivates creativity.
Jeff: I have entered and felt called to prayer in some very austere but creatively beautiful places –some were once glorious traditional churches and now sit short of being dilapidated shells. Usually these places exhibit the remains of paint or mosaic murals that establish the theological narrative and not necessarily liturgical furnishings. This idea of how to create a space that can serve and not tempt people to steal is a wonderful challenge to new church designers if it would be but a consideration once again that a church might serve like your small parish in Albertville Alabama. There are possibilities.
Father John, I think about what could be different in society today (and our culture) if churches were socially central in their communities – I mean, replacing the local movie theater/shopping mall/food court as a socialization model (which I understand is more convenient toward maintaining and perpetuating a commodity driven market) – and if such a church model offered creative programs fostering the high arts, those arts that discover and expand humanity, critical thinking, cultural analysis (active not passive as much of today’s entertainment is passive). I am wondering … could a church (a body of people) centered by a building localized in a community be a centering anchor and serve as a productive stimulus in our society, building less on training material consumption, and instead fostering spiritual gifts and deeper humanity… what are your thoughts on this? How could something like this be made to work?
F.J.: In order to serve such a function and occupy regard in the minds of the society we shall have to reinvent ourselves. By this I mean that we will have to give up a “business model” for our communities. I am not the CEO (although I am called that by some). The leaders of Saint John’s are committed to utilizing technology to enhance our work but not talking the place of our work.
We can no longer sit on our several corners assuming people will come and get us if they need us. Nor will those without some notion of faith likely enter our churches at 11:00am on Sunday when they are sleeping in on the only day they have for rest. To simply put out an ad in newspaper will not attract many. Those who do enter do not know the “jargon” that used to be the common language of society. In the not to distant past a lawyer couldn’t practice in the South without a good command of the Bible as it was the common reference work for the culture. Now I can no longer assume that when someone comes to services that they know the basic stories. They may not know who Moses, Peter & Paul are. I need to define my terms as I go. We are in a new transitional era. I have studied the work of Christians in late antiquity as evangelism spread over Europe. In many ways we face the prospect of re-introducing people to the scriptures, practices and faith of Christianity. Doing this is slow and incremental.
This work is done person to person not machine to machine. Soul work has always been done one at a time, not very efficient as a business plan but spot on for relationships. As a small example: Saint John’s has a Parish Life Center (gymnasium, work-out rooms and places for meeting). It is beautiful, clean and FREE to the neighborhoods around the church. The fact that there are no fees has given us more good will and receptive contacts than any amount of money spent on advertizing could achieve. Once we have receptive contact we still must be a friend as we seek to serve the greater community.
Christian leaders must be entrepreneurial and counter-cultural in that we offer ways of relating that does not stress people even more so that faith becomes one more thing to schedule like adding an app to a phone. I believe that long conversations face to face getting past the surface provides for the meeting of souls that we long to find.
To get past a market driven business model requires that we be willing to abandon the way of thinking that caused the problem in the first place and then practice the ancient spiritual arts. I think that is our call as Church leaders.
Jeff: A Catholic friend of mine told me once that he (a priest) was a servant to the congregation, not necessarily the “leader”. His job was to minister to the need: to serve the body.
“Soul Care” has become a popular idiom that in some ways has become trite, and in others obscure in open ended meaning. Soul Formation has also been popularized. . You mentioned to me” Soul Curing” –that it is your primary job as a priest to cure souls, though now as a Rector your job is also to oversee institutional maintenance. Tell me a bit about this . . . your work and your job.
F.J.: I have learned in the last 29 years is that God requires one soul from each of us. It is that simple. When I was installed as the rector of Saint John’s, I was given the responsibility for the Cure. This means that my work is the cure of souls. My job at Saint John’s is the maintenance of the institution and I take this seriously, intending the buildings and the campus be as maintained and conserved to a high standard when I hand the parish back to the Bishop after my stewardship is done, this is my job
However, my work is the cures of souls, helping people prepare their souls to meet God. What a solemn and holy task this is but not somber. It is a joy to sit with someone and talk about our lives and what God might be saying to us. I view myself as a player coach, in that I am playing the game out of my own soul as I struggle to allow God to do what needs doing in me plus at the same time coaching others in their soul work.
The Rev. John W. Sewell
Rector of Saint John’s Episcopal Church
The Rev. John W. Sewell was called to become the rector of Saint John’s after serving as interim rector for one year. Father Sewell previously served as rector of The Chapel of the Cross in Madison, Mississippi, as Associate Rector at St. Luke’s in Birmingham, Alabama, and as rector at Christ Church in Birmingham. He was ordained into the diocese of Alabama in 1981. Father Sewell was raised Southern Baptist and later attended the Methodist Church.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in music and voice from the University of North Alabama in Florence, Father Sewell was awarded a Masters of Divinity from The Asbury School of Theology in Wilmore, KY. He also studied at Seabury-Western Episcopal Seminary (affiliated with Northwestern University in Evanston, IL).
Links to Father John:
My Hope for Minister:
Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee http://www.stjohnsmemphis.org/
The Murals of John H. DeRosen http://www.stjohnsmemphis.org/685088
by lefever on May 9, 2011
St. Michael’s in Olomouc, Czech Republic, is an ornate marble church in the Baroque style, very richly done. The marble is dark salmon and fleshy, the church is lavishly painted and the ceiling exquisite – overhead, the theology.
There is a side chapel flanking a square courtyard, the kind you would see in a monastery: walking halls that circumnavigate an open square inner garden.
Inside the halls are beautiful paintings serving as Stations of the Cross.
It is quiet and I am walking around alone, unattended. Only a nun is present in prayer, and she sits up front of the nave facing the alter.
I am in the hall looking at a painting of Christ being offered drink; He drips blood from his scourging. There is a door behind me on the opposite wall of the walkway.
My curiosity pulls me toward it.
I check it to see if it is locked–it is not.
Looing to my left and to my right… I pause… then open the door and swiftly slip through the door to a landing atop descending stairs.
I cautiously descend into darkness, into a small cave-like room. No, it is a cave. Lights are on but it is dim.
It is not big and I am crouching at the one end where there appears to be a pool.
Yes, it is a pool with a stone cross. An arched opening to my left reveals a couple chairs, a small statue of Mary, a framed poster print of the risen Christ with sacred heart radiating the light of truth and the light of His love to us all.
It is a small space, thrifty and effective. For me, being underground in tight space alarms my sensitivities.
I have seen many a Baptismal pool, but this one acts symbolically (and effectively) in a way the others do not.
I realize I am in the belly of the earth. I am claustrophobic and even my interest in documenting this unique place digitally can not quiet my heart from pounding or my breath from quickening.
To be baptized here is to surely encounter one’s symbolic death. I am actually getting the creeps.
Descending into darkness, one’s focus is sharpened to the commitment at hand. This is a very visceral pit, not unlike a grave chamber.
What is most interesting to me is the ascent from below into the light above.
When one dies to their old life in this pit, they ascend to the light of day – one arises from a life not fully realized or fulfilled, a life in darkness, dimly lit artificially, to their new life in the True Light.
As the newly baptized ascends the steps the first images one encounters at the top of the steps are of Jesus in the paintings walking toward His crucifixion.
And when they step into the awaiting church, the hosts of Heaven celebrate. The newborn to the Faith stands inside a space decorated with meaning that now comes alive with the splendor of heaven.
I get the sense that religion is taken very seriously here.
St. Michael’s, Olomouc, Czech Republic
by lefever on March 14, 2011
Portals are something to consider, especially when we consider the Consecrated Space.
How simple a change and powerful a door can be in changing perception to what one is entering. My little church, plain as it is, one evening put up black curtains in place of the usual plain doors through which one would enter a candle-lit space. The black curtains added a mystery and suggested something different was now taking place: one’s countenance changed upon entering. Where noisy friendly chatter would usually transpire, now sat anticipation and reverent silence. A Byzantine cross was projected on the front wall where a cross made of sticks normally hangs. A Byzantine crucifix in candle lit space viewed upon passing the threshold of a black curtain. It cost nothing to do (relatively).
I had lunch with a friend and he said this (paraphrased in my notes): “Entrance – doorway – is a threshold; like dawn and dusk are thresholds in between night and day – the places of mystery (and enchantment) – the door is threshold from the world into the sanctuary (people cross them selves as they enter in the Russian Orthodox church) – the threshold is where God meets us. A place where you can meet God – what can happen at that space going to meet God – preparing to meet God. (a metaphor of the Kairos – between heaven and Earth). Consider Moses at the doorway to the Tabernacle and the tent doorways around the tabernacle where the Jews would kneel – meeting God’s Mystery. “
Often the most elaborate constructions of the older cathedrals and even some churches were the entrance portals. Not only did they establish the threshold and a new consciousness of place, but also they served as reminders to various theological ideas.
One of my favorite is Notre Dame de Amien where at the center of the double door central portal in the trumeau is a sculpture of the resurrected Christ called Le Beau Dieu (the “Beautiful [or ‘handsome’] God”) reminding us in all the theological narrative how Beautiful God is in all things from grace, to judgment, love, forgiveness and sacrifice; to relational living incarnationally, immanently, and eminently.
Often over the doors would be bas relief tympanums of Ascensions, or my favorites best depicted in Romanesque Style churches: Last Judgment scenes with Yeshua Judge on heavenly thrown, the dead rise from graves awakened by Gabriel’s horn, and souls are weighed, the damned are cast and chomped by the jaws of Hell, etc – these tympanums where Heaven and Earth are joined at the end of time, set a mood over the door as one enters a construction metaphor of the “holy Jerusalem”. A visual whisper to consider what else lies ahead as one enters from the world into this place set aside to contemplate the divine and His story–our story.
And mot to mention the idea of identity. The portal speaks to the street, saying, “in here is something different than out there.” In some cases such places, fewer these days I am afraid, serve as refuge: places people go seeking help, seeking rest from a world too harsh, too chaotic.
Portals – something to consider.
by lefever on November 12, 2010
By Jeff LeFever
What would it look like?
In my travels I have been observing the spaces in which people come to worship God. I have noticed that there are two basic types in which these spaces can be identified:
Consecrated / Integrative
Both are good and fine, and work for their measure.
A Consecrated space is set aside – differentiated from the world – made up in symbol and meaning to reflect the Holy – so when one is inside, they have left the noise and persuasion of the “world” to a place of rest, reflection, consideration and reverence, and prayer. One knows they are in a place set aside for this because its very existence promotes and offers this as a reminder and a service for healing and restoration. The art and beauty communicate the theology as well as the spirit of Faith.
A place like this should always be open to all, as is God’s offering of salvation.
Integration is an action rather than a place – so the place is inconsequential. It (integrative church is more a type) is the meeting of the church and …