One of the most instructive moments for me at this year’s Catalyst Festival was when, during our live music afternoon, we segued from Prestwood based folk band, The Wick Trimmers, to Birmingham rapper, Mantis. In many ways the two sets couldn’t have been more different: from Tin Whistle refrains to grubby Wu Tang beats, from jaunty acoustic guitar to a direct and confrontational verbal assault. But if you listened carefully, it was hard to miss the fact that the two acts, while sonically poles apart, were almost identical in their goals and intention. They were both artists drawing on deep musical traditions to engage with their local audience- one speaking into a rural village setting, the other into the inner cities.
As a city dweller for two decades, I often allow my environment to dictate my view of what art is engaging and relevant, but as I watched ‘The Wick Trimmers’ perform, I realised again that to do so is a serious mistake. To that end then, I decided to catch up with The Wick Trimmers’ Colin to pick his brains about what he’s up to in Prestwood and learn from how he, and his church, connects with his community through the arts.
Hi Colin, can you introduce yourself…
I live in Prestwood, Bucks and planted a church 20 years ago after a fascinating three years at London Bible College. Before that I spent many years as a clinical chemist running a pathology lab in the NHS, whilst helping to lead a Baptist church. In terms of artistic influences I suppose my little old violin teacher at age 6 – Miss Dowding, and an history teacher who submitted my first (atrocious) song to some competition, and a protein specialist from The Westminster Hospital who taught science as an art. Oh and Mendelssohn, and The Barley Mow folk club on Burton, and The Beatles.
I really enjoyed your performance at the Catalyst Festival- you and Philippa did a great job. I know that you both normally play with a larger band, The Wick Trimmers- could you tell us about the band and how they came about?
We are now a six piece folk band. Gerard plays accordions, banjo, mandolin, harmonica, his wife Pauline plays the bodhran, Ken on fiddle, Philippa plays flute, whistle and fife, I play guitar and mandolin and John plays bass. The band originates from the Lighthouse Christian Children’s holiday club which began in 1988 and we played as a Barn Dance band for many years. When the King’s Church Prestwood was planted the majority of the band were part of the plant and were the basis for the worship team for the church. That was 1996, and my ministry in worship, song writing and role in outreach led to the band growing in the local area and developing a good reputation for dances and entertainment. As a church we developed song writing in worship, in other musical genres and developed younger musicians too. It was probably after playing as a support for Wendy Craig on one occasion that we began to develop a concert repertoire, writing songs and dance music in the folk tradition.
How have you continued to use your musical skills to serve your local community?
Well, again, it’s not monochromatic, there was the creative process, of writing, arranging, rehearsing, learning as well as the invitations to go and enable communities to celebrate in music and dance. Realising that dancing together is a counter-cultural statement – yet with profound theological and spiritual meaning is quite a revelation to many folk – God’s intrinsic being dances together in a multicoloured dynamic of rhythm, melody and perfect harmony. Then, we realized that whilst we were helping build community and church in other places – we were not finding it easy to make relationships and start conversations within the community where God had placed us. So we set up a monthly folk club in our own village in 2011, with The Wick Trimmers as the resident band. We have a faithful following of around 80-100 meeting either in the local pub, or the local micro-brewery, and encourage other local musicians too and play and sing about places and happenings in our locality. One great thing is that around 10-15 of my neighbours come along regularly.
In what other ways does your church seek to serve Prestwood through the arts?
In terms of the arts we found that some of us were playing regularly in elderly care homes and for residents with acute dementia – playing songs, hymns and storytelling God’s word. We developed a community choir with village people singing worship and positive songs, now the choir includes members from 5 local churches and others with no church connections. One particular work, a song cycle, written here is a celebration of what scripture says about heaven – the choir will be performing the premiere of this, called ‘A day is coming’ in one of the local Anglican churches in October.
Another part of our serving the community is to transform culture – to change the direction of people’s thinking. Anyone who’s read the Bible knows that isn’t a quick fix, and when we were challenged by God that people in the area didn’t know what was going on around them we got involved in the setting up of a social enterprise newspaper, The Source. We only print good news (gospel!) about people. Art, education, clubs, charities, etc. 5 editions a year, 6000 copies free to every home – and we set the values, do the editing, get local people to write, proof read, photograph, and celebrate the good stuff that’s around. We have a team of around 100 – probably half with no church connections and the people of the area love the paper and read it cover to cover.
Audience and context are vitally important in art, and you are clearly making art specifically into a smaller rural environment. What do you think are the specific challenges and opportunities that Christian artists face in a village that may be different from those encountered in a town or city?
The population of villages is much more static and stable than in urban or city settings, and there is a huge gap in the age profile. Young people cannot afford to continue to live in the rural setting once they leave home. This has a massive effect on the amount of energy that is available to the arts. This has the tendency to make art drift into entertainment, pleasing aesthetics and hobby rather than developing challenge, cutting edge and beauty in depth. What’s more, the stability of the population tends towards a suspicion of the new, a rejection of anything unless it’s exceptional and a tendency to intellectualise art – not helpful. Add to this the lack of resources for art, the lack of stimulating iron sharpens iron communitas (see Alan Hirsch) and the lack of venues that are appropriate or big enough…. ‘nough said.
There are very few Christian artists in Catalyst churches at the heart of their local arts scenes, but you guys seem to be among them. What advice would you give other Christian artists seeking to serve their communities in villages, towns or cities?
First of all keep talking to all the people in the church, and particularly the leaders… keep talking… ask questions… encourage them… meet with them, eat with them. They may not understand you, but you and your art can be immensely valuable in building the Kingdom of God. You may not understand the church and its worship and its ways, but by being gracious and keeping on offering your creativity in worship, a generation of love and grace will emerge. Second, stay close to God and filled with the Spirit, listen to the prophets for inspiration (not instruction) – and look around for the ‘man of peace’… ok what do I mean – there are people who create structures that bless people, individuals who simply gather others and promote harmony in a community. Get alongside them as friends, and look for the least likely audience – God loves to surprise even us!