Looking back at ColumbaFest 2018
In a small, rain lashed island in the North Atlantic an assembly of brave souls gathered by a marbled grey river.
This restless water has known agriculture, industry, leisure, romantic and spiritual quests, as it carries on relentlessly to the open, dangerous, beautiful ocean.
These pilgrims come together on the banks as generations have done for centuries. They are in search of prophets old and new, seeking new insights in old words and old truths in new words.
They are here to sing, to dance, to laugh, to cry, to pray, to tell stories. And eat pizza. Well some of them had pizza. Others nipped out for a kebab, or grabbed a curry.
For this is Glasgow, a place both at the periphery of and the centre of the known world – and this is ColumbaFest 2018 ‘Dreams and Visions’ – and you can’t dream or envision on any empty stomach, can you?
From the Wild Goose Resource Group & Iona Community’s weeWONDERBOX came the second ever ColumbaFest, an urban arts festival of ideas, faith, and culture.
The festival began in 2017 as a new venture inspired by the life and legacy of the mercurial St Columba – a medieval cleric credited with spreading Christianity to Scotland in the 6th century.
Columba is a fascinating and often contradictory figure, a man who both held himself apart from and engaged head-on with the social and political culture of his time.
He serves as a fitting starting point for a contemporary conversation about the creative intersection between faith, society and activism. Citizens, activists and saints today continue to wrestle with when to engage and when to withdraw, when to stand your ground and when to open up a dialogue.
This second instalment of ColumbaFest, ‘Dreams and Visions’, sought to highlight the role of ‘prophecy’, both in the life of Columba and in our lives today. The theme invited us to explore the nature of prophetic voices and search for examples in our society, our communities, our neighbourhoods. Academics, artists, writers, and musicians were invited to explore these ideas in a number of ways.
Throughout the programme, ColumbaFest 2018 wanted to triangulate the past, present and future.
Looking back on rich prophetic traditions stretching back to the Old Testament prophets, inviting us to consider our own lives in the present, and bringing both into conversation with our dreams for society in the future. A critical and engaged review of history can reacquaint us with the present and introduce us to future.
Ian Bradley, Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews and an author of over 40 books including ‘Following The Celtic Way’ led us in a radical reappraisal of the life of Saint Columba, challenging the conventional view of Celtic Christianity as something soft and gentle. He took us back through the mists of time… to 1979… and led us in an impromptu Abba singalong of ‘I Have A Dream’ …
Because that’s the magic of a festival. Emeritus Professors interrupt panel discussions to launch into kitsch pop classics. It was beautiful, it was mad, resistance was futile. “I believe in angels, something good in everyone …”
Cross-pollination, intentional and accidental is what makes a festival experience. Yes, you can read one of Bradley’s books but will he serenade you part way through? (Makes mental note to check audio book versions …).
More than the sum of its parts, a festival allows music, art and ideas to intermingle in memorable combinations. Everyone who comes to a festival, as a guest, a volunteer, or a contributor helps to shape it – especially an intimate, curated festival like ColumbaFest. You might carry a phrase from talk that you are mulling over into a concert, and then carry a verse out with you to a conversation over coffee and into a workshop …
This chemistry is an integral part of the experience and everyone who comes must chart a course among the available options – opening themselves to spontaneity, accident and surprise. The choices you make – what you attend, how you participate, who you speak to – all inform what you will get out of it. There is an opportunity to revel in contrasting content, style, and approach.
It’s stimulating to experience cutting edge contributors side by side, from the energetic, charismatic Craig Gardiner expounding like a clear ringing bell on Dietrich Bonehoffer, the Iona Community and New Monasticism to the gentle murmurs of the charming, softy spoken Pádraig Ó Tuama describing his ‘safari’ through the works of Emily Dickinson, “You can’t grasp everything, you’ll see some strange beasts, and you’ll want to make it out alive!”
Gardiner, who teaches theology and worship in Cardiff University and South Wales Baptist College, took us on whirlwind tour of theology, history, music and anthropology touching on concepts like polyphony, liminality and communitas – and invited us to design our own quirky vows ‘for’ the world rather than ‘from’ the world that embrace rather than renounce.
Ó Tuama, poet, theologian and leader of the Corrymeela Community, meanwhile devoted one session entirely to the peculiar and wonderful figure of Emily Dickinson – sharing extracts of her poetry and tantalising biographical details – like her ambivalent relationship with her own work, her startling approach to capitalisation and punctuation, and the attempts of later editors to ‘tidy up’ these ‘mistakes’.
In their contrasting approaches we got to appreciate both stepping back to see the big picture and leaning forward to focus on small details.
Gardiner’s heavenly choir helped us see patterns emerging historically, theologically and anthropologically while Ó Tuama’s chamber piece showed us the value of slowing down to look at a handful of words, to stop and take in the punctuation!
Prophets must be able to do both – to draw together constellations and pick out a single star.
While mulling these ideas over, the festival featured a host of talented musicians to enjoy from Donald W.G. Lindsay introducing us to his haunting self-made 3D printed small pipes to the irrepressible, effortless swing of The Hazels flying us to the moon.
Neil Sutcliffe earnestly (and hilariously) singing us the tale of what happened when his ‘dug ate Auntie Bella’, to a late night protest singalong by candlelight. John Bell and Graham Maule shared new material from Known Unknowns, a new, tenderly thought-provoking collection of songs that touch on topics that are often under-explored in church, inviting us to sing along with them.
Another highlight of the festival was the Saturday night gig featuring the singer songwriters David Heavenor, Andy Thornton and Margaret McLarty taking turns to perform their own material and some inspired covers.
The evening, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ compered by Phil White, invited the musicians to perform pieces that fitted different categories such as ‘a song that changed you’ or ‘a song about anger’, which led to an engaging mix and an insight into the creative process.
It was rewarding to experience the artists side by side, to see how they bounced off one another, including for a memorable ensemble encore of ‘Which Side Are You On?’
Throughout the gig they would offer backing vocals or extra rhythm while one another was playing.
There was one glorious moment when McLarty invited Thornton to improvise a ‘searing guitar solo’ at the end of the third verse of the song she was going play. She said that she had imagined one when writing the piece, inspired by Andy Nicholson’s book, The Seabird’s Cry. He obliged, complimenting the beautiful apocalyptic Atlantic waves with a soaring melodic line – created in the moment and never to be repeated. You had to be there.
Art was another important strand to the festival was with an interactive craft hub and an exploration of installation art in church environments with the artist Carol Marples and art criticism from Debbie Lewer, looking at art, faith and prophetic disobedience.
Marples, an artist and development worker for the Soul Marks Trust and a tutor at the Leith School of Art, not only discussed examples of installation art but treated us to a mini installation as part of her session.
The space was transformed by a series of beautiful paper boats made from maps, suspended around us and travelling along rivers of tissue paper and underneath more paper cascading from the ceiling. Generously she encouraged us to each take one of the little boats home with us, to continue its journey. She reminded us that we learn through our bodies, through all our senses, and that collaborating in participatory art can help us engage in familiar topics in new ways.
Lewer, a Senior Lecturer in the History of Art at the University of Glasgow, took us from austere renaissance engravings, to life affirming street art, to glossy advertisements, to sober and irreverent midcentury German art responding to the rise of Nazism, and a haunting contemporary piece, ‘Our Lady of Ferguson’, depicting a grieving African American mother – as she unpacked the role of art to protest in subversive and provocative ways.
The contrasting pacing and tone of these talks was a useful demonstration itself of the different ways we experience art and the search for meaning. Marple’s contemplative hospitality and Lewer’s densely packed, entertaining, energetic research invited us to consider in different ways how we are witnesses, collaborators, and co-conspirators with the art that comforts, inspires and challenges us.
In the Art Hub, one of the pieces left behind by a craft insurgent featured the phrase ‘Peace in a world on fire’, made of a strip of red acetate with wings of red, orange and yellow wool attached to slide frame – a kind of mixed media phoenix, suspended from the roof of the tent, moving in the summer breeze, catching the current and the imagination as guests drifted to and from workshops.
On the Sunday morning, the festival moved to Gorbals Church and featured two complimentary events – a Breakfast Papers session where the festival pilgrims were invited to wire into coffee and cinnamon buns and dig through the Sunday newspapers, followed by a Columba Liturgy – a service of worship, reflection and communion considering the life and legacy of St Columba.
In the first event, fortified by caffeine and sugar participants were encouraged to look outward – to examine current events and politics in the light of Gospel, to search for the prophetic voices today and to ask if the prophet’s role is undermined when the value of ‘truth’ itself has become so degraded. Party Politics, Brexit, knife crime, a vision of a future Scotland flowing with milk and Tunnock Teacakes – it was all up for discussion.
In the second event, the festival drew together, in the round of the Gorbals sanctuary, to share with one another and the local congregation, to reflect, to look within our hearts, to take the bread and wine and consider where we fit into the unfolding narrative of God’s creation.
At the end of the festival Alastair McIntosh, the accomplished writer and environmental campaigner, asked why we hear so much about the Ten Commandments and comparatively little about the beatitudes – Jesus’ blessings delivered at the Sermon on the Mount.
He led us on an exploration of ‘the ten beatitudes’ in the light of the tender folk spirituality of the Celtic world. Gently sailing us around an archipelago of Greek etymology, medieval history, and the clearances, McIntosh urged us to reclaim folk traditions and to continue to engage in the creative spiritual work of ‘bringing a new thing’, midwifing ideas as we keep up our work in the spiritual realm.
McIntosh was a great contributor and a wonderful foil to Ian Bradley. It was enjoyable watching them bounce off one another during a discussion panel – joking easily with one another. One earthy and measured, the other sharp and witty.
The panel, where they were joined by Debbie Lewer and Kelvin Holdsworth, was an engaging interactive session, affording guests the opportunity to contribute questions. Holdsworth speaking from personal experience and discussing the power of behaving ‘as if something is possible’ in order to instigate change was a powerful spur to action to take away from the festival as the pilgrims prepared to disperse. The panel was also the unexpected setting for Bradley’s Abba singalong …
One of the best things about ColumbaFest 2018 was the opportunities for creativity and encounter, between contributors, among guests and between contributors and guests.
Prophecy is a rich and strange topic, inviting us to consider a number of ambiguities that are hard to resolve, and often brings more questions than answers. When is prophecy authentic or inauthentic? How does one negotiate when to speak and when to listen? The twin impulses between provocation and subversion – when to agitate and when to be subtle – were artfully and ably explored throughout the festival. Fitting really, considering Columba himself was known as both ‘the fox’ and ‘the dove’ in his lifetime …
ColumbaFest 2018 brought pilgrims together by the marbled river to share stories and experiences, to connect with old friends and make new ones, and to explore what prophecy means in our world today. Prophets often come from the margins, challenging the status quo from a startling new perspective. But contemporary technology has upended our ideas of centrality, of what is mainstream and what is marginal. On the one hand we live in a global village, able to reach across the world in a fragment of a second, but we are also overwhelmed by the complexity of the problems facing it. To be a modern citizen in society today is to go through the vertigo inducing feeling of being at the centre and the periphery at the same time.
We are more informed than ever, but also more concerned with missing out than ever before. Existing social, political and economic structures are being disrupted – offering chances to innovate – but also encouraging the fear that humanitarian gains will be lost.
We are in fractious, tempestuous, creative and innovative times. And this rhymes unexpectedly with the life of a Medieval priest, who lived at a time when islands weren’t peripheral remote places, but important civic and culture hubs – situated as they were in the water – the easiest and fastest way to get around. In our 21st Century lives we are connected by a new sea that connects us – that just like the raging waters of the 6th Century – both give life and threaten it.
Today there are myriad new ways of hearing prophetic voices that can call us back to important truths … and countless ways to ignore them and drown them out. It is more important than ever to learn new ways of negotiating this sea, to learn from one another, to be receptive to the spark of creativity that might begin as a song, become a poem, blossom into prayer and end up painted on a protest banner …
Join us at ColumbaFest 2019 (7-9 June) as the pilgrims will gather once again on the banks of the Clyde, this time to explore the theme WANDERING + WONDERING. We’ll laugh, cry, sing, dance and learn, and yes … probably eat pizza.
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