We are thrilled to announce that DITA has entered into the second of a multi-year partnership with St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tennessee. This pioneering initiative grows out of and reflects DITA’s mission to be anchored and expressed in local congregations. As a church with an extraordinary commitment to the visual and musical arts, St. George’s is uniquely placed to benefit from the research and teaching in theology and the arts at DITA as well as to help future ministers put into practice this crucial area of the church’s worship and mission. The mutually-enriching collaboration between St. George’s and DITA is a unique opportunity to launch what we hope will become a much larger and nation-wide initiative.
In this interview, Duke Divinity student, Lisa Beyeler (LB) interviews Rev. Leigh Spruill (LS) about this unique partnership and their first summer with a DITA-affiliated Field Education student.
Lisa Beyeler: How have you seen the arts inform the life of St. George’s Episcopal Church? How do the arts speak to your own vocation as a rector?
Leigh Spruill: Fortunately, this congregation has not needed to be convinced of the importance of the arts. We have plenty of art lovers, and over the years this parish has accumulated an impressive fine arts collection. Our choral ministry of sacred music has a long-standing reputation for excellence. What is new here is a vigorous engagement with question around how the arts can be a means by which the truths of the Gospel are received and shared. We situate this conversation within our current cultural milieu. I think one could say the late-modern era is characterized by a kind of alienation from the experience of deep wonder over the created world as well as from the great reserve of our faith when it comes to the possibility of understanding greater truths that speak to the human experience.
The arts — that is, good art — help us not simply to see a world, but to behold it. In our day, I am not sure preaching, teaching, and apologetics will prove initially attractive to a lot of people unfamiliar with the faith, as vitally important as each of those ministries is. Rather, I believe that what people in our day yearn for are deeper truths conveyed in powerful and unexpected forms of beauty — beautiful people, made in the image of God, creating beautiful things. I give thanks that there are many here at St. George’s who are eager to test this notion.
The arts — that is, good art — help us not simply to see a world, but to behold it … I believe that what people in our day yearn for are deeper truths conveyed in powerful and unexpected forms of beauty — beautiful people, made in the image of God, creating beautiful things.
LB: Why were you drawn to DITA’s new church partnership program? What opportunities are you most excited about?
LS: Despite the plethora of gifted leaders knowledgable in the arts at St. George’s, we were thrilled and honored to enter into a relationship with DITA, whose guidance, support, and fresh perspectives have already been immensely helpful. I was familiar with the work of Dr. Jeremy Begbie, so the opportunity to partner with him at the level of our local congregation and to have him visit to teach and preach is tremendous for our congregation, as well as for me personally. I am particularly excited about the possibilities this partnership offers for the edification of our community, for discipleship, and for mission. First, we hope that the events, new ministries, and conversations arising from the partnership will bring us together as a parish family in ways that would not occur otherwise. Second, I want St. George’s to have a deeper engagement with the arts and its connection to discipleship; that is, forming people in the Gospel through artistic expressions and appreciation. That begins with simply helping people pay better attention. Learning to recognize goodness, truth, and beauty in the world — and to point others to them — are great acts of love. Thus, third, we are excited about how DITA is helping us think of the arts missionally. We are excited about new friends being drawn into our parish life through tangible expressions of this partnership — events, teachings, art shows, social gatherings — as well as creative ways in which some of our members are going forth to get to know and support those in the wider arts community here in Nashville.
LB: This summer, I had the privilege of working with the clergy and staff at St. George’s as the first DITA-affiliated Field Education student from Duke Divinity School in order to compile an Arts Assessment document. What is the Arts Assessment and how did it come about? How do you envision the Arts Assessment working to foster continued growth in St. George’s engagement with the arts?
LS: I have already mentioned the parish’s long-standing appreciation of the arts. However, we have never had a comprehensive strategic vision or clear programmatic oversight. We have had multifaceted but disconnected arts ministries. A significant component of this partnership with DITA is hosting a summer Field Education student connected to DITA. This past summer, we were blessed to have you join us in order to undertake an inventory of our various arts ministries. By entering into the life of the church, you assessed strengths and weaknesses, and proposed a new parish framework by which these ministries might be more unified around vision, enjoy greater communication, and, where possible, collaborate more intentionally in the furtherance of a comprehensive vision for the arts at St. George’s. The resulting Arts Assessment document we now have offers a strategic plan, leadership recommendations, and practical suggestions for the implementation of this new framework. It is an invaluable document guiding us forward.
LB: What would you say to a church interested in partnering with DITA?
LS: I would say, “Do it!”
Why is it that there seems to be proportionally fewer robust Christians involved in the creative arts? How is it that what sometimes passes as Christian art is actually pretty bad art? Do our churches encourage artistic expressiveness? Can we do more than think of the arts in the church as our calling to curate museum pieces, as important as that may be? What are the catechetical possibilities for our people in more boldly utilizing the arts to help us ask questions and discern answers? In what ways might our shared loved of the creative arts help the church in times like this connect with creative artists outside of the church?
What are the catechetical possibilities for our people in more boldly utilizing the arts to help us ask questions and discern answers? In what ways might our shared loved of the creative arts help the church in times like this connect with creative artists outside of the church?
To me, these are exciting questions to be asking. But I am not competent to lead us into all the answers. Thus, it is such a privilege to partner with DITA, whose very goal is to situate the church’s engagement with the arts at the most basic level of the church — the local congregation. I taught a Sunday School class on faith and the arts not long ago on this theme: when we cease to look to God together, we cease to see all there is to see. Looking at our arts ministries together with DITA has already immensely helped us to see new possibilities to bless and to be blessed.
The Rev. R. Leigh Spruill has served as Rector of St. George’s since early 2005. Prior to his call to St. George’s, Leigh served as Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, Florida, as Associate Rector at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama and as Assistant Rector at St. James’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. A native of Tappahannock, Virginia, Leigh received his BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After college, he attended the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. He was ordained in the Diocese of Virginia in 1996.
Lisa Beyeler is a M.Div. student at Duke Divinity School pursuing a Certificate in Theology and the Arts. Prior to graduate studies, Lisa spent nearly a decade working in the public and private sectors as a landscape architect and urban designer, contributing to projects for the City of Seattle, City of Portland, Chihuly Garden and Glass, the Seattle Center, One and Two Penn Plaza in Manhattan, and Leach Botanical Garden in Portland, Oregon. Lisa is a graduate of the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, where she received a degree in landscape architecture, with minors in architecture and music.
Images courtesy of St. George’s Episcopal Church.