Our origins as ‘Holy Biscuit’ came from a partnership between the Biscuit Factory and Newcastle Central and East Methodist Circuit with the refurbishment of Shieldfield Methodist Church into Holy Biscuit art gallery. In 2009, Methodist minister Rev Rob Hawkins and The Biscuit Factory owner Mr Ramy Zack shared a vision, a creative new use for the redundant building and agreed to partner to transform it into a community and art space that the church could learn to work differently in. From 2010-15, and on a shoestring budget there was an experimental period of different models of programming of contemporary art, community activity and exploration of faith in new ways. With the goodwill of many volunteers, interns and Methodist lay workers as well as practical support from The Biscuit Factory team, its varied and thought-provoking programme had a far-reaching impact. In the first five years we worked with hundreds of artists, musicians, writers, dancers, young people, vulnerable adults and older people. We developed long-term friendships and partnerships, building an increasing sense of community and belonging around the space.
In 2015, HB received a large grant from the Methodist Church of Great Britain to support and give momentum to our growing work. In the past four years, we are pleased to have become an established arts organisation, recognised in the region particularly for our work in social arts practice, our theological research and reflection, our support of emerging artists, the use of art in mental health support, our exploration of faith outside of the traditional church context and our work and activism alongside communities in Shieldfield and beyond.
In September 2018 Holy Biscuit team set aside quality time to review, reflect on and refocus our vision. As part of this PROCESS period we researched art theory and history, theology, activism, philosophy as well as having conversations with leaders in the art community, in academia, in churches, in community organising and in the Methodist church nationally. As a team we also gathered together fortnightly to study the Gospel of John.
One of the central themes of the Gospel of John is the idea of ‘bearing witness’. Bearing witness is a dynamic and multilayered motif. If a person or thing bears witness to something, they show or say that it exists or happened. They attest to something, they take note, they furnish proof of. In psychology, the term ‘bearing witness’ is used to refer to sharing our stories with others, most notably in the communication to others of traumatic experiences. Bearing witness is a valuable way to process an experience, to obtain empathy and support, to tell our story and to find hope in a larger story.
In the prologue of the Gospel of John we are told by the author that Jesus’ incarnation as God’s Son is about the revelation of (or a bearing witness to) God’s love for the world and the cosmic scale of God’s rescue plan for it. The idea of bearing witness therefore has become central for us during our time in PROCESS and one we we want to take forward in our organisation as we re-commit to our vision. Our Bearing Witness Quadrilateral is as follows:
TO GOD’S GRACE, LOVE AND HOPE
IN THE ART WORLD
WITH COMMUNITY OF SHIELDFIELD
WITHIN THE CHURCH
1. Bearing witness to God’s grace, love, and hope
We believe that our role is to point to the truth of the Christian story and the claims that Jesus makes about himself and about who God is.
We deny the sacred secular divide and affirm that God is interested in all aspects of human life – not just religious activity. In Jesus’ life and teaching he was interested not just about what prayers people said, but also how they lived. He openly challenged structures that benefited the rich at the expense of the poor. He proclaimed that God was interested and cared about all of life, and nothing was beyond God’s interest or care. Nothing.
Whether it be sexuality, politics, economics, philosophy, history, science, education, psychology or the arts, we are committed to bearing witness to the reality of God’s interest in and care for all aspects of life.
We are also committed to the importance of our freedom to question the goodness, the love and the very existence of God or anything spiritual, as an essential part of our witness to God.
2. Bearing witness in the art world
As a Christian project, we believe that art is, and should be, an integral part of human life and flourishing. We believe that art is an articulation of lived human experience and can be an imaginative disclosure of the often hidden aspects of life. Art is in itself a form of bearing witness. We are committed to embodying this in all aspects of our work
As an artist led organisation we are part of the art world and share the responsibility for its cultivation. We believe that art needs no justification – it is not a luxury – and we are committed alongside many organisations in this city, region and nation to making it (or keeping it as) an integral part of our identity, cultural democracy and civic imagination.
We commit to being present and active in the development of ideas, practices, values and meaning-making of the art word and to defend it against its instrumentalisation, use for propaganda and pure commercialisation. We believe strongly that there is a central place for theological voices within this context but also that art has a lot to say to faith communities that needs to be heard. We want to encourage this dialogue.
3. Bearing witness with the community of Shieldfield
As a Methodist project we place ourselves within the radical Methodist heritage of working class political and theological empowerment, social struggle. Methodists have always been committed to responding to contemporary issues and the contexts in which they found themselves – geographically, politically, economically, socially and spiritually. Like the faithful Methodists who have gone before us we share this commitment to listening and responding to the issues of our time and context.
In our current context of North East England and in particular in our estate in Shieldfield, we are deeply troubled by the effects that rapid and large-scale urban development and gentrification has had upon the neighbourhood of Shieldfield and the devastating effects it has had on the physical environment, mental wellbeing and community spirit for the long-term community of Shieldfield and the long-term future of the estate.
There is a real risk of the wholesale redevelopment of this estate over the coming years and the risk of social cleansing is an ever-present threat for the people who live in this neighbourhood.
We are deeply committed to working in solidarity with community members and our artistic collaborators to expose the injustices in the area and to creatively and artistically respond to the challenges that face us. We believe art can bring forth voices and ideas that have been repressed, publicly challenge inequalities whilst also looking for and imagining alternatives and new possibilities.
4. Bearing witness within the Church As a project of the Methodist Church of Great Britain, we are inherently part of a historical church tradition and institution. We are committed to thinking expansively, creatively and imaginatively about the role of the church in society. We are actively contributing to the theological conversations in relation to contemporary art and activism. This includes engaging with academic theology and ethics, being part of the conversation on the role of the church in the 21st century and sharing in theological training of both clergy and lay people.