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Goring Revisited: George Bell, The Artist Hans Feibusch, and Art in Church

  • Paul Foster (a1)

There is adventure about—both at home and abroad. More especially, events are taking place in respect to the place of visual art in the witness of the Church that a generation ago, or even less, would have been laughed out of court: for the counsel of this committee or that, whether at parish vestry or cathedral chapter, would have looked askance at what, today, seems to be accepted almost on the nod. Examples of what is occurring, and especially in cathedrals up and down the country, are easy to cite. One need think only of recent exhibitions at Salisbury; the use of video (Bill Viola's The Messenger) at Durham; the appointment of an artist in residence at Gloucester; Sculpture for Winchester, the 1998 exhibition arranged in part across the Inner Close of the cathedral; an exhibition in November 1999 of Sussex artists in the North Transept at Chichester, conducted with a view to raising funds for the continuing restoration of the cathedral; Anthony Green's Resurrection, An Act of Faith at Christ Church, Oxford; or the planned (at the moment of writing) millennial exhibition, Stations, the New Sacred Art, to be held in 2000 both at the cathedral in Bury St Edmunds and at twelve associated parishes. Varied as these examples are, they all share a very distinct characteristic—the temporary nature of the arrangements, for which no formal permission or approval was legally required from any supererogatory body or bodies. Reasons for this development are complex, and the outcomes— which frequently create controversy—are often fiercely debated. What has received less attention, however, is the foundation of the present relationship between art and the Church, a relationship that can be seen to stretch back to a judgment made by George Bell, then Bishop of Chichester, in his own consistory court in 1954, concerning a design for a mural by Hans Feibusch in the parish church at Goring-by-Sea.

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1 Although I cite examples mainly from cathedrals, parishes are also joining in the trend. Abroad one would include the Kunst-Station Sankt Peter of Friedhelm Mennekes SJ at his church in Cologne, where he regularly hosts challenging (some would say outrageous) exhibitions in pursuit of a belief that the experience of transcendence is to be sought and communicated by all means proper to a Christian pastor; or, to take a secular context, Beyond Belief Modern Art and the Religious Imagination held at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, from April to July 1998.

2 An abbreviated version of the present article, The Goring Judgment: Is it still Valid?’, appeared in Theology (vol CII, No 808, 0708 1999).

3 Bell began his judgment by emphasising the support of the chancellor: ‘It is’, he said, ‘with the full agreement of the learned Chancellor that I preside today and give the decision of the court’ (Bishop of Chichester's judgment, 15th May 1954). As indicated in a letter of 4th June 1954, it seems likely that the chancellor may have viewed that statement as a matter of courtesy only; writing to Mr Eggar, Macmorran commented, ‘I was not consulted before [the judgment] was delivered, and did not know what it contained until I heard it. Indeed I had not seen it until I had the opportunity of perusing the copy you sent me […]’ (West Sussex Record Office EP1/40 (1947–1960) 742). This includes Bell's judgment as well as faculty papers for the Feibusch mural at Goring. I am also indebted to Mrs Walter March, the widow of the incumbent at Goring, for permission to consult and quote from the archive of papers collected by Walter March about the events surrounding the petition.

4 As readers will know, it is decidedly unusual for a judge to adjourn from his (or her) court, and for judgment to be given by another party. Bell's authority for delivering judgment was enshrined in ‘the power reserved in the Patent granted to our said Vicar General [of our Consistorial and Episcopal Court of Chichester] on 6th June 1922 by Winfrid [Burrows—Bell's immediate predecessor] Lord Bishop of Chichester for the said Winfrid and his successors to grant Faculties out of our said […] Court’: extract from the faculty for the mural at Goring dated 25th June 1954. Interest in the legal process of the judgment is recorded in the West Sussex Record Office archive (cited in note 3) in 1987, when an inquiry reached the present registrar from the Rt Hon Mr Justice Lloyd. The only other instance in recent decades of a bishop inter vening in this way appears to centre on Mervyn Stockwood when Bishop of Southwark, who discovered that parishes could ‘crave the bishop's judgment’ rather than that of the chancellor of the diocese. It can be argued that reservation of this kind, as noted in a much later judgment (of 1982) by the chancellor concerned, E. Garth Moore, involves ‘a breach of the constitutional principle of the separation of the functions of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary’: see Re St Mary's, Barnes [1982] 1 All ER 456, [1982] 1 WLR 531, quoted by Timothy Briden and Robert Ombres in ‘Law, Theology and History in the Judgments of Chancellor Garth Moore’ 3 Ecc LJ 223–224. Nevertheless, although at the present day it is opined that it ‘would be expedient that no further patent should be issued in this form [reserving judgment in a cause of faculty to the diocesan bishop, and that] a person invited to be chancellor should make sure that it is not included in his [sic] patent (Newsom, G. H. and Newsom, G. L., Faculty Jurisdiction of the Church of England (2nd edn, 1993) 17), there will continue to be instances where, as George Bell saw so clearly, a pastoral concern needs to be allowed precedence.

5 Writing to the Registrar and Legal Secretary to the bishop on 20th April 1954, the chancellor noted that his personal ‘aversion to the Feibusch proposals was only important in that it had been supported by the DAC’. In the same letter he records that he and Bell discussed the case on three separate occasions, and that ‘I have let him see that I am strongly against Feibusch, as he is in his favour’

6 Considerable national interest ensued: see The Times, 17th, 24th, 26th, 27th May 1954.

7 A full list of Feibusch's publications, together with a catalogue of his church murals, is given in Foster, Paul (ed), Feibusch Murals—Chichester and Beyond (Chichester, 1997).

8 Quotations from the March Papers.

9 More than ten years later when, in 1965, Feibusch received baptism into the Church of England, Walter March was the first to sign the register as godparent. Later the same year, in June, Feibusch was confirmed in St Paul's Cathedral.

10 Quotations from March's address to the ‘Theology and Ministry Convention’ cited in the text above.

11 Data provided in a personal letter, 1st September 1996, to the present writer from Mary Joice (née Balmer), private secretary at the time to George Bell, citing a letter from Feibusch of 30th July 1954 in which he wrote, ‘Your conversation and opinions impressed themselves on ray mind […] and the following morning […] I painted the white outline around the head of Christ; much, I think, to the advantage of the whole picture’.

12 Feibusch, H., Mural Painting (1946), p 91.

13 Moreover, the chairman of the DAC, Canon C. B. Mortlock, was a strong advocate in Feibusch's favour. It was he who informed the bishop that ‘one of the drawings for the Goring painting was hung on the line at the present Royal Academy Exhibition!’—quoted by George Bell in a letter to the chancellor as early as 18th May 1953 (underlining and exclamation mark added by Bell at the time of signing the letter). The phrase ‘on the line’ is less current than for merly; but it used to be ‘said of pictures hung so that the centre is about on a level with the eye’ (OED), and Punch had carried an item as long ago as 26th April 1873 noting that such pictures were hung ‘for reason of their merit’.

14 West Sussex Record Office archive: see above.

15 I refer here in particular to the power of curators and others, who may often be driven by commercial concerns rather than by artistic, the Turner Prize being a good example of curators determining what, it is claimed, should be classified as art. More generally, one could cite the critic of The Sunday Times, Frank Rutter, who at the time of Roger Fry's 1910 exhibition noted that modern artists were ‘smashing the fallacy that imitation […] is art’ (quoted in Modern Art in Britain 1910–1914, ed. Robins, Anna Greutzner, Barbican Art Gallery Catalogue 1997).

16 From the untitled sonnet beginning ‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame’, Poem 115 in The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed Mackenzie, Norman H. (Oxford, 1990).

17 Published in The Listener, 13th January 1955, pp 6566.

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Ecclesiastical Law Journal
  • ISSN: 0956-618X
  • EISSN: 1751-8539
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