St. Thomas Anglican Church was welcomed into the Diocese at our Diocesan Convention in October. By way of introduction, the church prepared a brief “who we are” video. Their emphasis on the arts seemed worth exploring further, so I sat down with their Rector, the Rev. Hamilton Smith, to learn a bit more about what makes St. Thomas unique. (View video: https://vimeo.com/459396362)
How did your commitment to love the world through the arts emerge?
I love the arts. I enjoy music and visual art. But, as I read more of Tim Keller on contextualization and ways of decoding culture, I learned of the importance of finding out where the bridgeheads or touchpoints are in a culture. How do we speak the unchanging truth of the gospel in a language and methodology that people understand? Keller’s book Center Church talks a lot about the role of the arts. In the secular mind the artist has become the vehicle for transcendent wisdom. In looking at the culture of Mount Pleasant I realized that people are drawn to what might be described as Lowcountry Americana music and art. And in the arts, people are more willing to engage in deeper conversations that allow us to speak to the transcendent desires of the heart.
What does your church do in supporting the arts that might be unique?
Early on we had the opportunity to support an artist in residence. Shane Williams became our Creative Arts Director which is how we are able to connect to the arts community. Shane and Warren, who together perform as Finnegan Bell, also lead worship for us on Sundays. Shane put together a concert series called STAC House Shows which seek to expand the Charleston music scene. These have been at the Old Brick Church in Cainhoy, a uniquely special venue. They aren’t Christian concerts because the only people who come to Christian concerts are Christians. We are looking to provide a unique arts experience. Remember, the secular or modern mind is looking to connect to the transcendent through the arts. We partner with local people like Eddie White of Awendaw Green. People are surprised when they learn that STAC stands for St. Thomas Anglican Church. They don’t expect a local church to do concerts and serve the arts community without expecting anything in return.
Why do the STAC House Shows in an old church?
Churches are beautiful spaces. They speak of transcendence. Churches have an opportunity especially now to be a blessing to the arts community. For example, Christ Church has been hosting a local theatre group for outdoor performances because they have a beautiful space in their quad. (See story on pg. 16) The backdrop is a beautiful church. It is absolutely shocking to the art world when the church approaches them to say how can we love and serve you? The pandemic has shut down the local arts venues but many of our churches have facilities that are big enough or have outdoor space to allow artists to carry on.
Can you give us another example of supporting the arts that St. Thomas has done?
For Holy Week each year we commission a local artist to paint a series of pictures that capture the scriptures we give them. We don’t look for Christian artists specifically, which means we are getting a non-believer to engage with God’s word. We saw a woman come to faith a few years ago simply by engaging the passion narrative in a series of paintings. She had never read the scriptures and was deeply moved by it. After Easter we auction them off at an event. Naturally the artist invites friends and neighbors which means we have a room full of non-believers. The artist then talks through the paintings about how they came to be. Essentially, we have a secular artist explaining how the passion narrative moved them to create what they did. The proceeds from the sale funds the next year’s commission.
Tell us about the building you recently signed a lease on called the STAC Arts Center. What is it getting used for?
We partnered with a local performing arts company and leased a building where we have different artists making use of the space. We will continue to worship in the building, but it will be taken over more by the performing arts company. As soon as we got the building, people started referring to it as the church, but we have emphasized it is the STAC Art Center because that is what we are intending.
What do you see for the future of St. Thomas’?
We want to do more of what we are already. Ultimately, we want to help more Christians who are artists engage with the culture outside the church. So, like the work that Shane is doing alongside Warren with Finnegan Bell, we want Christians who are artists to do excellent art for a broader audience than just the church. We want to change the perception people have of the church by being something other than what they expect while at the same time holding true to Biblical orthodoxy. We continue to lean into the idea that we are seeking to build relationships that enable us to love and serve others where we live, work, play.
By Dave Wright, The Anglican Diocese of South Carolina