Bronagh Lawson’s book Belfast; City Of Lights captivated me. Bronagh is first and foremost an artist. I love the way artists think. They see around the corner, over the top, underneath. They have fanciful thoughts that leave you wondering.
In the book Bronagh writes, “The artist has a unique role to disrupt thinking and make space for something other”. She shares how getting out of her work on development programmes across Belfast frontlines and into an artist’s studio on her own gave her a new opportunity to figure out “a fresh way of depicting the peculiarity that is Northern Ireland”.
That is what she has done. This is not the work of a writer as much as an artist. It needs to be read as that. It is an intrigue. It is mysterious. It is at times whimsical. Yet it is plugged into the issues of the Belfast day.
The very idea of visiting every church in Belfast. Add to that that she struggled even hearing the word “God” when she started out. Why would she put herself through it? Then to discover that for Bronagh these churches became healing places. Places of love, forgiveness and light. You can understand my intrigue!
As well as the objective task of visiting churches Bronagh catalogues her own subjective journey from her work in trauma and reconciliation to a spiritual healing and liberation. That liberation is far from orthodox. Few sermons are quoted and Jesus doesn’t get too many mentions.
It is the feeling that Bronagh experiences from the energy of Christian community, their worship and the years of spiritual discipline in the lives of those in the pew beside or in front or behind her. It is very much the Gospel According To Bronagh Lawson. I can hear so many of my peers critiquing, questioning and putting Bronagh right… but I don’t think that is the point of the book, not the posture Bronagh brings to it and certainly not the way to get the most from it.
The way Bronagh’s revelation happens in her church visits fascinated me. Occasionally, I was in the very same room at the same time that she describes and her feelings were almost the polar opposite of mine. Though that leads me to suggest that Bronagh is more than a little ecclesiologically and theologically innocent and naive it also has me searching my own soul to be convicted at my own tainting with preconceptions and prejudices. Though she is unaware of the layers of church history and creed I am too hung up on them to benefit as I should?
Bronagh raises many issues inside and outside the walls of churches. Issues that have rippled out into my surmising. Many might find their way onto this blog. That we need to update our sectarianism is maybe the first I will write! Bronagh's approach certainly blurs the traditional lines between Catholic and Protestant.
In the end the book is a wonderful advertisement for church. Bronagh basically challenges all her anti-church peers with the suggestion that Belfast is a city full of light in churches that could be used as a resource to counteract all the darkness we have experienced and still live through. Her own testimony is that you don’t even have to get “converted” to benefit! Just go, sit and revel in the light that emanates from people of faith.
It is also a challenge… and should be an inspiration… for those of us within the church. It is fascinating to see how a visitor sees us and indeed what they might be looking for… and see… and feel. There are tips here we could pick up on.
If we come to the book with the same open mindedness that Bronagh comes to our churches then there is much here to ponder and surmise. When Bronagh told one minister, as she she shook her hand at the door, what she was doing the minister thanked her. So do I. This will be resource for me. I will caress and collide with Bronagh’s findings in as helpful a way as I can and maybe look at the visitor a little differently at a Sunday service!