The Collective Art of Lament


Over the past month we have been through one of the most significant times in our nation’s history. Much fear and uncertainty, anger and disillusion has awoken deep emotions within towns and cities up and down the country giving rise to racial abuse, violence and unwelcome confrontations. Whilst some celebrate victory, and a sense of being heard for the first time in decades, others mourn what they consider to be a backwards step from a progressive future of European unity.

The evening before the referendum crowds gathered in Trafalgar Square at a birthday rally to commemorate the life of Yorkshire MP Jo Cox, who was brutally murdered in her home town of Batley just a few days before.

And then in the past few days commemorations of the Battle of the Somme have also touched our nation deeply as we have been reminded that the freedom we now enjoy was costly to so many of our forefathers who gave their lives on the battlefields whilst they were still young men.

Lament is ‘a passionate expression of grief or sorrow’. Traditionally the Church has played a significant role in the public expression of collective lament, through ceremony, rituals, performances and the invitation for communities to gather together and publicly share and express their collective grief within the safety and beauty of the sacred space at the heart of their town, village or city. Whether it be a ceremony of national importance, or the coming together of a small community to share in the loss of one of their own, the church acted as host and comforter to their neighbourhood. But is the contemporary church in danger of loosing this significant role within the public square?

A third of the Psalms are about lament, complaint or protest; they are called the Psalms of disorientation and call attention to the reality of human pain, loss and suffering without imposing any blame. Together with many other texts within the Old Testament, including the Prophets and Lamentations, they explore the notion that it is part of our humanity to grieve; that it is in the midst of our suffering, doubt and protest that we learn to have faith and deepen our journey towards God.

If we believe that we are called to invite our neighbours and our communities to come to know God then it is essential that we re-discover our role of being a safe place to lament, both collectively in the public square and also as individuals, to be a place of comfort, of acceptance, of compassion and mercy, of honest emotion and not denial of the pain and suffering that is all around us.

In the New Testament we read of the blind, of lepers, adulterers, and the grieving calling out to Jesus to ‘have mercy’ on them, to come into their home and bring healing and wellbeing. Jesus responds with compassion and tears; he shares in their suffering before bringing wholeness to the situation. He lives through his own Good Friday of suffering and lament before experiencing resurrection; the two cannot be separated, and yet we can be in danger of only using praise and triumphant celebration in our worship and evangelism.

The secular world is replacing the Church’s traditional role of being the place for public and collective lament. It is finding meaningful and creative ways of helping us to express our sorrows and our protest at a time when the nation needs to find ways of coming together.

At the birthday rally in Trafalgar Square, the cast of Les Miserables sang a most moving rendition of ‘Do You Hear The People Sing?’ A children’s choir performed in memory of a young mother who lost her life too soon. Other creative acts including the laying of a sea of flowers to create a visual shrine enabled the crowds to express their grief collectively and feel a sense of solidarity.

Turner prize winning artist Jeremy Deller partnered with the National Theatre to create one of the most moving and inspiring public art performances that touched the hearts of many thousands across the country. hashtag WeAreHere saw almost two thousand ‘ghost soldiers’, dressed in dull green WW1 uniforms, walk through railway stations, parks and shopping centres in towns and cities across the country as a powerful visual reminder of the sacrifice made by 19,240 ordinary young men one hundred years before to the day in the Battle of the Somme. They offered no speech or explanation, nothing was needed, but just handed out small cards with the name of a soldier and the date he had given his life. They became a presence amongst us, a sombre reminder of the sacrifices these brave young men had made.

I can offer many more examples of how creativity is used to give a language for lament, that provides a way to give a voice to that which has no words, a language of poetry, of music, of painting, of sculpture, of collective expression within the public square. As unity movements, churches and believers in the love and compassion of Christ, can we too find creative ways of helping our communities to express their grief, their fears and their protest? Can we re-discover our traditional place in the public square of being a safe and accepting place for the broken hearted and grieving?

As churches working together across your town perhaps you could consider ways of hosting a special creative service for those who have lost a loved one in the past year. Or discuss together what is the main cause of lament or protest in your town or city and create a way of giving a voice to this without placing blame on anyone. Invite collaborations with artists and arts institutions in your place to help your community gain a sense of solidarity, compassion and mercy for those who are grieving and suffering.

Lesley Sutton
Lesley is an artist and curator