The art of religion

Friday 17 February 2017


An innovative project bringing together the Arts with Divinity will see young composers’ work performed with Sir James MacMillan for the first time this weekend (19 February 2017).

The initiative – run by the University of St Andrews – matched doctoral students in theology with upcoming composers, and asked them to create a piece of music based on passages from the Old Testament.

Students were asked to draw on their own specific research interests and experience in the innovative collaboration, with one using her skills in fire-spinning as inspiration for a piece on Moses and the burning bush.

The resulting compositions will be performed by St Salvator’s Chapel choir at a special public workshop live in St Andrews with Sir James on Sunday.

It is the inaugural project of TheoArtistry, a new dimension of the work of ITIA (the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts) based in the University’s School of Divinity. The aim of the project is to transform scholarly and public perception of the role and importance of the arts in theology and church practice as well as society as a whole.

TheoArtistry founder Dr George Corbett explained: “We wanted to explore how our research might animate, stimulate and inform the composition of new works. In the past the most exciting new art and music has often come about in response to or in relation to theology. And that’s what we’re really bringing to the fore here at St Andrews.”

For the TheoArtistry’s Composers’ Scheme, six students were matched with six composers – described by Sir James as “among the brightest musical minds of their generation” – from England, Scotland, Southern and Northern Ireland, and Canada.

The resulting performances will include one on God speaking to Moses through the Burning Bush in Exodus 3, inspired by Rebeka Dyre’s doctoral research on ‘Fire in the Theological and Social Imagination’ and her experience as a fire-spinner. Meanwhile Mary Stevens’ experience as a Carmelite nun prior to joining St Andrews led to a piece on Elijah hearing the presence of God in the ‘sound of sheer silence’.

Sir James MacMillan, one of Scotland’s most accomplished living classical composers and conductors, holds a part-time professorship in ITIA. His previous work – such as St Luke Passion – has been informed by discussions with theologians and religious thinkers over the years. Sir James advised students and composers on the project when they met for the first time in November 2016, and will provide feedback, critique and inspiration to the students and composers after their debut performance this weekend.

Speaking in advance of the event, Sir James said: “It’s no surprise that composers and musicians have been described as the “midwives of faith”, bringing something to the expression of Scripture, and indeed the expression of prayer, through organised sound which opens a window on the Divine.

“There has been a significant development in this kind of intellectual, academic and creative activity in the last 20 years or so. In the world of theology there is an understanding that the arts open a unique window on the divine. And many regard music as the most ’spiritual’ of the arts, and this claim can be made by many music lovers who are not necessarily ’religious’ in any conventional sense.”


The compositions will be performed live for the first time by St Salvator’s Chapel Choir at the TheoArtistry Composers’ Workshop at St Leonard’s Chapel on Sunday 19 February between 2 and 6pm. The event is open to the public. Pieces will be performed by the choir during regular public worship services thereafter.


ITIA (the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts) is a world-leading interdisciplinary centre of new research at the interface of theology and the arts and home to TheoArtistry.

The TheoArtistry Composers’ Scheme is a collaboration between ITIA, the University Music Centre and St Salvator’s Chapel Choir.

The St Andrews doctoral researchers in the scheme are: Margaret McKerron, Rebekah Dyer, Mary Stevens, Marian Kelsey, Caleb Froelich and Kimberley Anderson; and the composers are: Anselm McDonnell, Kerensa Briggs, Lisa Robertson, Dominic de Grande, Seán Doherty and Stuart Beatch.

The director of the TheoArtistry Composers’ Scheme is Dr George Corbett, and the co-ordinator of the scheme is Kathryn Wehr (a PhD student in ITIA). The director of St Salvator’s Chapel Choir is Tom Wilkinson.

For further information visit the TheoArtistry website where you can also find profiles of each composition. For an introductory video to the TheoArtistry Composers’ Scheme, see their YouTube video.

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews. Contact Gayle McIntyre on 01334 467227, email [email protected].

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