Norwich, UK

Priest, actor, producer, marketing consultant – Martin Poole’s varied career has resulted in a different, innovative approach to communicating the Gospel. Art and spirtuality initiative Beyond started as a just a group of people in Brighton willing to experiment with art and drama. A simple idea for creating an advent calendar based on individual beach huts ultimately attracted hundreds of people to see the final beach hut open. As word spread, versions of this idea have been taken up by churches elsewhere and Poole has continued to experiment with trails, Perspex crosses and labyrinths.
     In his book Church Beyond Walls: Creative Church in Public Spaces, Poole outlines how the concept of Beyond emerged, the ideas that have been utilised and suggestions as to how other churches can experiment with creative ideas in public spaces to express faith and the Gospel, taking the message out to a non-church going audience. The Church of England vicar speaks with Sight about what led him to the church, how the Beyond initiative came about and what he feels it's achieved...

Actor, marketing consultant – what led you to the church?
"I guess I was already in the church. I went forward for ordination in 1980 and trained for three years. I was involved in a theatre group at college and felt God was calling me in that direction, so I chose not to go into a parish and be ordained but go to drama school.
      "After drama school, I was based in London and involved in my local church. They suggested I should be ordained and work in the parish in my spare time. I was ordained in 1988."

UK - Britghon - Reverend Martin Poole

Rev Martin Poole. PICTURE: Courtesy of Martin Poole

How have you benefited from your acting career?
"Most of my work was small scale working with schools, touring and one or two bit parts in TV programmes. I was community and schools theatre based. I got involved in production work and enjoyed it so I took a job doing sales and marketing because it would train me to be a producer as well. I discovered working in TV production was a very interesting and creative process, furthering my skill set as I am very much a creative but practical person. I was also involved in sales and marketing establishing contacts across Europe, working on projects with companies like the BBC and Disney."

How did Beyond start?
"We moved to the south coast and found it was much harder being part time clergy. I found myself less involved in parish work and I put my energy into creating an arts project, setting up Beyond with a small group of people I had met through worship. I started to do these artistic events, Christian events and got funding from the diocese."

What led you to becoming a full time parish priest?
"By then I was running a consultancy and doing Beyond alongside it. I found I was getting more interested in Beyond – this was the area I was getting joy in what I did and I felt God was telling me to do it full time.  A parish we knew came vacant as the priest was moving on, and it was the perfect opportunity. The bishop put me in touch and it went ahead. I became a parish priest [at St Luke's Prestonville in Brighton] in 2010 and the balance of my work moved towards the church within 18 months." 

How did the concept of a "church beyond walls" evolve?
"I was at a conference and attended a talk by Father Ed Foley explaining that True Liturgy is something that stirs people outside the church though acts of public service in which we hope they will experience God. Years of struggling to explain to people what I was trying to achieve with crazy outdoor art projects and immersive theatre-style worship all fell into place as acts of pure artistic liturgy. I believe that’s the ultimate goal of all worship: to create opportunities for epiphany. Church should be about generating circumstances, actions, activities and events that create a space where God can act.  
     "Brighton has 450 beach huts and one December we got 24 of them to agree to open up each night as a giant Advent calendar. Each made their own art installation. It was very popular. From that point Beyond had a life of its own, and we ran it parallel to everything I was doing in the parish."

Church Beyond Walls

What has been the most challenging event?
"The Lent Cross – we set up a large Perspex Lent Cross in the centre of the Lanes shopping area in Brighton and invited people to write on slips of paper what they could and could not give up for Lent and post them in the Cross.  I used to go and check it every week. It got damaged and had to be repaired. We had over 600 pledges over the course of six weeks – people said things like I could not live without my cat and I could live without my addiction. It was a challenge but a rewarding one." 

How did you get the idea of writing a book?
"The idea for the book had been generated before COVID as a way of sharing the principles that I had been using in Beyond. COVID gave me space to think about it. I was due a sabbatical last summer and that gave me space to write it.
     "The response has been really positive. One of the volunteers in our parish who is not involved in the church, but helps serve meals for 200-plus read it and understood it. I have had a lot of good feedback, been contacted by other churches about it and even one of the sub editors working on it during publication started coming up with ideas for her church based on the book."

What do you feel Beyond has achieved? 
"After 10 years we have opened up the churches in Brighton & Hove to the idea of engaging with creative culture and got people thinking more about what it means to be creatively missional. Over 24 events have been done, and one of the objectives was to encourage listening about faith. 
     "Art is a way in to discussion because it makes people bring their own perspective to it without dictating. There are three forms of mission in the modern world – proclamation (preaching), pastoral (parish style) parable (what we are doing at Beyond by being artistic, encouraging ideas and interpretations and stressing respect, this is what I believe and how I interpret it.)  
     "We engage with all people. We have done art projects with festivals like Easter, Halloween, with themes like 'Fire and Water', 'Cleanliness'. We did art inside shop windows with a trail to discover different installations and a 'Supermarket Harvest' putting reflections on shelves in a large supermarket. We don’t know how these end. We always run a blog. Some people have connected with us and engaged with it. 
     "Our job is to provoke a response but it is God’s job to deal with that response. We are not looking to capture membership, just to get people thinking. If people want to come and talk to our local church, we would talk to them."

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Is Beyond an ecumenical group?
"Beyond has always had a very open and inclusive approach so all are welcome, whether of faith or no faith. We’ve never been specifically ecumenical in the sense of inviting other denominations to take part as our focus has been on people rather than denominations. I know we have had participants and attendees from a wide range of denominations (Baptist, Roman Catholic, URC, Methodist) as well as other faiths and many of no faith".

How do you see Beyond developing in the future?
"I’m still trying to work that out post-COVID as all our activities ceased and the team has diminished. We are currently collaborating with The Common Rooms on a series of monthly events and beginning to plan some talks and events for 2024."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity