A dear friend of mine has recently exhibited a piece of artwork in an exhibition for artists in recovery held in a cathedral. The piece explores the overlap between donating blood and the eucharistic act of sharing Body and Blood and the exclusion from both acts suffered by many. The piece was created to celebrate the change in British law in 2017 that relaxed the limits on those who could give blood who had previously been excluded including the LGBTI+ community and sex workers amongst others.
The very simple piece was based around a kitchen table set out for dinner with a plaster sculptor of the artists hands in the centre and on each plate a rose petal to represent a drop of blood (the artist had hoped to use their own blood in microscope slides but couldn’t source it in time). Visitors were invited to sit at the table and listen in to recorded conversations between different types of people who have just given blood.
The piece cleverly highlights the double standards of claimed inclusion but with limited participation.
Whilst celebrating that more people are now allowed to give blood many are still stigmatised and considered outsiders in society. The piece invites us to sit around a table together and join in the celebration, but we are only allowed to listen in on the conversations, not actually join them. We may be invited into the circle but we are still only observers.
This is a painful reality for so many out our communion tables. The genius of exhibiting in a cathedral perfectly highlights this. How many social outsiders would be welcomed in to the cathedral, but frowned upon, or even denied, when they go forward to receive Body and Blood at the alter?
The central theme of blood asks questions as well. Blood is essential to life, lose to much of it and we die, yet there is a certain squeamishness around it. Something that is essential and even brings life can be so off putting to some. As is where the blood comes from. The stigma around who can give blood used to extend beyond whether the blood itself was clean to whether the person giving it was. Prejudice against LGBTI+ people and sex workers lead to them being labelled unclean and so cut off from giving the life saving blood. This prejudice continues with them being cut off from receiving the life saving blood of Jesus in the Eucharist.
In order to enter into the piece fully requires a deal of vulnerability. To enter into someone else’ space always does, especially when you know you won’t be fully included. The piece invites you to sit at the artist’s dinner table, but only to listen in on what is happening, not be part of the conversation itself. There is vulnerability involved in the act of giving blood, an intimate part of yourself taken through the penetration of a needle. The Eucharist also requires a certain intimacy, to approach the altar with hands out stretched asking to receive from the God who vulnerably gives of Godself the most intimate gift of Body and Blood. To share in God’s vulnerability requires us to be vulnerable ourselves. This vulnerability should be handled delicately and not rejected, as it has been in so many cases for so many people.
At the heart of this piece is the issue of inclusive sexuality. In holding a conversation about bodies and fluid, sex work and vulnerability and inclusivity the artist is calling us to explore these parts of our lives. It is asking us who we include and who we are comfortable being vulnerable with. It also calls us to be more vulnerable with ourselves and be bold with our sexuality in reaching out to others to receive something life giving. (this goes without talking about the act of creating the piece involving the artist covering parts of their body in rubber which you can read more about here Rubber Hooded Clergy)
In creating this piece the artist has forced themselves to step out in vulnerability and be exposed. It is their hands that are on the table, it is their blood that inspired the piece, it is their table that people are invited to. In doing this they have created a space for others to be vulnerable and share their story in the hope that others will be vulnerable themselves and hear the voices that are so often excluded.
Most importantly this piece demands we bring our whole selves to the table, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with ourselves and others and bringing an intimate part to give away, and in turn receive an intimate part of another’s. We are called to bring and give of ourselves, whilst also receiving from others. This can only be if we accept the need to include everyone at our tables, otherwise we can not claim our place at someone else’s.
This is the lesson the Church needs to hear when it comes to inclusivity, especially inclusivity around the Lord’s Table. If we keep excluding then people will continue to suffer. By refusing to accept lifesaving blood from those willing to give of themselves or refusing those same people the life giving Blood of Jesus we are denying them life.
If we deny people life then their blood will be on our hearts instead of in our blood banks.
I’ve written more about BDSM and the Eucharist here.