It has been almost six years since the first class opened and we welcomed our first students to the Bethlehem Icon School. Yes, six long, eventful years! While the political context has plummeted into ever darker scenarios, the Icon Centre and its School have thrived as an oasis of peace, creativity, and hope.
The initial aim was to set up a school to teach icon painting, a workshop where people could paint icons f
ree from commercial exploitation and to have a Centre where visitors could come to enrich their visit to Bethlehem. This was to be within the first five years.
Through what can only be described as an abundant outpouring of the Holy Spirit we have managed to do all of this, and more. Now in our own dedicated facilities, including workshops, offices, cafeteria, library and chapel, with a roll of 35 regular students and the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts Icon Painting Course promising two or three graduates next year, our student body is dynamic, committed and has begun to attract others from around the world.
There is hardly a day when one or more of our students aren’t at work in the Centre and visitors arrive, sometimes in large groups, along with the media or local dignitaries, fascinated to see this thriving community of Christian artists and the beauty of their spiritual work. Indeed, the Palestinian Ministry of Culture is very keen that we participate in the upcoming celebration of Bethlehem as the Arab City of Culture in 2020. We have begun to settle into the local scene and be appreciated for what we offer.
We have a two year backlog of commissions waiting to be done by our two new icon painters, Madlen and Sr Esther. Still undergoing formation and training they have nevertheless begun their new vocation of painting icons professionally and within the shelter of the Icon Centre workshop. Their enthusiasm and dedication to achieving the highest professional standards, while deepening their spiritual lives through an ever closer spiritual relationship with Christ in the Icon, is deeply encouraging for the students following in their footsteps. It’s no longer all talk and vague dreams, but something very real and tangible, and within their grasp.
Visitors and students alike speak openly about the unique tranquility that seems to rest upon the Icon Centre. It really is the home of the Virgin Mary, what we might call a ‘thin place’ where Jesus and the saints live and are known. This spiritual intimacy extends to the relationships between the students themselves. It’s very much a home rather than an institution, a place where people realise their dreams through finding acceptance and grace. It’s a place of the Church, but outside the denominational structures, under the direct patronage of the Greek Catholic Melkite Patriarch of Antioch but very much belonging to everyone without judgment.
The second phase was to transfer management and teaching to local Christians who had mastered the skills of iconography, imbued the distinctive ethos and were committed to rooting classical iconography back within Palestinian Christian culture. Prior to this we planned to widen the teaching base, to develop the curriculum and to nurture the new iconographers to take on teaching roles. The goal was to achieve all this by the final year of a ten year period, ie. in 2022.
I am thrilled to say that we are already well underway to achieving all of this. Our original Company Board comprised more foreigners than Palestinians – now I am the only non-Palestinian. In January 2017 I stood down as Director and took on the role of Principal, handing over the role of Director to one of my students, Nicola Joha, who continues to study at the Centre while joining Nadeem Hazboun in the running of the Centre, and taking on responsibility for our public relations, publicity, fund raising and its overall development. In Nicola we have a Palestinian public face.
We have already broadened our teaching base, firstly with the MOU with the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts that allows us to teach their Icon Painting Course, and secondly with Lee Harvey committed to making regular termly visits to help with the regular teaching, and Hanna Ward as our occasional external tutor. Both of these accomplished and talented icon painters are involved as iconographers in the Lichfield Cross Project, spending much of this summer with Nicola and another four students alongside me completing this large and prestigious work for Lichfield Cathedral. This is a unique opportunity to learn while working alongside professional iconographers, especially at such an advanced level, while at the same time giving our tutors a much closer awareness of their students, their abilities, challenges and cultural background. It also provides the chance to bond at a spiritual level while walking such a demanding spiritual task.
I think you will agree that we have already more than fulfilled what we set out to achieve by this stage and that the Bethlehem Icon Centre is a force for great good for the people Palestine. We have re-established iconography as a living part of contemporary Palestinian Christian Culture.
We now raise half of our annual £35,000 running costs ourselves – through commission fees, international student fees (all local students still study free of charge), shop and cafeteria revenue, and visitors’ donations. This leaves us to find the other 50% from you, our supporters and friends.
This network of Friends led by Dr Stephen Baister has now given birth to a UK registered charity, the Holy Land Iconography Trust, under the chairmanship of Mr Paul Ewings, and this charity now handles all our fundraising revenue, while offering the chance to make gift aided donations.
Additionally, Ms Helena Machin, one of our most dedicated supporters, has taken up the voluntary post of Global Development Officer to help raise our international profile not least on social media, attract course participants, explore the possibility of an online shop and generally recruit financial supporters. Under her leadership we have already relaunched our website and created a new one for the Holy Land Iconography Trust, streamlining the way people can apply for courses and simplifying the process for making donations.
When I established the Centre in 2012 I wrote to all my contacts and asked for their help. And their generous, hopeful response did the job. Since then a small number of individuals have continued to give donations, some regularly, others occasionally. These have been essential in enabling the Centre and its School to develop and become the success it is.
However, numbers of donors have begun to dip and once again I have to ask you who truly value the Icon Centre to be generous, dig deep, and ensure that it can continue and indeed thrive. Without your support, there is every chance it will close, and certainly it will not fulfil its potential that is now so tantalisingly within reach.
I sincerely believe that this is a project ‘of God’, for at every turn we have found Divine Providence has opened doors and shown the way, usually when we had given up hope and everyone had said our situation was hopeless. Thus, I am asking for you to reflect, pray and see if supporting our little project financially is something Christ Himself is inviting you to do.
Our presence in Lichfield over this summer gives us a great opportunity to reconnect with all our supporters and benefactors, and to attract new ones. During August you can make an appointment via the cathedral to visit the project and see first hand the process of creating this 3m high, gilded, hanging Icon of the Cross, and we would be thrilled to welcome you.
However, we would like to offer you a unique invitation to gather all together on Sunday September 9th for a day of celebration. This will be the last chance to see the Cross up close before it is hung permanently above the nave altar on September 10th. Beginning with the main Sunday Eucharist at 11am there will be lunch and later an afternoon drinks reception. In between there will be half hourly talks and visits to the studio were the Cross can be viewed.
I also hope that from now until the end of that day we will have recruited 100 of you as regular donors, completing standing order forms of £10 per month, ensuring us an annual donor income of £12,000 to supplement the existing larger gifts which we are so blessed to receive. If these gifts are gift aided we can increase that by another £3000, bringing us close to the £17,000 the HLIT has committed itself to providing us each year. This will mean we can use the occasional donor income for expansion and development.
I would also like to ask you to recruit new Friends and donors. Perhaps you know someone who loves iconography or has a heart for the Palestinian people, or indeed both. Why not pray and then, if it seems right, ask them to join you in supporting out little, but fruitful, project? Or perhaps you work for a company which might consider making a corporate donation, such as Madwire, the US company which re-vamped our website pro bono? Or you might know of a trust that might look favourably on an application from us? Please do take the time to think, and just see if something pops up. As they say, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Thank you for you patience in reading this far, and for your ongoing kindness and generosity.