Icons to love

by Anne Ostrowicz.

For this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, British-Guyanese artist Hew Locke had wrapped the city’s statue of Queen Victoria with a huge boat carrying the Queen and five slightly smaller Victoria replicas[1]. In the past, statues of Queen Victoria were shipped all over the British Empire, declaring British interests, including one placed in 1894 in front of the law courts in Georgetown, Guyana[2], which Hew Locke passed each day as a boy on his way to school.

Hew’s powerful art installation brought to my mind the explosive words in Genesis[3] where humans are declared to have within them the potential to become images or icons of their Creator, each in their uniqueness and own sphere of life.

As I write, the news is full of the recent death of Queen Elizabeth 2nd, many journalists and commentators referring to her as an icon representing the best of our nation.

A new academic year has just begun. Working in Religious Education in a secondary school in Birmingham, I am constantly reflecting on the direction in which we want to ‘grow’ our teenagers – and thence our communities. How can the curriculum I teach, in content and method, and my own way of being, help to move my pupils in this direction?

Black American writer James Baldwin describes the impact of some of his icon-teachers. As a boy, when his home life was characterised by poverty and tension, Baldwin lists a number of teachers who pointed the way forward for him, giving him both hope and inspiration. In particular he describes the artist Beauford Delaney as “my principal witness”[4] whose very gaze the young James used to follow to “see” what this man saw. ‘“Look again!” Delaney would challenge him. And “then he noticed!” [5]These teachers set Baldwin on his literary journey and career at a very young age.

Having re-read Malcolm X’s powerful autobiography this summer for teaching purposes, I can’t help wondering whether he would have reached his inclusive conclusions long before he did if only he had had similar helpful teacher-icons. In contrast to Baldwin, a pivotal moment for Malcolm X’s life was when his English teacher poured water over the flames of his fourteen year-old very-evident talent and aspiration to become a lawyer. Instead what was ignited was the anger and alienation which characterised so much of his youth, continuing into his adult life until his ‘enlightenment’ on Hajj when he experienced beautiful people of all colours. In his autobiography he adds to his recounting of the incident at school: “Lansing certainly had no Negro lawyers – or doctors either – in those days, to hold up an image I might have aspired to.” [6]

Given a sabbatical this last summer term, I worked on the year-long course I teach to young teen-agers on the life and teaching of Jesus. After an introduction to historical background and to the gospel writers, pupils are immersed in just a few texts, ‘going deep’ in trying to understand what Jesus stood for, including drawing on perspectives from black liberation and feminist theologians. Religious, ethical and philosophical issues are raised for discussion, and woven throughout are references to art, literature and contemporary events. Sitting at my desk for those months made me even more convinced that everything Jesus says and does seems to be directed towards illuminating what it means to love; that Jesus is the Supreme Icon of Love. And in the classroom, year after year, I am unfailingly moved by teenagers from every religious and secular background who are invariably gripped by Jesus: they see, but more than that they embrace, the beauty and inspiration expressed in his life. Truth is indeed beautiful. On my classroom wall this Autumn is a phrase from Giles Fraser in a recent Thought for the Day[7]. He beautifully described God as “a metaphysical anchor in an ever-changing world”. Many of our icons change but Jesus holds up to me an image of an unchanging and unfailing metaphysical anchor to love.

[1] The installation was in Victoria Square in front of the Town Hall and Birmingham Museum and Art gallery.

[2] The statue was installed in 1894, dynamited in 1954 by anti-colonialists, restored in Britain and is now  -controversially – back in its original position in front of the law courts in Georgetown.

[3] Genesis 1v.27: “So God created human beings in God’s image… male and female…”.

[4] David Leeming, James Baldwin, a Biography, Arcade Publishing, 2015, p.33

[5] ibid, p.34

[6] The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Penguin Books 2007, p.112

[7] Thought for the Day, Radio Four, Tuesday September 6, 2022

2 thoughts on “Icons to love”

  1. Although I was trained to teach Maths I did some RI teaching. One thing that surprised me was the fact that I/we could talk about faith, belief religion etc. with ordinary secular language. Talking about love, the love of God for us or the love we have for our neighbours, became justice and fairness. Grace became the sense of wonder and joy we find in life. I should not have been surprised since I take it that this is the point of Tillich’s Theory of Correlation. Bearing this in mind why do we have the special God-talk language in church?


  2. What an icon she was, our beloved late Queen Elizabeth!
    Her devotion to God and dedication to duty were exemplary. She will be a hard act to follow, but I believe both the Monarchy and the Church are safe in the hands of the new Defender of the Faith, King Charles III. Long live the King!
    There was a very powerful moment towards the end of the funeral service at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, when the orb, sceptre and crown were removed from the coffin and placed on the high altar. It brought home the reality that all earthly powers and dominions eventually come to an end, and ultimately there is only one King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

    ‘King of Glory, King of Peace, I will love Thee;
    And that love may never cease, I will move Thee.
    Thou hast granted my request, Thou hast heard me;
    Thou didst note my working breast, Thou hast spared me.’
    (H&P 499)


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