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Sir James MacMillan reignites the creative power of Christian inspiration

Thursday 22 February 2018

A fire-spinning scholar is among a dozen young theologians and composers, mentored by world-renowned Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan, who have created an exciting new body of sacred music.

The TheoArtistry Festival, the culmination of a ground-breaking initiative which shines a new light on the creative power of Christianity, will take place at the University of St Andrews next month (4-6 March). It will feature the world premieres of six musical compositions on themes of divine encounter in The Bible: God speaking to Adam and Eve, to Jacob, to Moses, to Samuel, to Elijah, and through Solomon.

The project is led by the University’s Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) which pioneers the practice, making, performance, curatorship, and reception of Christian art.

Among the 12 theologians and composers were Rebekah Dyer and Kerensa Briggs. Rebekah’s doctoral research on fire in the theological and social imagination, combined with her hobby as a fire-spinner, gave talented composer Kerensa new perspectives on Moses’ encounter with God through the Burning Bush (Exodus 3), inspiring a new piece of sacred choral music.

Sir James said: “It will be interesting to see if the next generation of composers will engage with theology, Christianity or the general search for the sacred. 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 onto the divine.

theoartistry-mainbody-2“Traditions are rivers which run through history irrigating human experience at any given point and if you put a dam in that river, you desiccate life, you stop irrigation, and that was one of the negative fallouts, the negative consequences of revolutionary modernism, that trend to stop the influence of the past. Let’s take the dam away, and let tradition flow. That river is an onward going thing, it has a past, but it also has a future and a present, and it can indeed irrigate human experience at any given time of history.”

Lecturer in ITIA and Director of TheoArtistry, Dr George Corbett of the School of Divinity at the University of St Andrews said: “We believe that by encouraging artists to re-engage with Christianity (whether in a reverent, irreverent, playful, or provocative way), we can help to inspire creative and original new art. 

“What happens, then, in this artistic encounter with Christianity? I like the scriptural image of water and wine: there is a sense, I think, in which music can be transformed by its encounter with Christianity and come not to serve theology, but to be theology or, more exactly, theoartistry, insofar as it may reveal God in a new way through artistry.”

More than 100 young composers from across the UK applied for one of six exclusive places to work with six St Andrews theologians to create new music inspired by religious themes.

The TheoArtistry Festival: Sacred Music for the 21st Century (4-6 March) will explore the challenges and opportunities for sacred music in the 21st century, and will include sessions on sacred music in and outside the church as well as reflection by leading scholars on new directions in theology and music.

The CD of the project, which features sacred music by Sir James MacMillan, his contemporaries and influences, and the six ‘next generation’ composers on the TheoArtistry Composers’ scheme will be launched at the conclusion of the festival.  


Top and news page: Sir James MacMillan with members of the University of St Andrews choir © Tilted Frame

Bottom and news page thumbnail: Sir James MacMillan © Hansvander Woerd


Dr George Corbett, Sir James MacMillan and Rebekah Dyer are available for interview via the Communications Office – contacts below.

Sir James MacMillan, one of Scotland’s most accomplished living classical composers and conductors, holds a part-time professorship in ITIA.

Dr George Corbett is Lecturer in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, and the Founder and Director of TheoArtistry ( and

The TheoArtistry Festival runs from Sunday 4 to Tuesday 6 March. Tickets can be booked via the Byre Theatre, at or on 01334 475000. A PDF of the whole programme is available:

A behind the scenes documentary on TheoArtistry is available here:

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office, contact Fiona MacLeod on 01334 462108, 07714 140559 or