2019-02-20
Jez Tozer

Reverend Peterson Feital had never truly known himself until art brought him face-to-face with his own soul.

Clad in the vestments that marked him as a member of the Church of England, he stood before Jez Tozer, a London-based photographer who has produced editorial for publications such as Japanese Vogue, GQ Style, and Arena.

But Rev. Feital didn’t just want to be photographed. He wanted to be captured.

“I want you to show me what you see in me as an object of art,” he told Tozer, “that I can’t see myself.”

And so the shoot commenced and the shutter clicked. But something was missing.

“Peterson,” said Tozer, “I want you to do what you do when you are on your own. I want you to pretend for a moment that I am God and you are praying.”

The request took Rev. Feital aback for a moment. “It was kind of a weird thing to say, in some ways, because it was almost like someone is coming into somewhere really, really private,” he says of the experience. “But then I realized that this is the work of an artist. If I don’t let him into this private place, he’s never going to get the essence of what I am.”

And so Rev. Feital let Tozer in, and for the first time in his life, allowed an artist to see who he was in private, dancing and praying and making noises to God in the way that he would do in the privacy of his own home.

He soon forgot about the camera.

When the shoot was finished, Tozer showed Rev. Feital one particular photo—one of the vicar spinning, his robes flying into the air as if of their own accord.

“Peterson,” he said. “This is it. This is the photo of your life. This is you.”

And it was. Rev. Feital describes the way his vestments moved in the photo by saying that it looked “almost like the breath of God was in it.”

Until he saw that picture, he had never fully seen himself. Art captures what a mirror cannot, reflecting not just the self, but the soul as well.

This is a truth that Rev. Feital knows uniquely well. He is, perhaps, the most fabulously-inclined vicar in all of England, mingling with the world’s most famous clothing designers, models, and creatives, as he works to bridge the gap between faith and fashion.

Speaking with Rev. Feital brings to mind two words: passionate empathy. This Brazilian-born member of the Church of England’s clergy cares about all people, but he has a special place in his heart for creatives.

The minister to the creative industries for the Diocese of London, Rev. Feital is a man who stands between two seemingly opposite worlds. In one hand, he holds the glitzy world of fashion, and in the other, the somber, yet joyful realm of theology. And somehow, he makes it all work, ministering to some of London's top creatives.

We were fortunate enough to catch up with the busy vicar of fashion for a brief chat about who he is, what he does, and why he does it. Let’s take a look at what he has to say about holding one of the most unique roles in the world.

“Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?”

“I am the Chief Executive of a charity—the first charity ever dedicated to the wellbeing of creatives in the creative industries, called The Haven London. I’m also the missioner to the creative industries for the London diocese of the Church of England. This is the first post, as well, that I’ve ever had.

On top of that, I am also the first theologian in the UK, to the best of my knowledge, to be looking at fashion in the Bible—looking at the theology of fashion, as it were. I am from Brazil, and I’ve been in the UK for 17 years. I try the best I can to live my life with as much excitement as I was born with—but I’m a serious man, too, obviously.

For the people who don’t know me, one of the questions people always have about me is: why fashion? Why the church? Why is a Brazilian doing this? These are the questions people ask me all the time.

And I say the answer is very simple. I find fashion is one of the most interesting subjects, one that has been widely discussed by sociologists, fashion historians, and all of that. But from a Biblical point of view, very few people have done that. Fashion that is something that is very much part of the fabric of the scriptures, and that’s why I find it fascinating.

But in the 21st-century, fashion is about identity—fashion is about culture, is about setting the trends. And also, there are rituals in fashion that I find quite fascinating.

Personally, I grew up in a country where to be someone you have to strive to become either a lawyer or a medic. So, creativity, when I grew up, was not something that Brazilian people were exposed to, and certainly men were not allowed to [participate in], but that’s very much the culture.

And so I broke away from that by simply accepting the fact that I love the arts, and I love creativity—it’s what brings me alive. It’s in my DNA. Theology is very much my field of study, but I think theology has a huge potential for imagination and for creativity. And that’s why I’m using all these things. And I think that I have not even begun to scratch the surface of the huge amounts of imagination that we can have.”

“Your work in fashion and the arts is an unexplored territory for the church—or at least for the modern church.”

“It is—and it’s quite an interesting point that you’re making. A few weeks ago the Church of England decided that it’s not important for the clergy to be wearing the vestments anymore. There is a huge discussion on the topic.

What’s interesting is that one of the arguments is that what the clergy wear is quite alien to a lot of people. You see, I used to think that was the case as well, but once I started working with creatives, I realized it actually was the opposite.

Because some people who have never been to church actually find some of the allegory and some of the creativity, some of the designing, some of the fabric that they see the ministers wearing a point of reference. They know what they’re getting.

And it is a point of discussion in so many ways. And I think that it just sometimes has these assumptions that people find that alienating without actually being with the group themselves, if you see what I mean.

One of the most fascinating conversations I always have with the fashion designers and with the common person on the streets when they realize I’m studying theology and fashion, is never about how much that’s off-putting, but actually how that is interesting because they haven’t had that explained to them for many, many years.

So it is a point of conversation in culture. And just a few weeks ago, one brand, did a very interesting campaign, in which they’re using lots of imagery from the Bible, with their own imagination, to actually talk about what’s happening in the world right now.

So I think that there really is a divorce between what the Church sometimes is saying and the question culture is actually asking. It is between these two things that I feel most comfortable.”

“That’s a unique position to be in.”

“It is, it is. And I think fashion also has to do with the question of gender. Gender and sexuality—they’re not the same. It’s not the same discussion. So it is also part of this conversation that the Church needs to understand—there are so many things that we need to be talking about right now. There’s poverty, there’s huge amounts of suffering happening in the world, there’s uncertainty in so many things.

It’s not that we shouldn’t talk about all these things at all, about gender and sexuality, particularly—we should, but we should find better ways of having this dialogue. Because we can’t be attacking people. We can’t. That is the most un-Christian thing ever.”

"What is the Church of England actually doing to get involved in London Fashion Week?"

"That is part of my work during London Fashion Week. During Fashion Week, I’ll be attending some shows to talk about the importance of body and fashion, and how culture is moving on. I’ll be attending some fashion shows, myself, because I’ve been invited.

In those fashion shows, it’s quite interesting, because most of the time it’s never just one thing. It’s always two things that happen. One is, because I’m a vicar and I’m in that environment, very often people would say to me—models would say—‘I’m a little bit nervous on the catwalk today, can you say a prayer?’ Or the designers would say ‘I haven’t slept for days. The collection hasn’t quite gone how we expected. Please, rev., could you send some thoughts?’ You know, because they don’t use the word prayer, but I know what they mean.

Which, again, is really a lovely place to be, and it is very important. This is me. But most of the time, I’m also there with my Ph.D. researcher, where I’m looking at what the new trends are, I’m looking for Christian iconography or any religious iconography and asking questions about that. But I’m also looking at the stories.

I meet a lot of new, up-and-coming designers, and it’s quite an opportunity to go to big fashion shows and big brands, but, obviously, I’m not there to criticize their work ever. That’s not what I do. I’m there to support what they’re doing, but I’m also there investigating, if you like, what culture is saying right now.

Fashion designers are also storytellers, as much as designers, as much as stylists, and I like to have conversations with them all as much as I can.”

“Many feel that fashion is every bit a language as the spoken word.”

"Absolutely. For me, I have a huge respect for fashion designers. Especially now, because they have a new collections so often, the huge amount of imagination is exhausting. The chaos that they’re living is absolutely excruciating because they have to face the critics.

And this is where I feel that what I do with The Haven is to say to the guy ‘Yes, a critic may come to you today and say something difficult about you or about your work, but tomorrow they may not. What we need to remember is we need to have grit.’

Grit is something so undermined, because people can be quite fragile—for a fashion designer, as for any professional, what they do is very close to their heart. But when you put yourself out there, people can criticize you and it can feel like a personal attack.

And I think this is why I say [criticism] is not what I do. My job is to support them.”

“Would you be able to give a little information about The Haven?”

“The Haven is an independent charity that looks after the spiritual and mental well-being of the shapers, storytellers, creatives, and artists in London, and the world, really. What we do is that we offer specific pastoral care that is designed and tailored to the creative mind.

We offer workshops for creatives where they can learn about resilience, where they can learn how to deal with the criticism, how they can be better emotionally to do the work they do. But it’s also for the creatives who want to explore spirituality—we’re also open to that conversation.

The whole aim of the charity is to help the creatives to thrive, to do what they do best, which is to tell their stories, but we want to be part of the narrative. We want to change this idea that creatives tend to be shallow people—they’re not shallow at all. This is completely one of the most unformed opinions someone can have of a creative.

It’s also saying to them, “You’re not on your own.” The world lives and breathes creativity. Everywhere we go, everything we touch has been touched by a creative. So, it’s not to say that creatives are on a pedestal—no one should ever be put on a pedestal. That, in itself, is a dangerous place to be—we’re not built to be idols. We’re human beings.

But we want them to know that, in the chaos of the lives they live, we are there for them, and we will do the best we can to get them to where they want to be, in confidence. All we do at the Haven is absolutely about confidentiality. That’s what we do.

But now we are starting our fundraising campaign because we need to find a home to house our work, and we need to attract supporters to our cause—the work has grown too much. London has nearly one million creatives working in the creative sector. That’s a lot of people just in London."

“It seems you’re on the cutting edge compared to many other Christian institutions.”

“That’s an interesting thing. I think, where I am as a person, is a very fragile place to be. A lot of people that I speak to, when they meet me, tend to assume the Church is breaking new grounds. Yes—the Church is breaking new grounds, and I am very glad that I am in that place.

But it takes me, as a person, a huge amount of self-drive, because I have to be so driven, so focused in what I do. There are so many setbacks that happen on a daily basis with my work and with what I do, but I’m committed to it.

I never really wanted to be famous—it’s not one of the ends of my life. But I read a lot about individuals like Mandela, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X—all these kinds of giants, and lots of women who worked and became pioneers in the field of science and politics.

I’ve always been so transfixed by those figures. Because what those people did—they didn’t set out to become legends. They wanted to change something that they found fundamentally important in their lives.

This is something that I want to do with my life. I want, not to be famous, but if I happen to leave something when I die, I want to have left some sort of life in which what I did mattered—mattered so much that it helped other people to live their lives better. It made a difference.

All I’m looking for is an opportunity to say to people: ‘In a world that is so fractured, we can afford to trust someone from time to time.’ That’s what it takes—an opportunity [for creatives] to trust someone with their life story, to someone who cares. Not someone who just wants to hear a story because they’re going to sell stories, but because someone listened and wants to make a difference.

That’s what I hope to do.”

In Conclusion: A Man of Two Worlds

One idea was clear after speaking to Rev. Feital: it has never been more important for the Christian Church to reach out to the world  and make itself relevant in its message. It should model peace and present the world with a rhythm that is counter-cultural, and an alternative to help people to find meaning, healing and comfort. Rev. Feital proposes a shift: in the past the church has been historically known as patron to the arts, whereas now he wishes the Church to be seen as patron to the artist.

But most of all, he wants others to know that the Church's mission is to understand and empathize with whoever may be hurting.

As a man who deeply understands the subtle language of fashion just as well as the intricacies of spirituality and Christian theology, Rev. Feital is quite likely the most qualified member of the clergy to reach out to the glamorous world of fashion. The man known as the “Red Carpet Curate" has just the right combination of education, theological training, and style to make a big splash as both minister and fashion expert, and stands to begin rebuilding the bridge between faith and culture.

Where art reveals the soul of man, Rev. Feital wants to begin healing it. This is important. When the Church engages culture in a way that heals, comforts, and cures, it fulfills a major part of its mission to, as Christ said, “love one another.”

It is in Rev. Feital’s parting words that we see this connection, and the sincere love he holds for London’s—and the world’s—creatives.

“I know this is something unorthodox for a vicar to say, but I will say it anyway. I’ve been in and out of many, many churches, and I felt really empty being there, and sometimes a little bit bored, too—until the day that I discovered, for myself, that God is a source of creativity, of energy, of light.

My world was turned upside down as I was looking at some beautiful works of art that made me feel alive again. And I just want to say to creatives: I feel alive because of you."

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