By Colin Blakely
HE IS known as the ‘Red Carpet Curate’, but the ministry of the Rev Peterson Feital is far more significant than the tabloid nickname would suggest.
Last year he was appointed the first Missioner to the Creative Industries by the Diocese of London. It was just the latest of innovative new appointments that is being made by the Church of England as it seeks out new mission opportunities.
But what does this post of Missioner really entail? Sitting in the heart of Soho, he told me about the vision he has for his strategic role. Surrounded by creatives on every side – London’s arts and media specialists contribute over £70 billion a year to the UK economy – he is very aware of the unusual environment in which he finds himself.
The people he has in his patch include film-makers, actors, designers, advertising executives and many other professionals. But their lifestyles are rather different to the people around them.
“It is typical that they might work 24/7, that may impact their mental health. They are dealing with anxiety, with a pressure beyond what I can cope with. Some of them work doing animation in a tiny room with no interaction.”
The pressures at work may lead some to the use of recreational drugs, as we have seen in the lives of many the entertainment industry has lost, such Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse and even sad suicide stories such as the fashion designer Alexander McQueen.
So while The Haven+ London is about nurturing, supporting and giving artists a platform it also offers specific and confidential pastoral care and counselling.
“We are open to people of all faiths to none. People from all backgrounds. The spiritual, physical and wellbeing of the artists is our priority,” he says.
The main difference with the creative industries are that they are all story-tellers. “That’s what they do, but then they run out of stories and sometimes they have to look inside themselves to get their own stories and they find they have lost their own narrative. We all have that from time to time, but that’s when the problems begin,” he sagely observes.
His typical day is that he arrives in London early (he has to commute from Buckinghamshire) then meets executives, creatives, bankers and impresarios for prayer and Bible study. By midday he is doing admin and working on his Haven charity. In the evenings he might go to a premiere or fashion show. An early start and a late finish, but he has to be available for those who need him.
“All I ever had was a passion for the English people,” says this Brazilian-born priest.
Bubbly and charismatic – he admits: “I am very loud” — he says that many people find out about him and his work by word of mouth. He is on social media and has 5,000 followers, even although he hasn’t worked out what to do with his online presence yet.
“My work is with A-listers, and it is confidential, that’s the nature of any priest with a parish. I am always available to whoever,” he reveals. And if you Google him, one of the first images that will appear is him with Al Pacino. While that may be typical of the circles in which he mixes, he is reluctant to say any more.
He told me that each morning as he leaves for work, he says the same prayer: “God may I be a face to a stranger that is yours.”
He says that often he finds himself in the most remarkable of places, and one of the most remarkable is his work completing a PhD on faith and fashion.
When I ask him why, his answer is disarming: “Why not?”
The fashion industry is a multi billion-pound industry. He continues: “Fashion deals directly with the body. The body is an important message for Judaism as well as for Christianity. If there is no body there is no Christianity. The church is also a body and the Bible talks a lot about how people are dressed. There are lots of metaphors about clothing: what does that mean?”
That will be one of the subjects addressed in his doctorate.
He went on to ask whether what we wear is important? “I am looking at the impact of fashion on women: what is so important about body image, gender and fashion that is so prevalent in how fashion is telling this story that is so alien to the church?”
He likes to quote Paul Tillich, who observed that ‘there is sometimes more about God in a secular painting than in a religious one’. “And the same is true for fashion,” he adds.
And this issue is one that is especially important for today’s young people. “Young people love fashion. And in fact menswear is more so than womenswear.
“People define themselves by the labels they wear. There is a profound sense of identity that people are looking for in what they wear. Does God have something to say about identity, about gender, about sexuality? I want to ask these questions to the people in the fashion world.”
His mission is clear: “Part of it is to read culture well. To be an ambassador for Christ is to speak the language of the people you are embedded in yet to also represent the values of a bigger City, which is the kingdom of God.”
And while that ‘bigger City’ is clear in his mind, he finds himself in a rather smaller city: London. And his vision for The Haven+ London is centred on his ‘parishioners’.
“They may enjoy high salaries, but equally there is high pressure, which is intensified because of the unstable nature of the sector’s employment. Freelancing has changed everything. They might earn £140,000 one year but they don’t know where the next pay cheque is coming from.”
And he reveals an extraordinary fact about those among whom he is working: “Most of the people I know don’t even know what a vicar is. Last week I met lots of young people, one in particular who works in the gaming industry, and he had never heard the term ‘vicar’.
As well as being the first Missioner to the Creative Industries for London Diocese he is also the first theologian in the UK researching on Theology and Fashion at Kings College, London.
Dr Aaron Rosen from King’s College, commented: “His ecclesial experience and his knowledge and connections in the world of high fashion make him uniquely qualified to blaze a fresh trail, essentially creating the field of fashion and theology ex-nihilo. While there have been sociological and anthropological studies in this field, as well as theological treatments of other modern art forms, no scholar has yet produced a theology of fashion”.
In his career he has received two awards, one on the Mission Apologetic Award, by the Baptist Association — the youngest-ever person to win the award — and the John Wesley Evangelist Prize, which recognises innovative and pioneering evangelism.
But what is The Haven+ and what will it do?
Peterson’s vision is for a club that functions like The Groucho Club, where creatives can come to relax and unwind, but also to receive the support and pastoral care that is missing from most of the Soho establishments.
Such a vision is not something that will come cheap, but his vision has been embraced by Christians – and others – who work in the area.
If anyone can fulfil this inspiring vision, it is Peterson Feital.
Why I’m backing The Haven + London
Maureen Lipman, one of Britain’s best-loved actresses, is remarkable self-effacing. In her video interview for The Haven+ London, she says that she has been a ‘jobbing actress for 50 years.’ Her fans will beg to disagree, but she admits that even with her success, there are stresses and strains. She talks about coping with the kind of rejection ‘as me as a human being’ that comes from reviews.
“We – actors — feel outsiders, and this business is for us a therapy.”
She also reveals dilemma she faces.
“When I go to visit churches I am dazzled and depressed – dazzled because of the message but depressed because of the money. It takes a very special person – and Peterson may be that person – to relay that message of the church without getting bogged down in the trappings of the church.”
Currently seeking charity status, The Haven + London is looking for its own building and is putting together a fundraising campaign. They are appealing for volunteers, including admin and a project manager. A range of events are being planned, including a Motown Carol Concert on December 8. Further details will be on their website.