Research

Stations of the Cross 2003: An Analysis of a Liturgical Experience and its Relevance for Spiritual Formation Today.

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Sue Wallace, Ordained Anglican Priest to the Alt Worship & Emerging Church Community called ‘Visions’ in York, interviews Mark Pierson, Baptist Minister, and one of the Grandees of Alt Worship and the Emerging Church in New Zealand and Australia. Mark explored the use of ‘Stations of the Cross’ for spiritual formation in his Masters Thesis. He was previously pastor to Cityside Baptist Church (www.cityside.org.nz) and ‘Parallel Universe’ which he co-led with Mike Riddell. More recently he has been working with ‘Urban Seed’ (www.urbanseed.org, www.seeds.org,au) in Melbourne Australia. In late 2007 Mark returned to New Zealand to work as a Baptist pastor.


Why did you decide to do this research particularly rather than any other subject?

I had been curating contemporary Stations of the Cross installations at Cityside Church in Auckland for XX years by 2002, and when I was looking around for a topic for my Master of Ministry with Melbourne College of Divinity, something that connected art, worship, mission and contemporary culture seemed ideal. It was only in consultation with my outstanding supervisor Claire Renkin that the project shaped up to be ‘Stations of the Cross 2003: an analysis of a liturgical experience and its relevance for spiritual formation today.’ She and her husband Will Johnston introduced me to works on remediation and liminality, which became the framework that I looked at Stations through.

So during the 2003 installation 136 punters spent time reflecting on their experience and filling in survey forms for me. My work was to analyse those responses in the light of remediation and liminality. I have long been interested in ways to use cultural artifacts in worship and to have that use enable punters to make a deeper response to following Jesus in their contemporary worlds.

If my memory serves me right, the Baptist tradition isn’t famous for doing Stations of the cross (or at least they aren’t up in Yorkshire where I live) so where did you first encounter them?
Your memory serves you very rightly! Baptists have been proud of their disconnection from the Roman Catholic Church where Stations of the Cross are probably best known, although many Anglican/Episcopal/Church of England buildings would also provide stations. Most years I would receive letters and phonecalls from people who had seen the publicity and wanted me to know that I was moving toward apostasy and idolatry!

I really have no idea how I came to know about Stations of the Cross. I don’t come from a Christian-home background, and at that stage I had no interest in or understanding of, art of any sort. My journaling around the time I had the idea for ‘Stations of the Cross: contemporary icons to reflect on at Easter’ indicates that I woke up one morning with the idea that a good way to get the few artists who were part of the very small Cityside Church community to use their skills in a church setting, was to do a contemporary Stations of the Cross. So I must have seen or heard of it somewhere. My original idea was to do a labyrinth and put the stations within it. I don’t know how I knew about labyrinths either!

The original intention, that never changed over the following years, was to provide a structured environment that Citysiders (generally pretty unstructured people!) could work within to produce art and have an audience for it. I wanted the artists (who may have had no formal training) to have a brief, a deadline, and a public place to present their work. At that point I felt I had achieved everything I wanted. If anyone turned up to look at the works, that was a bonus.

Did you encounter any surprises as you went about your research?
I had hoped for about 30 responses, of which I thought I might get 15-20 good ones to analyse. From a small note in the installation notes the 50 copies I produced went very fast and more people kept asking for them. I drew the line at 150 copies, of which 136 were returned. When I came to read them I was overwhelmed. I realized I was handling sacred documents. People had taken 45 minutes or more to reflect and write their responses. Many took the forms away and posted them back. Their comments were very personal, and indicated that the process of reflecting and writing had been a very worthwhile one for them. I was very surprised by the responses.

As I researched other work around similar themes I was surprised at the depth and breadth of writing available about how to ‘read’ images and the process of looking. I had been quite unaware of that. I was equally surprised to find almost nothing written about the role of visual art in worship. No one has written seriously about what everyone seems to be talking about! I hope to remedy that with a book on using installation art in worship and mission, based on my Masters work.

Another surprise was that as far as ‘spiritual impact’ or perhaps ‘spiritual formation’ is concerned, the quality of the art seemed to have little or no bearing. So art that I thought was the ultimate in Christian kitsch could be the work that God spoke through most clearly to someone. Similarly work that appeared so complex/non-representational to me that I had no idea what it was about or how it related to the particular station theme, could also be very moving to another punter. There was something about the environment that we created for the art (in this particular year it was a contemporary New Zealand ‘garden of Eden with sand, trees, plants, waterfall etc), that made the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

What did traditionalists who are used to the old-fashioned version make of it all?
Their comments indicate that they generally found it very helpful and enabling of God-encounters. That was regardless of age or gender.

I met someone at a clergy conference this year who was into new forms of church but who considered any physical representation of Jesus or God to be a terrible sin. What would you say to him?
Apart from the obvious that first springs to mind! None of the contemporary installations makes any attempt to physically represent God or Jesus. The stations arise out of each artist’s reflection on the biblical event that their chosen station refers to. What is being offered is a way to access the God/Christ who is behind the story or art.

What was the best part of the whole journey of research for you?
Finishing it after four years of work that was interrupted by moving countries! I enjoyed taking processes and ways of looking at art and media that haven’t normally been seen as useful to Christian worship and ministry, applying them in those contexts, and seeing the increase in depth as well as breadth that has come to my understanding and practice of ministry. So the work was actually useful!

What did you find hardest?
Just sticking at it and making time for it when my life was already more than full. Part-time study isn’t easy.

If you had to do a thirty second “ad” instead of a dissertation, what would be the catchy slogan?
“Contemporary Stations of the Cross – meeting the Holy in the profane” might come close. Of course it would be over a loop of half-second cuts of images from contemporary movies, graffiti, and traditional religious art, accompanied by a sound track from Moby (probably “Alone”).

Is there anything else you’d like to add, in reply to the question i never got around to asking?
Not that I can think of.