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Wednesday, 21 March 2018

St Martin-in-the-Fields: Palm Sunday, Holy Week & Easter Day

On Palm Sunday at 5.00pm in St Martin-in-the-Fields I will be leading From Creation to Salvation, a powerful service of readings and music as we enter into Holy Week, telling the story of salvation, with the Choir of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

At the beginning of Holy Week I will be leading Alternative Stations of the Cross, a service for Holy Week at St Martin-in-the-Fields, at 6.00pm on Monday 26 March in the Dick Sheppard Chapel. For this service I will use meditations and images from ‘Mark of the Cross’, my collaboration with Henry Shelton, as well as showing the Stations of the Cross created by Valerie Dean. These images by commission4mission artists are available for download via 'Mark of the Cross' features 20 poetic meditations on Christ’s journey to the cross and reactions to his resurrection and ascension (images by Henry Shelton and words by myself). 'Stations of the Cross' by Valerie Dean are available as a powerpoint presentationand as a pdf file. Her 'Stations of the Cross' have a very clear and intense focus on details which are evocative of the whole. Individual images, pdfs and powerpoints for these collections are all available for download from The Worship Cloud.

Our other Holy Week and Easter services are as follows:

Meditation on the Cross (DSC and Lightwell)
The meditative service for Holy Week.
Tuesday 27 March, 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm

A Concert for Holy Week: Will Todd Passion Music
Will Todd conducts St Martin's Chorus and the Choral Scholars of St Martin-in-the-Fields in the world première his Passion Music.
Tuesday 27 March, 7:30 pm - 9:30 pm

Bread for the World in Holy Week
A weekly informal Eucharist on Wednesdays to deepen the life of the St Martin’s community, through prayer, music, word and reflection. Followed by fellowship.
Wednesday 28 March, 6:30 pm - 7:30 pm

Great Sacred Music: A Sequence for Holy Week
Revd Dr Sam Wells explores the story and the meaning behind the music of our religious heritage, with St Martin’s Voices (directed by Andrew Earis).
Thursday 29 March, 1:00 pm - 1:45 pm

Maundy Thursday Liturgy
Maundy Thursday Liturgy with foot washing followed by the silent vigil of the watch until 10.00pm.
Thursday 29 March, 6:30 pm - 10:00 pm

Good Friday Service for All Ages
An all age service for Holy Week.
Friday 30 March, 10:00 am - 11:00 am

Good Friday Three Hours
A Cross in the Heart of God from the Foundation of the World: a service of reflections on the passion of Christ.
Friday 30 March, 12:00 pm - 3:00 pm

Sound of St Martin’s: Bach St John Passion
Andrew Earis directs St Martin’s Voices and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in this stunning performance of Bach’s magnificent St John’s Passion.
Friday 30 March, 7:30 pm - 9:30 pm

Easter Day

The Easter Vigil and the First Eucharist of Easter
Sunday 1 April 2018
5:30 am - 6:30 am

Easter Eucharist
Sunday 1 April 2018
10:00 am - 11:00 pm

Choral Evensong – Easter Day
Sunday 1 April 2018
5:00 pm - 5:45 pm


J.S. Bach - St John's Passion.

How does a crucified stormtrooper glorify God?

The blogger Archbishop Cranmer asks the question, ‘How does a crucified stormtrooper glorify God?’ As I see value in exhibiting Ryan Callanan’s ‘Crucified Stormtrooper’ in a church, when he does not, he goes on to assume and assert that I cannot have pondered the question of what this artwork is actually saying about God’s unique sacrifice and the ultimate source of salvation.

The cross was originally a scandal and a stumbling block within the societies to which the Early Church took the Gospel. The Apostles asked their contemporaries to follow a man who had been given a death reserved for the lowest of the low, who had died among thieves, and who was cursed, as was the case, according to the Law of Moses, for anyone who died on a tree.

Christ’s crucifixion is one of the great subjects of Western Art and yet, for the reasons we are been considering, there are very few early crucifixion images as the Early Christians went out of their way to not depict it. We Christians, by contrast, have become so used to speaking about crucifixion that we tend to miss its horror. Instead we have beautiful crosses on or in our churches, in the lapels of our coats, hung around our necks and embossed on our Bibles.

Not only have we tamed the horror of crucifixion in our thinking but we have also tamed the true scandal of the cross; that we are all sinners and that the sinless Christ became sin himself on the cross in order to save us from our sin. In such a context, how do we recapture or represent the true scandal of the cross?

I suggest that one way is to display a crucified stormtrooper in a City church. To do so generates accusations of blasphemy from those who don’t understand that the sinless Christ had to take sin onto himself in order to save us and also the accusation of tackiness from those who seem to think that the beauty of our worship and architecture is what saves us.

In the Star Wars films, stormtroopers are the main ground force of the Galactic Empire, under the leadership of Emperor Palpatine and his commanders, most notably Darth Vader. They are on the dark side in that conflict. That the artist Ryan Callanan chose to create a ‘Crucified Stormtrooper,’ provides Christians and others with the possibility of experiencing something of the sense of scandal that Christ’s crucifixion originally generated.

The imagery of the dark side in the Star Wars films can be seen in this context as equating to the Christian belief that we are all sinners. If we use the imagery opened up for us by ‘Crucified Stormtrooper,’ then we are forced to reflect, much as we dislike the thought, that we are all on the dark side. We are all stormtroopers.

The amazing message of love at the heart of Christianity is that God does something about that situation. God becomes one of us in Christ. He becomes a stormtrooper in order that, through his death, he can take the darkness onto himself and enable us to live in the light. That is the original heartbeat of Christianity, which continues to radically change people's lives on a daily basis around the world when they genuinely acknowledge their own sinfulness. The scandal - the stumbling block - that is the cross, is brought to home to us afresh by including this artwork in this exhibition; particularly to any who view their own assets as the basis for their own self-esteem.

My reflection on the ‘Crucified Stormtrooper’ is unlikely to be what the artist intended when he made the piece. The concept of cross referencing is important in Callanan’s work, taking one item out of its context and splicing it with another to create something that feels familiar but whose meaning is subtly shifted, so he was probably primarily interested in juxtaposing incongruous images. But once he had put the stormtrooper on a cross, he made that reflection possible.

For us to show this work in a church enables that reflection on Christ's love to be seen and shared in a new way and that is why it worthwhile for the Church to show art, especially controversial art, and to explore the questions that it opens up to us. I am interested in putting art exhibitions into churches because I recognise that artists, in their work, are seeking to explore the big philosophical questions in life. Questions like, who am I, where am I, why am I here and is there a God? The Church is also exploring those same questions and, therefore, there is potential for real connection between the Church, artists and those viewing the art in exploring those questions together. We won't all come to the same conclusions or even to any conclusions but exploring the questions and living the questions is a profoundly spiritual thing to do.

Those who have come to the exhibitions I have organised, and many do, generally respond reflectively and with appreciation. Ben Moore, the curator of this exhibition, said that its well-attended Private View was a great success with an atmosphere that had a good warmth and glow about it. In that context, I was able to talk to people, for whom churchgoing is not necessarily a regular feature of their lives, about the art in relation to the love of Christ. That is both a great privilege and opportunity. Ben himself has, as a result of the controversy, written publicly about his faith. He equates the image to the storyline in Star Wars 'The Force Awakens' (2015) where we see ‘a stormtrooper escape from the dark side to come and support the rebellion’ and therefore views 'crucified stormtrooper' as playing into the notion of forgiveness.

In addition, many Christians see no issue with the image. One, who wrote to me, is a collector of Callanan’s work, and stated clearly that it is not offensive. A parishioner, who is thankful that the piece wasn’t removed from the exhibition, has written of how the exhibition has informed his Lenten reading:

‘Like each work on display, individually both ‘Crucified Stormtrooper’ and ‘Dying Slave’ are beautiful and thought provoking. Placed together, they seem to take on an extra dimension - creating a dialogue about our own mortality and relationship with body image - and the extent to which our minds and bodies are a legible witness to our faith. These themes are explored in Chapter 5 of Ben Quash’s Book ‘Abiding’: Wounds that Abide. The reaction of my anonymous friend at church and the subsequent act of moving the Crucified Stormtrooper has meant that all of us, as parishioners and visitors to the exhibition, are bound up in this dialogue.’

I give thanks to God for these and other responses. I think it better by far to engage with these images and discuss the questions they raise, instead of seeking to suppress or censor. I think it important to build relationships with those who are outside the Church but nevertheless grappling with their response to the challenge and scandal of Christ's cross. I think that all these are in play as part of this exhibition and that that is genuinely glorifying to God.


The Call - I Still Believe.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018


First Impressions – Portraits from Prison, has been curated by the Koestler Trust, at the invitation of the Prisons Mission of Churches Together in Westminster. The exhibition was opened tonight at St James Piccadilly by prison reformist, Jonathan Aitken.

The Koestler Trust is the UK’s leading prison arts charity. It plays a vital part in the rehabilitation journey offered to prisoners and ex-prisoners to transform their lives through participation in arts.

The Prisons Mission is an initiative of Churches Together in Westminster (CTiW) which provides support and assistance identified and needed by the multi-faith Chaplaincy Teams in prisons. It also aims to ensure that prisoners while out of sight are not out of mind. 

The Prisons Mission has developed a very useful relationship with the Koestler Trust enabling the of this four Churches Show of Art by Prisoners. Artwork will be exhibited at St James’s Piccadilly, St Martin-in-the-Fields, Notre Dame de France and Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church. It is hoped that the artwork will be the focus for other prison related activities, discussions, lectures, displays and dramas, providing information about the prison and criminal justice system, not only to the regular congregations, but to a wider audience.

The exhibition showcases a selection of portraiture and sculpture entered into the Koestler Awards – an annual scheme run by the Koestler Trust that has been inspiring participation in the arts by people in the UK’s criminal justice system and secure sectors for over 55 years.


Johnny Cash - San Quentin.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Stephen Newton: Artistic creation & transcendental feeling

I'm currently reading 'The Spiritual Unconscious: Stephen Newton - Paintings and Drawings 1975-96'. Newton argues that there is an abstract ‘core’ of creativity which generates the spirituality of both the icon and the abstract.

He quotes Wilhelm Worringer from 'Abstraction and Empathy':

‘To transcendentalism of religion there always corresponds a transcendentalism of art, for which we lack the organ of understanding only because we obstinately insist upon appraising the vast mass of factual material in the whole field of art from the narrow angle of vision of our European-Classical conception. We perceive transcendental feeling in the content, to be sure; but we overlook it in the real core of the process of artistic creation, the activity of the form-determining will’.

'It is this abstract ‘core’ of creativity which generates the spirituality of both the icon and the abstract. It is this access through the materiality of form to a communion with the supernatural and an ek-stasis which invoked the wrath of the iconoclasts, and not, as is usually assumed, because the image of the deity is figuratively symbolised.'

'The original genesis of such a spirituality is in creative structure and experience, which arguably underpins art, religion and also psychoanalysis. Put simply, this creative experience might generally be described as involving some sort of transcendental, therapeutic, transformative and ecstatic process, which can involve actual ek-stasis , an ‘out of body’ experience ...

This spiritual, creative structure turns up in various guises throughout human history; in mysticism; in ancient oracles; in African tribal dance and ritual; in all religious and spiritual experience; and throughout mythology. I think its most recent genuine or ‘authentic’ manifestation is in the advent of modern abstract art, as practised in its purest sense by artists such as Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, De Kooning, Guston and others.'

Newton's work is included in the Priseman Seabrook Collection which was established by British artist Robert Priseman and his wife Ally Seabrook in 2014. The collection is formed into three categories – 21st Century British Painting, 20th and 21st Century British Works on Paper and Contemporary Chinese Works on Paper. The focus of each collection is on painting and drawing made by hand. Priseman also founded ‘Contemporary British Painting’, an artist led organisation which exhibits in the crypt of St Marylebone  Parish Church exploring and promoting current trends in British painting through group exhibitions, talks, publications and the donation of paintings to art museums. 


Lent Oasis

We enjoyed another ‘Oasis’ time of quiet scripture reflection, prayer and practical art at St Martin-in-the-Fields this afternoon. Art materials were available for us to explore, play with colour and be creative through collage, painting, drawing or writing. The 'Oasis' time began with Lectio Divina and imaginative contemplation of Mark 10. 46 - 52.


Gregory Porter - He Looked Beyond All My Faults.

Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story - Abraham and Isaac

‘Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story’ is a free resource to help people explore the Christian faith, using paintings and Biblical story as the starting points. It’s been created by St Martin-in-the-Fields in partnership with the National Gallery.

Here is the latest reflection that I have prepared for the series:

Text: Genesis 22:1-12
Image: ‘Abraham and Isaac’ Johann Heinrich Ferdinand Olivier, 1817, NG6541
Location: National Gallery, Gallery D


Johann Heinrich Ferdinand Olivier was born in Dessau where he received his first artistic training. In 1804 he moved to Dresden where he became acquainted with the painters Philipp Otto Runge and Caspar David Friedrich. Friedrich combined landscape motifs with religious symbolism, and pictures like his ‘Winter Landscape’ in the National Gallery represent the hope for salvation through the Christian faith.

From 1807 to 1810 Olivier was in Paris, and in 1811 he settled in Vienna. In 1817 he became a member of the Brotherhood of Saint Luke, an artistic brotherhood (later known as the Nazarenes) founded in Vienna in 1809 by Friedrich Overbeck and Franz Pforr. The Brotherhood was committed to regenerating German religious art in imitation of the works of Durer, Perugino and Raphael. Olivier shared the Nazarenes' enthusiasm for northern medieval and Renaissance art and their interest in the revival of religious painting. The Nazarenes were particularly admired by the Pre-Raphaelites.

In this painting, Abraham and his son Isaac make their way to the place of sacrifice as recounted in the Old Testament (Genesis 22: 1-19). Isaac carries wood for the altar fire and Abraham holds a lighted torch. They appear to be focused primarily on their journey and don’t appear to be involved in debate or argument about the coming sacrifice.

The style of the painting is deliberately archaic, with precise outlines and odd disparities in scale, while the figures of Abraham and Isaac recall the simplified forms of a medieval woodcut. The landscape background is drawn with meticulous care. It is loosely based on Olivier's studies of the countryside around Salzburg, which he first visited in 1815. The distant mountain peak may perhaps be identified as the Watzmann, to the south of the city.

The story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac is not an easy one to handle for a lot of people. There appears to be a lot that is wrong, even barbaric, about the tale. How can a man, elsewhere called a hero of the faith, be prepared to kill his child? And how can a God, whom we talk about as loving, ask anyone to do that? What kind of God would ask Abraham to kill his own son as a sacrifice? Should blind loyalty to God lead us to commit evil, inhuman acts? It is a story that seems like an easy target for people who say that religions cause violence and conflict.

The key to understanding this story is the realisation that child sacrifice was the norm in the religions of the day and that the reason Abraham obeys God so unquestioningly may have been because, horrific and distasteful as it seems to us, there was nothing at that time unusual about the idea that the gods required human sacrifices in order to be appeased. It may be that we see this imaged in the calmness and willingness with which Abraham and Isaac ascend the mountain to the place of sacrifice.

The stories in Genesis about Abraham are foundational stories for the People of Israel. Imagine for a moment that you want to create a foundational story for a group of people that will change their understanding of sacrifice from the understanding with which they have grown up to one which is completely different from the religious practices of all the people that surround them. What kind of story might you tell? It may be that you would tell a story in which the person founding this new nation is taken all the way to the brink of child sacrifice and then dramatically and suddenly pulled back from taking that step.

The legacy of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, the philosopher and anthropologist René Girard has suggested, is that Israel developed a system of animal sacrifice that continued until shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus’ crucifixion, Girard suggests, was both about God identifying himself with all the victims – the scapegoats – who have been sacrificed down through the centuries and also, because in Jesus God himself was scapegoated and sacrificed, the ultimate demonstration of the reality that, as Hosea first stated and Jesus then repeated, God requires mercy, not sacrifice.

In Jewish tradition the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is where Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac is said to have taken place. At our partner church of St Stephen Walbrook there is a visible reminder of this in the central Henry Moore altar. By carving a round altar table with forms cut into the circular sides, Moore suggested that the centre of the church reflected the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem commemorating the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac as a prefiguring of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross and the place for the offering of the Eucharist at the heart of Christian worship. In the Eucharist we remember and re-enact these stories of the sacrifice of Isaac and of Jesus because we need to remember and act on the realisation that God desires mercy, not scapegoats or sacrifice.

Prayer: Grieving God, in your son you experienced the agony of the pointless, savage, premature end of life. Hold the hand of those whose loved ones have become scapegoats; calm the fears of all whose identity makes them subject to the perverse hatred and grotesque violence of others; and hasten a world where all are celebrated for who they are as your children, where difference is a sign of your diverse abundance. Through the wounded yet ascended Christ, your personification of solidarity and embodiment of hope. Amen.


The Call - Scene Beyond Dreams.

Art Below: Stations of the Cross

Art Below is a London based public art enterprise, founded in 2006 by brothers Ben and Simon Moore. Their raison d'être is the use of billboard space in underground stations to display artworks in London and overseas. Their mission is to enrich the everyday life of the traveling public by giving fresh insight into the very latest in contemporary art whilst at the same time providing a platform for emerging and established talent.

It has become an annual feature of Art Below that every year in the run up to Easter they feature ‘Stations of the Cross’ in some form or another. This year they are exhibiting at St Stephen Walbrook from 16th – 23rd March with a show that features crucifixion themed work by 14 artists including Francis Bacon, Paul Benney, Ricardo Cinalli, Sebastian Horsley and Ben Eine.

Last year Art Below showcased crucifixion themed works by Francis Bacon on billboard space at Green Park and St Pauls tube station. Bacon often referenced the crucifixion in his art to embody life’s horror as he could not find a subject as valid to embrace all the nuances of human feelings and behaviours. In 2015 ‘Stations of the Cross’ at St Marylebone Parish Church included a life-size body cast of Pete Doherty nailed to a cross entitled ‘For Pete’s Sake’ which attracted media attention worldwide. Their first Stations of the Cross exhibition also took place at St Marylebone Parish Church and on billboard space across the London Underground. This show included work by artists Antony Micallef, Mat Collishaw, Polly Morgan, Paul Fryer and Bran Symondson.

All the 'Stations of the Cross' exhibitions have raised funds for The Missing Tom Fund. The exhibitions’ curator and participating artist Ben Moore, with the support of his family and the Missing People Charity, set up the Missing Tom Fund in 2013 to raise money for the search for his older brother Tom (b.1971) who has been missing since 2003 ( Ben Moore says: “Tom was very interested in religion and, as such, Stations of the Cross seems a natural fit for us. We hope that the project will offer further help in continuing our search for Tom.”

This year’s exhibition could almost be seen as a review of the series so far, featuring, as it does, many of the artists that have exhibited in previous years including Francis Bacon, Paul Benney, Ricardo Cinalli, Chris Clack, Sebastian Horsley, M C Llamas, Ben Moore and James Vaulkhard.

Paul Benney has become known for his depictions of stygian themes and dark nights of the soul. Rachel Campbell Johnston writes that his figures ‘some sense of our spiritual quest.’ This is because he ‘shows us our lives as they balance on that fragile boundary between the perfectly ordinary and the profoundly otherworldly,’ seeking ‘to capture that mystery which redeems us from the mundane.’ Joseph Clarke says that Benney’s work ‘could be seen to continue the strong tradition of ‘British Mysticism’ championed by the likes of Samuel Palmer and William Blake.’ Benny is contributing ‘Dying Slave: 13th Station’ to this exhibition. This image shows a cruciform figure above a whirlpool. Christ walked on water in his ministry but, figuratively, was sucked under the waters in death. For Christians, baptism (going under the waters and emerging) is a symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection. In this piece, Benney can be understood as showing us the beginning of this redemptive process.

Sebastian Horsley contributes a film still of a performance from 2000, when he was nailed to a cross in the Filipino village of San Pedro Cutud in order to gain an insight into crucifixion for a series of paintings on the subject. In doing so, he passed out with pain and then fell from the cross, taking the nails with him when the straps holding his arms broke. But far from being euphoric or enlightened by the experience, he was dejected and wrote in his diary that God had punished him and had thrown him off the cross 'for impersonating his son'.

Argentinian artist Ricardo Cinalli, who lives in Spitalfields, creates spirited and passionate paintings that are baroque in their emotionalism and surrealist in their imaginative extravagance. Over a career spanning more than thirty years, he has become internationally renowned for his works on canvas and his huge pastel drawings created using a unique method of pastel and layers of tissue paper. In 2007, he was commissioned by Bishop Paglia and Fr. Fabio Leonardis to create a fresco in the Cathedral church of the Diocese of Terni-Narni-Amelia.

Each year, particular images, such as Anthony Micallef’s ‘Kill Your Idol’ and Nick Reynolds and Schoony ‘For Pete’s Sake’ have attracted significant media attention and generated debate about how the Church can explore the contemporary significance of Christ where people are at and in a language they can understand. This year, Ryan Callanan's ‘Stormtrooper Crucifixion’ may be viewed as being among the more controversial images shown in the exhibition.

Callanan (also known as RYCA) is a modern Pop Artist. Important to all Callanan’s work to date is the concept of the cross reference: taking one item out of its context and splicing it with another to create something that feels familiar but whose meaning is subtly shifted.This image raises similar questions to those which CS Lewis raised in his science fiction trilogy i.e. that, were other races to exist on other planets, would Christ be incarnated among those races in order to die for their salvation? Lewis’ view, which he sets out in the story running through the trilogy, is that Christ would do so. For Christians, Callanan's image can lead to a similar conclusion.

Chris Clack’s ‘Descent with Gerbera’ raises similar questions as it depicts the descent from the cross as set on the moon. As with Callanan, such juxtapositions are Christopher Clack’s stock-in-trade. Tyrannasaurus rex and crucifix, cemetery and prism, head formed by the moon, pieta with astronaut - these are just some of the disparate images brought together in his work. Such juxtapositions position us at a point of paradox, a liminal place where there are more questions than answers. In this work science and religion are juxtaposed, but are they opposed or reconciled within the image? Yuri Gagarin famously flew into space, but, in the words of Nikita Khrushchev, “he didn't see any god there." Buzz Aldrin, by contrast, consumed the Holy Sacrament while on the surface of the moon. Who was right and who was wrong? Was Christ to be found on the moon and in what form? As we have reflected, similar questions were posed by C. S. Lewis in his sci-fi trilogy where the Fall was re-imagined and re-enacted on another planet.

Clack has said, “The 'Religious' is found in the least expected places.” What would be the impact, I wonder, were we more frequently to take religious images out of their religious context, as Clack has done, and trust them to raise their questions and reveal their meanings in other landscapes, cultures and worlds?

In their ‘Stations of the Cross’ exhibitions, Art Below show images designed to provoke thought from artists grappling with their response to the challenge and scandal of Christ's cross. For Christians, these images can be commended as images that can open ideas and minds to new reflections on the eternal significance of Christ's sacrifice.


Arvo Pärt - St. John Passion.