Sacred Solitude

I had thought the tangible empty
the tingling hint the yearning
for palm to palm – an absence
but I begin feel a whisper
Your whisper across my palm
where no other hand will fit,
no other can remain,
in intimate embrace
others feel Your grasp in
the clasping hands with an other, but I –
am I destined for a different
kind of intimate?

not sex not tawdry not ‘in love
with God My Saviour’
this taking hand in hand
this different
I have known much longer
than admitted
without name without voice
for what was clouded before
the forced withdrawal this fogged
fatigue demanded cleared
the way and now as once before
in darkness here we are
here with me You are here
the only one I never
turn away and is that not
the intimate, are You not
the one to hold my hand, the one
who will bear witness, and it has taken
me till now to truly shed
the story I’ve been told
that in that place can only
stand a human?

I hear another story
Hildegard, Julian, Thérèse
tell me another story of being one
whose hand is held by
Holy hand – and by no other
tell me now my story so that I
can feel the whisper
on my palm as Presence.


Sarah Agnew is a storyteller, poet, and Uniting Church minister currently in placement with Canberra Central Parish. Her poetry and liturgy appear in Wild Goose Publications as stand-alone e-liturgies, and in edited anthologies as weekly prayer-poems at Pray the Story. Her most recent published poetry collection is Hold Them Close (Resource Publications, 2018). She lives and works on Ngunnawal country.

The Tied Tongue

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Unknown Artist, Scold’s bridle, c.1500–1775, Iron, Science Museum, London, A31704, Photo: Science Museum, London.

This formidable object was designed to be worn around the head. Called a branks or scold’s bridle, the manufacture of such headpieces arose in Britain from the 1500s and their use spread across Europe, until they were last deployed in the workhouses of the 1800s.

This object was designed as a form of social control through public shaming for those with wayward tongues, such as those thought to be gossips, those speaking insults or malice, or those who simply nagged or complained too often. The headpiece was worn as part of a public procession ordered by a magistrate. Many of these objects included a small length of metal that could be inserted into the mouth to firmly press the tongue down, so no speech could be uttered. In this state the wearer could neither drink nor swallow properly for the duration of this public parade of shaming.

In practice these scold’s bridles were used mainly on women. In this cultural period women were less able to speak in public or even to speak for themselves. This object was clearly designed to silence those women who had used their tongue to speak, and in speaking to assert any independence, wit, or wisdom that questioned the order of things.

Employing the tongue is a natural human response to dismantling pomposity and power. For subjugated people there is a tendency to speak otherwise, to find through scoffing, irony, or coded speech a means of asserting freedom from those who seek to enforce their silence.

This object is rather terrifying evidence of a form of control based on gender. One can only imagine the circumstances of the many women who would have been forced to wear this particular headpiece and their resulting public humiliation. In contrast to the forced silence this object threatens to achieve, there is a time for swearing, cursing, and cantankerous speech, especially if it is in the face of oppression and inhumane control. There is a time for tongues to be let loose. As the novelist Arundhati Roy (2004) states: ‘There’s really no such thing as the “voiceless”. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard’.

Reposted from The Visual Commentary on Scripture.




Sixteen Earth Bowls

Penny Dunstan, Dirt/Soil/Earth installation, 2018. Altar/d at Adamstown Uniting Church. Photograph by John Cliff.

I am standing on the river flats of the Hunter River at Warkworth (-32.490620,151.028671: paddock reference). It’s a narrow flat valley slashed through with a slow meandering river resting in a deep sinuous trench. The soil under the drought-browned pasture is black. It crumbles easily in my hand. In the distance, there’s a mob of kangaroos grazing on the remaining plant roots. Across the river, there’s an old farmhouse that in times past belonged to a breeder of stock horses. I stayed there once as a guest but the family has long since moved out. Now it belongs to a mine with an overburden wall that rises up like a frozen tidal wave, forever threatening the house and the surrounding river flats.

Here, soil is a commodity. Soil is not as valuable as the coal that lies underneath it if we think in short term economics. But thinking intergenerationally, these black-soiled river flats should be preserved. One day, once again, humans may need them to grow food.

How shall I talk about the absolute importance of soil to human civilisation? Soil, along with air and water, is one of our most fundamental natural resources. Soil grows food for us and earth-others. It grows trees and grasses and fungi and a host of micro-lifeforms that we never see but are dependent upon to survive. A teaspoon of a well-cared-for soil can contain up to one billion bacteria, several meters of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes. Soil contains vast quantities of carbon and is a holder of surface water.

In the transitional zone between open-cut mining and rehabilitated post-mining landscape, soils are a carpet of hope rolled out to pacify the requirements of legislation. Mines managers assume soils will be resilient and cover up the mountains of Permian stone piled high. The small lives contained in soil often don’t transition well from pasture to the manufactured lands via heavy machinery, trucks, piles, bulldozers, and ploughs. It is asking a lot of one of our most valuable resources to cover up the sins of avarice.

Michael Northcott (theologian and ethicist) puts the problem this way:

… the earth and we are in co-creaturely relationship and … when we neglect the beneficence of God’s good earth and the prudential use of what God has granted to us, and subject nature … to our devices and desires, we not only frustrate the capacity of our fellow creatures to give God praise; we also put at risk the very services that the earth renders us.

Penny Dunstan, Merriwa soil bowl in Sixteen Earth Bowls 2018, installed at the Hyatt Canberra for the National Soils Conference. Photograph by the author.

Making earth bowls is a way of thinking about my ethical responses to soil use in a post-mining landscape. It is a way of thinking with my heart and not just my head. As I work with each Hunter Valley topsoil, I come to understand each as an individual, a special part of God’s creation. Each soil behaves according to its own chemical nature and historical past when I fashion it into a bowl shape. Some hold their shape, and some don’t; or perhaps, is it that some won’t? The agency (or will) of the soil is expressed by the way the bowl keeps form. Soils with good health often crack or crumble. Sad soils, those mistreated and overworked, stay where they are put.

Each bowl is made from a Hunter Valley topsoil, except for one. The grey bowl is mudstone doing its best to impersonate soil. It’s having trouble as it hasn’t been to the surface of the earth for 250 million years. Of all the soils, this one is the most sterile. This is the soil that will be found on the surface when we run out of topsoils rescued from mining. It is a legacy that our grandchildren will not thank us for.

Penny Dunstan, Sixteen Earth Bowls, 2018. Installed at Holy Trinity Church, Merriwa for the Festival of the Fleeces. Photograph by the author.

So here is a question: What were those earth bowls doing on the altar? And on a white linen cloth? This is where you, the reader, come in. Art should make you question the world. Are those bowls made of dirt (plus all those beasties) that we should sweep out of the door and into the bin? Or are they made of soil that we should at least put on the garden, but really, they have no place in church? Or are they made of earth to be examined, to be questioned, to be listened to as earth-others?

These soils, full of tiny lives, are responsible for growing our food, making our air and storing atmospheric carbon. Our very lives as humans on the earth depend on them. By fashioning these soils into bowls and placing them in sacred places, I hope to remind us to honour the earth that we stand upon, that earth that speaks to us by pushing back at our feet. Soils deserve care and nurture, as they reciprocate to care and nurture us. Tangled in the web of earth understandings is a call to think about an intergenerational issue such as postmining land rehabilitation and building housing estates on prime agricultural soils. When we care for soils, we are in fact caring for ourselves and our descendants.


Penny Dunstan is a soil scientist/agronomist and artist with particular interests in anthropogenic landforms and the human/land dialogue that arises when humans create the world. Her transdisciplinary PhD research investigated post-coalmining rehabilitated land at one mine site in the Hunter Valley, through fine art, human geography, and soil science. She has presented and published in a wide variety of forums including Hunter Valley Rehabilitated Mine Lands, National Soil Science Association, Institute of Australian Geographers, and Creative Arts forums in Australia and overseas. Penny is an accomplished artist who regularly exhibits work that details aspects of the Upper Hunter interactions with the Anthropocene. She works within and with Wonnarua country.

Holy, Honest Confluences

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Inspired by ancient and continuing traditions of spiritual contemplation, and curated by artist and academic Dr Rebekah Pryorholy, honest confluences considers the complex personal and communal relationships between humans, and between humans and other living beings and things, in order to respond to the following key questions: 

  • What does it mean to be autonomous (that is, self-determining)? 

  • What does it mean to belong to a community (that is, a group of living beings that comprise, for example, a household, a family, a love relationship, an ecosystem, a neighbourhood, a religious community, a species, etc.)? What does this belonging look/feel like? And, what does it mean to not belong?

  • Is it even possible to be autonomous and belong? If so, what might this look/sound/feel like?

At a time when complex legal, ethical and social questions concerning communities (for example, religious communities and their relations to power and ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ more broadly, culturally and linguistically diverse communities and their multiple histories, and ecological communities challenged by present and imminent climate change impacts) challenge and implicate us all, holy, honest confluences returns us to our own bodies and relations in search for answers. 

More details here.

Vision, Voice, and Vocation

Vision, Voice, and Vocation_ Arts and Theology in a Climate for Change

We are very excited to announce that Art/s and Theology Australia will hold its first conference on 16–19 July next year.

This four-day event will provide a unique conversation space for artists, performers, creatives, academics, and activists, to consider the vital role of the imagination in today’s complex climates – social, cultural, environmental, political, racial, religious, spiritual, intellectual, etc.

It will also invite conversation around further questions: What kinds of change? What are the grounds and manner of hope, transformation, and resilience? What might the arts and theology have to contribute to such discourse and action, if anything? How do we attend to the margins of this discussion, and speak and act more holistically as communities of change?

More details here.


  1. save the date
  2. help spread the word
  3. get in touch if you would like to offer an academic paper or creative presentation

To Tea and Be, or Not to Tea and Be?


In The Book of Tea (1906), written by Japan’s Kakuzō Okakura and later published in English in the United States as a guidebook to be read in the lounge rooms of New York socialites, Okakura says of tea: ‘(I)t has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa’. He doesn’t give a succinct description of tea (the book is 116 pages long) but the title alone is enough for us to know he was seriously committed to his tea.

Perhaps if I was to extend Okakura’s comment to include tea I might say it has the ‘calm presence of a negotiator, and the quiet confidence of a healing balm’. Tea was used by the suppressed Japanese Church as a subversive Communion drink, to end wars, and to bring reconciliation.


I am a lightweight theologian and a heavyweight practitioner of the worship arts. As a pastor and curator of worship, my commitment is to the local communities of Christians who gather for worship from week-to-week or from time-to-time, more or less regularly; to those followers of Jesus, or those not yet, who gather at festivals and conferences.

These are the people I want to help sustain in their following of Jesus in their worlds; or introduce them to that possibility. My purpose is always to design space and liturgy that will offer the potential for liminal moments in which they might engage heart, soul, mind, strength with the Trinitarian community of God.

My most recent projects have been iterations of a tea ceremony. Originally designed to be one chapel of a dozen or so at the annual Festival One held outside of Auckland in Aotearoa-New Zealand, ‘Tea & Be’ brought together my enjoyment of tea drinking and my belief that God primarily calls us to being – in relationship with the Godhead – rather than to doing. My generalised overstatement of this to my community is to say that God doesn’t care about anything you do, only about who you are becoming and being, in relationship with God.

‘Tea & Be’ invited people to pre-register in groups of 14 (with no more than 3 people known to you) for a 45-minute session of tea and conversation. Places at the long narrow table were set out with high-quality teaware, and a placemat that described the six teas on offer suggested some conversation starters and offered a place to journal responses. A small block placed on the placemat allowed each participant to display ‘Talk’ or ‘Be’ sides and so control their active participation in one or the other mode.

After a 10-minute introduction to the history of tea, its use as Communion when Christianity was suppressed in Japan, how to use the teaware, slurping, and other aspects of the session, people were invited to observe the texture and smell of the high-quality loose-leaf tea they had chosen; then, following a Prayer for Tea, to drink and converse with those around them. The style of teaware made it possible to also try teas chosen by others.


In the week before the festival, I wondered if the concept was crazy and if anyone would turn up. Others felt similarly! By one third of the way into the festival, all 23 sessions were fully signed up and people not registered turned up hoping to take the place of aregistered non-starter. More than 300 people were served.

All used tea leaves and dregs were poured into a tall glass phial and stood as a visual reminder of the conversations that had taken place around the table. Placemats were hung on the exterior fence of the chapel for anyone to read the journal notes and tea choices made by participants. Written and verbal responses were very moving. People found something going on beyond the individual elements of a cup of tea and a conversation with someone they didn’t know. God was present, and for many people that encounter with the other and the Other was very significant.


Why? I am not sure, but wonder if it was the mixture of informal ritual, permission given to slow down and just be during a busy and noisy festival, opportunity for deeper connection with another person/people (or perhaps the opportunity of a connection for some), hints at eucharistic/table re-imagining, being served, and it all offered in a safe space.

My tea crew was keen to maintain the concept, and since festival we have reframed it to work in several worship services, conferences and gatherings with numbers up to 110. The ritual continues to evolve and be shaped by our experience of it.

My answer to the title question is an unequivocal “yes!” to Tea & Be.


Mark Pierson is a reject from the Baptist denomination and has pastored/curated the Rhythms of Grace community under the independent Upper Room Church in Newmarket, Auckland, for the last four and a half years. He is author of The Art of Curating Worship: Reshaping the Role of Worship Leader. He very ocassionally posts something on his website, where an expanded account of ‘Tea & Be’ can also be found. In January 2020, ‘Tea & Be’ sessions in a range of styles will be offered at Festival One, and in July 2020 at a gathering of pastoral leaders exploring ways to understand and sustain artists in the congregations.

Neighbours, Enemies, Friends

Bob Booth, I am Your Neighbour, 2010. Oil on canvas.

The story of the Good Samaritan is a familiar one, so much so that its very mention tends to celebrate a comfortable kind of religion as listeners reassure themselves of their place in the story. We should be reminded that in its original context it was a story that was utterly shocking to its first hearers. It dramatically crossed boundaries that were simply inconceivable for those listening. If this parable had been taken seriously, it would have upended cultural and religious conventions that had been carefully policed and reinforced. It is a story that has drawn many artists to re-invigorate in fresh ways both its attraction and its threat. For artist and priest Bob Booth it is a story worth the effort of exploring its potential to upset allegiances and to re-examine values and ethical actions in the contemporary world we inhabit.

Booth takes us into the drama of the story by placing the viewer just above the action, taking in the injured figure, helper and the passers-by. The composition allows our eye to sweep around the scene taking in both human actors and the compressed space of the landscape. Our eye comes to rest, after making this aerial survey, firstly on the hand of the fallen man and then to the hand of the ‘Samaritan’ with a finger decidedly pointing in our direction. We are drawn in, complicit, involved viewers, who are close enough to lend a hand and yet remaining fixed outside the picture plane. It is both a simple and yet complex composition that has been carefully crafted to include us in its sweep. The brush strokes and coloration serve to heighten its dramatic focus and its sensual textured surface emphasises a tender and compassionate moment. This painterly seduction only heightens the tension the viewer feels about a decision on whether to get involved.

The fallen man is somewhat reminiscent of a Christ figure, partly naked with a white cloth over his legs. What is utterly unfamiliar is the facial features of the helper and the skull cap that marks him out as a follower of Islam. Muslim men will often wear the white Taqiyah (Arabic for skull cap) as a sign of respect. This is worn especially during the five periods of prayers required each day. Bob Booth comments: ‘Had the parable of the Good Samaritan been presented in Australia today, I think that there would have been every chance that a Muslim would have taken the title role. I sometimes wonder how we manage to read this parable in church without causing a riot!’ The shock of this painting is appropriate to its original intentions to cross over the sharp divide of social enmity found between Jews and Samaritans. While they shared common ancient traditions, they were passionately divergent about the physical location of the most holy place to worship. Such enmity is echoed in contemporary ways as we have witnessed the terrible acts of violence in New Zealand and then in Sri Lanka during the first half of this year.

Underlying the disturbing shock of this story of hospitality and compassion is the boundary-breaking words and actions of Jesus in upsetting the religious conventions of his day. In the material actions of touching the untouchables, speaking to women in public, challenging religious leaders, breaking the Sabbath, feasting rather than fasting, Jesus enacts a more passionate and generous vision of who God might be. Bob Booth takes this as evidence that Jesus had his eye not on the rules and regulations of religious formalism but on something completely in opposition to such strictures. ‘It seems to me that Jesus was intoxicated with an audacious thought of goodness and beauty, a joy that was set before him for which he would endure anything’. This familiar story is therefore not so much about kindness or the virtues of middle-class niceness, but rather a way of seeing other human beings as being made in the image of God. It is in the encounter with strangers, or even perhaps with enemies, that we find our heart expanded and we see the possibilities of God’s grace at work in the world.

Reposted from ArtWay.