To Tea and Be, or Not to Tea and Be?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Relics of war

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The Great War presented clergymen with the ultimate test of faith; reconciling the benevolence of God with the greatest conflict in modern history. Killing on a grand scale would seem at odds with Christian fellowship and moral rightness. Most AIF chaplains believed the war to be just, the Will of God, King, and Country, part of God’s redemptive plan. Christians put an emphasis on the love and mercy of God, so the idea of God as warrior can seem difficult to reconcile.

The experience of army chaplains is well recorded – selfless service in very difficult conditions; coping with death, wounds, grief, and sorrow on an unprecedented scale. Churchmen provided spiritual consolation to the men as well as assisting with the wounded, boosting morale, providing entertainment, burying the dead, and writing to families.

In the same way as the men who served in the trenches, chaplains could not have returned to parish life unchanged. Dead sons, fathers, uncles, and brothers were not repatriated to Australia for burial and so churches became the important place to commemorate the conflict and honour the lost. Even in our increasingly-secular nation, Anzac Day ceremonies have an undeniably religious element, uniting people of different denominations for one day of remembrance.

As a Master of War Studies candidate of UNSW ADFA, I am writing my thesis on war relics in Australian churches. There exist already excellent works on memorial windows and honour boards in churches; I am focusing on artefacts or relics directly connected with the Australian experience of war that churches hold.

My interest began in Canberra – at the Warrior Chapel within St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Forrest. Rev Dr John Walker served as an AIF chaplain in World War One. Five of his children also served, and three sons were killed. Walker conceived the idea of embodying within the church a fitting tribute to the memory of parishioners who had given their lives in the Great War. Two communion chalices are used alternately in chapel services held on Anzac Day and Armistice Day – a silver chalice used on the Western Front by Chaplain Captain Percival Hope, and a small brass chalice used by Chaplain Rowan MacNeil while a prisoner at Changi.

I have asked just over 2000 Australian churches if they hold war relics within their buildings. The vast majority, of course, do not. But 2.75% do hold extraordinary and sometimes surprising relics. Grave markers, crosses, flags flown in battle, portable altars, communion linens from Nui Dat, Lae, and Palestine fit comfortably within the church fabric.

I have identified many churches where highly polished artillery shell vases are used for floral displays. Were they simply tokens of remembrance brought home as souvenirs? What memory did chaplains seek to evoke?

Millions and millions of artillery shells were fired in the First World War. Artillery was the biggest killer and provided the greatest source of war wounded. A very beautiful baptismal ewer at Grafton was crafted from a First World War artillery shell. Was this simply practicality or symbolic of new life at baptism received from something designed to kill?

All bar one of the 55 churches identified contain First and Second World War relics. Yet the tradition continues. At the Kapooka Soldier’s Chapel in Wagga, where raw army recruits are trained, a wooden crucifix contains metal from an armoured vehicle in which an Australian soldier in Afghanistan was travelling when he was killed.

It is easier, perhaps, to understand how some chaplains and soldiers brought souvenirs home from ruined churches; shards of broken church windows were gathered in ruined French and Belgian towns by an Anglican chaplain in the First World War and brought home to his parish. He had them made into windows that still bring the light into St John’s Reid. Candlesticks, chalices, patens, statues were all gathered from the rubble of destroyed churches on the Western Front and reinstalled in Australian churches in city and country.

Several churches have a ‘Blitz’ piece of St Paul’s Cathedral and All Hallows in London, Coventry Cathedral, and other English churches, sent out as tokens of gratitude to far-flung churches of empire who had contributed financially to their rebuilding after the Second World War.

I am not trying to simply document these relics but to understand why they were brought back, how they evoke memory and the stories behind each relic. I will also attempt to understand the religious nature of our commemoration, and the interconnection between war and Christianity. The relics may present an important perspective on the Judeo-Christian [sic] God as a warrior. One relic defies time; olive cuttings taken by a Light Horse chaplain at Gethsemane still flourish in the grounds of Our Lady Help of Christians, Ardlethan.

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Emily Gibbs works art the Australian War Memorial and is conducting research into war relics and religious faith. She can be contacted by email.

Seeing Over the Fence: Visualising Trauma and The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

As both an artist and a pastor, I am well aware of the capacity for works of art to bring healing, to provide a container for grief and loss, and to create a future based in hope. I have also experienced the capacity for works of the imagination to break down the supposed barriers between the church and its community, between the holy and the profane, the sacred and secular, and to create a fruitful conversation about life’s meaning. I have great hopes that the arts provide us with resources for engaging the culture we inhabit and for dealing with any of the big difficult issues we face together. But despite these hopes, I am really struggling with how to respond at a visual level to the aftermath of the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, and the terrible stories that have surfaced into public consciousness. As an artist, I wonder how to help people visualise the trauma and pain of such experiences, and how the Church as an institution allows for this to be made present in sign, symbol, and art making. How might art help the healing process and bring reconciliation and understanding?

 

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Rodney Pople, Last Supper, 2008. Oil on canvas.

 

It was about fifteen years ago through my work with the Blake Prize that I first began to observe visual responses to this issue. In 2008, Rodney Pople submitted a work entitled Last Supper, a work that proved to be something of a premonition of the impending crisis for organised religious institutions. A reference to the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples has been pushed to the back of the picture as something of incidental interest. What takes centre stage is a vast chandelier that seems to shudder under its own weight of self importance. Not a light but a weighted piece of staging that is about to come crashing down. The metaphor is clearly about a structure that has become too focused on its own importance and grandeur, so much so that even the Last Supper has been pushed to the periphery. Rodney Pople went on to deal more directly with these issues. In one of his later exhibitions, held in trendy Paddington in Sydney, a group of pious folk camped outside praying for his soul and for those brave enough to enter the gallery under prayerful siege.

But Pople was correct in anticipating that there would be a shaking of foundations and a rattling of fences. It was during 2015 when the Royal Commission heard stories in the city of Ballarat that ribbons began appearing on the fence of St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. They were tied on the fence as a simple memorial to those who had died or still suffer as a result of a history of abuse. This simple act of remembrance has spread quickly around Australia and is now found all around the world. This gesture has, however, not always been well received by those on the inside. Whether it was Church authorities or parishioners there were reports of ribbons being removed. The visibility of the act of colourful ribbons fluttering in the breeze was perceived by some as a protest of anger at the Church or at least a criticism of its silence and lack of visible response. St Patrick’s Cathedral has continued to dialogue with this wider ribbon community and there are now plans for the fence to open up into a memorial garden where a more permanent space of recognition is be created. Through the visual form of ribbons, known locally as the ‘Loud Fence’, boundaries have been shifted and a new more open conversation has begun.

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In Geelong, at St Mary’s Basilica, the Loud Fence response took a different turn. One of the key priests on staff actively worked with survivors through the Life Boat Project and with the assistance of a group from a Men’s Shed found a means of preserving the ribbons and the heartfelt gestures that had created them. A container in the form of a boat has been introduced inside the Basilica where ribbons can be permanently stored after they have flown on the fence. This shifts the visual reception of the ribbons to a more permanent memorial where they are being treated with dignity and respect. This boat has become part of the interior fabric of the Church alongside other memorials that remember significant moments of national and local history. What is being preserved is not just silk threads, but the deeply-felt gestures that have been repeated over and over again as people express their sense of grief and loss. Gathering them up for preservation emphasises the importance of these small acts of grief and remembrance. Someone is listening, noticing, seeing. The Loud Fence project looks for a community of people who speak up and act on behalf of those who are victims.

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In my local city of Newcastle, like in many cities around Australia, ribbons appear and disappear off the fence of the local Cathedral. It is a disputed space between those who want this to be visible and those who wish it to remain hidden or at least managed out of sight. This is a pressing issue as in my city the extensive volume of abuse and the individual number of stories is staggering. Thousands of people in my local community are suffering the long-term effects of grief and trauma, including their families, neighbours, as well as the educational and religious institutions of the region. It must be one of the largest contributors to mental illness and social trauma in my local community and it is otherwise hidden. But it is also appearing more often in the work of local artists, like in the work Cracked by Janita Ayton. Here, the soft pages of a Bible have been repetitively folded over to spell out the word cracked. This is only observed when the Bible is opened and the word then literally spills out. Clearly, the culture of secrecy and power that once clothed the Church has now been cracked. For the first time in Australian history, the Church has been drawn to public account for its actions, inactions or shameful cover-up. This assumed privilege due to social power or religious authority has been found wanting. The Church is not above the law; it is accountable to the people it seeks to serve.

 

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Janita Ayton, Cracked, 2018. Bible with folded pages.

 

Cracked is an artwork that visualises the crisis of authority facing organised religion. But it also offers, to my mind, a way forward. When something is cracked, then what is contained inside can get out. Rather than fear being the first response, a response that reinforces denial and secrets, here is an invitation to find within the life of the Church a range of other responses that focuses on victims and those impacted by this history of abuse. The Church has nothing to fear in losing its well-preserved social power if it, in turn, recovers what is at its heart in terms of compassion, forgiveness, and love. Self-preservation cannot be the default position of the Church when facing this sort of accountability in the public square. Here is an opportunity to visualise compassion and a form of agency based on love. The loss to the Church in the face of this ongoing scandal is incalculable, but the opportunity for the Church to renew its purpose will be life-giving and renewing. Cracked leaves me with the possibility of such a hope.

Rod Pattenden is an artist, art historian, and theologian interested in the power of images. He lives and works on Awabakal land.

 

‘The Architect’

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The Melbourne Theatre Company recently staged ‘The Architect’, a play written by the Australian writer, director, and dramaturg Aidan Fennessy, and directed by Peter Houghton.

It is a particularly-confronting presentation of the issues surrounding the impending death of a terminally-ill woman, Helen (Linda Cropper), who desires to ‘architect’ her own death – with dignity and under her control.

While presented as a serious and confronting issue, Fennessy has introduced a ‘perfect foil’ in the character of Helen’s husband John (Nicholas Bell), and Helen’s carer Lennie (Johnny Carr), a rugged straight-shooting Aussie who introduces both typical humour and real concern.

Family matters and secrets long carried by Helen and John, and by their son Jeremy (Stephen Phillips), as well as by Lennie, the external third party, are brought out into the open. Death can do that. Theatre can help bring it home.

The play is a convergence of two matters in no way uncommon to the experience of those facing death – great humour and deep questioning. This convergence invites the audience to reflect on their own judgements about what constitutes a good death, and what they might themselves wish for in such a circumstance. The closing scene is particularly gripping and challenging.

Outstanding performances by all four characters, and particularly by Linda Cropper, brought a standing ovation from an audience of mostly older people.

From the middle of next year, eligible Victorians will be able to end their own life under the provisions made possible through the Parliament’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill (2017). ‘The Architect’, therefore, is a well-timed production, and a welcome reminder of the ways that the arts can and do stir, inform, and shape the public imagination. It sits also within a growing body of Australian theatre attending to death matters. One upcoming example of such is Triage’s Death Trilogy, the first part of which, ‘The Infirmary’, the creation of Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy and Clair Korobacz, opens within the next week at Arts House.

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Ken Tabart is a retired civil engineer who lives and plays on Wurundjeri land. (With Jason Goroncy, a theologian and artist who also lives and plays on Wurundjeri land.)