Churches revive art's connection to worship

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At first, Sarah Stillion just stared at the 4-1/2-foot by 5-foot piece of drawing paper and the little bag full of charcoal. In the bottom of the bag, a piece of paper bore these words: "... Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged."

The Scripture referred to Christ's scourging and crowning with thorns ordered by Roman governor Pontius Pilate. This was her artistic guidance, as well as "fill up the whole sheet of paper."

Along with 15 other church members, most of whom are not professional artists, Stillion was invited by her church, Bethany Presbyterian on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle, to depict one of the Stations of the Cross.

The stations, commonly associated with Roman Catholic tradition, represent key events in the last days of Christ's life culminating in his crucifixion and resurrection.

"I really have to think and pray about this," Stillion told herself. "This is intimidating."

Now complete and available during limited hours for public viewing, the charcoal drawings are some of the first visual art - other than stained-glass windows and a few seasonal banners - ever to hang in Bethany's sanctuary.

"To have it in the sanctuary and part of the worship services is pretty unheard of," says Abbie Berry, a church member and artist who organized the effort and came up with most of the phrases from Scripture.

The project is part of the church's new ministry for the arts, as important as adult Christian education, missions work or the youth program. The ministry has a modest budget and soon the church will name an elder of the arts to lead the effort. The elder will work with an artists' group that's emerged from the congregation over the past few years.

The new vision for the arts in the church's life embraces a wide range of music, liturgical dance, coffeehouse-like poetry readings and artists' workshops on the lawn.

"It's a big step for us to identify this ministry area and create a leadership position connected with it," says the Rev. Dan Baumgartner, whose church has tended to attract artists and other creative people.

"That's a way of saying we think God is leading us in a direction and we want to be obedient to follow."

What's happening at Bethany is a small example of an awakening across the country to the power of the arts to enhance spirituality and faith. Congregations are incorporating nontraditional forms of music, dramatic readings of the Gospel, dance and all kinds of visual art into their worship.

"There's no question that Catholic and Protestant churches are trying to expand their sensitivity to how art functions in the liturgy," says the Rev. Horace Allen Jr., professor of worship at Boston University's School of Theology.

"There are conferences on worship and the arts everywhere. People are getting together - theologians, clergy and artists - asking how can we function together."

Last fall, Allen pointed out, the Catholic Church produced a revised edition of a 1978 document called Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. Among other things, the church states guidelines for the use of art in worship and means to encourage its use, he says. The professor also is working on an Eli Lilly Endowment project to inaugurate a series of courses in the Boston area on liturgy and the arts aimed at encouraging seminarians of all faiths to work more fully with the arts in worship.

"There's a huge surge of interest in the relationship between faith and the imagination today," adds Gregory Wolfe, editor and publisher of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion.

Image, with about 5,000 readers, has been published regularly for about eight years and moved its offices from the East Coast to the campus of Seattle Pacific University last fall. This week the journal co-sponsored an extensive conference on religion and the arts in New York, with the University of Chicago Divinity School and University of Notre Dame.

As part of what's new in Seattle, St. Mark's Cathedral has approved a strategic plan for the next 20 years that identifies the arts as one of its five areas of ministry. A new full-time priest will be responsible for incorporating the arts into liturgy and other areas of the cathedral's life.

"Our vision here is to approach the arts in a very expansive way from music to writing poetry to the visual arts," says the Very Rev. Robert Taylor, dean of the cathedral.

The cathedral also expects to expand its list of artists-in-residence from musicians to poets, writers and visual artists. And, the arts will be used as a bridge to different cultures and countries.

This trend reclaims the church's role in medieval and Renaissance times as a center for all aspects of community life and as a patron of some the most magnificent art ever produced, from stained-glass windows to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In turn, that ancient mission helps satisfy the desire of modern churchgoers, especially the younger generations, for a more sensory experience of religion, pastors say.

Bethany's Stations of the Cross project is but a blink in the history of religious art.

Nevertheless, it brought Stillion to her knees asking God for help. Inspiration came little by little from listening to music and reading Scripture. She searched the dictionary and Internet for an image of a cat-o'-nine-tails, the whip with nine knotted chords fastened to a handle used to flog Christ.

That task forced her to personally confront the biblical story that the Son of God allowed himself to be beaten for mankind.

"It moved me to know this was a voluntary decision," says Stillion. "It brought me closer to God in doing this picture. It was an act of worship."

The church's liturgical calendar of Christmas, Lent and Easter can become mundane, unexamined. But these charcoal drawings created by the church's own members - each one so individual be it modern or traditional, soft or harsh - have brought new life to bare walls. They have stimulated many adults to rethink this season and provoked children to ask questions about the last hard days of Christ's life.