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How we put Christ back in the marketplace

07 July 2023

Clergy have to find new ways to engage with the non-churchgoing public. Martin Poole gives one example


The Lanes in Brighton

The Lanes in Brighton

I AM the opposite of a shopaholic. I am not a devotee of the cult of retail therapy, unlike so many people today for whom shopping is not just a necessity, but a leisure activity in itself.

Indeed, shopping is for some a ritual activity, indulged in with a religious intensity akin to the devotion given in former years to worship. Shopping malls are the modern cathedrals of consumerism, swarming on Sundays with devotees who have gone to worship the god of retail.

So, how can we engage with this demographic, who are using their leisure time in this way?

The Lanes in Brighton are a shopping mecca full of small, independent, unusual, and quirky shops, selling everything from vegan shoes to high-end designer suits; and this became the setting for an artistic/retail version of Stations of the Cross. The concept was simple: persuade a dozen or so shop owners in the Lanes to give over a small portion of their shop window to an artwork loosely based on one of the Stations of the Cross.

Each “church beyond walls” window installation would have a placard with some thoughts for reflection and instructions about where to find the next artwork; so this would form a trail around the streets of Brighton that intentional pilgrims could take, or which, more importantly, could ambush casual shoppers into a spiritual experience.

I thought I’d try the idea by approaching the owners of a cycle shop whom I vaguely knew through church connections. I explained the concept to them, but they didn’t think this would be possible for them, as the chain-link security shutter on their window was broken and permanently stuck across the window.

Thinking on my feet, I pointed out that this fixed metal grid reminded me of a prison, and that I thought this could be made into the Station where Jesus was bound and imprisoned. This opened their eyes to the possibility that this might work, and so they agreed to take part, subject to seeing the artwork we proposed.

So, I knew that at least one shop owner was on board and that the project had potential. I set out to find other shops willing to take part, now that the cycle shop was already in the bag.

There was a United Reformed church and community centre quite near by, and I knew that the minister there had creative aspirations; so I asked him if he would like to be involved. He agreed, and so his church café window became Station I (with a specifically created piece of collage art about the garden of Gethsemane looking out on to one of the main thoroughfares in the centre of the city).

So as to follow the Easter story, this had to continue the narrative after Jesus’s betrayal in the garden, and this is where the malfunctioning security grille came into play. One of our team bought a wax-moulding kit, and she fashioned two beautiful life-size wax hands, which we roped together with some old-fashioned hessian rope and affixed to the prison-like security grille. This became “Jesus was arrested.”

In one corner of the window, we fixed an A4 placard explaining the trail with these words: “The Easter Path is a BEYOND initiative, and features 12 Easter-themed art installations or stations in shop windows in central Brighton. For more information, you can pick up a leaflet inside or go to www.beyondchurch.co.uk.”

This appeared in every window that was part of the trail, and alongside this was a text box giving directions to the next Station. Every window also had a short Bible passage and some words to reflect on, customised for each location.

A comic shop was the location for Station III. The assistants in the store were interesting to talk to, but their initial reaction was to decline the offer to be involved. But I got a call from them a few weeks later to say they had reconsidered, because so many of the comics and graphic novels that they loved were about gods and heaven, death, and resurrection.

I was delighted that they had engaged with this subject so deeply and been talking about it among themselves. One of the principles that I always try to put into practice when collaborating with people who have no church background is to let them interpret the theme in the way that they want.

In this case, the shop produced a simple cross-shaped display in the window, using cover images from an edition of a comic called Final Crisis. This series brings together a number of superheroes, and in each edition one of them is killed by “Darkseid”, a force colloquially known as “the god-killer”.

This demonstrated a depth of understanding of the themes of Lent and Easter that astonished me. I could never have come up with something more appropriate for a Lent journey towards the cross which was relevant to the clientele who would use this shop and who would understand the subtleties of this message! The placard that accompanied this said: “Jesus receives the cross. Jesus is made to carry the instrument of torture that will eventually be used to kill him.”

Station IV was a picture-framing shop that allowed us to put whatever artwork we liked into one of their frames; they even donated the frame! This became one of the Stations where Jesus falls.

The text that accompanied this referred to our own human frailty. A Bible passage from Galatians 5.4-6 (from the version The Message) reinforced this, as we didn’t always want the scripture references to be confined to the Easter story.

Station V was a multifaith “spirituality store” that sold everything from crucifixes to buddhas, tarot cards to rosary beads. They gave us a statue of Mary, which we used as the Station where Jesus meets his mother.

Station VI was the office window of the firm of accountants who looked after my finances. They shared the building with an estate agent, and so we created a cross-shaped collage of images with a local charity that helps homeless folk, and this became the Station when Simon of Cyrene steps in to help Jesus carry his cross, mirroring all those charities which step in to help those in need.

Once again, the scripture accompanying this came from somewhere other than the Easter story (Matthew 25.35-40, The Message).

Station VII was a Christian bookshop in the heart of town. They gave us a nice big space in their window to hang a cloth with a graffiti image of the face of Jesus sprayed on to it. We took the image from some graffiti that had appeared on a rusty pillar remaining from the ruin of the West Pier on Hove seafront, giving this a real local connection. We also used this as the hero image to promote the event, and it appeared on every placard as a way of identifying all the windows with each other.

This stop on the trail told the story of Veronica, who stepped forward to wipe Jesus’s face, starting a tradition of cloths purporting to hold an image of Christ as his sweat was imprinted on to the cloth.

Station VIII was another city-centre church, who gave over a window to a proper piece of art created by a local artist, who drew a sensitive charcoal sketch of Jesus contemplating his own fall. It showed a person deep in thought, a glimpse into the mind of Christ as he falls once again.

Station IX was a newsagent’s window featuring the women of Jerusalem weeping. Station X proved to be quite controversial. Initially, I had a warm reception from the owner of a bespoke men’s outfitters, who not only agreed to take part, but gave me a suit jacket to slash open and display on a cross-shaped stand in the window.

I placed it in the window with the slashed back facing the street and attached some bright red silk behind the gashes in the jacket to represent blood. This looked great and was installed on Ash Wednesday, but, by the following weekend, it had disappeared. A chat with the shop owner revealed the fact, previously unknown to me, that he was Jewish, and his wife, who was more engaged with her faith than he was, had taken real umbrage at the installation and had taken it down.

After considerable discussion with both of them, it was agreed that it was acceptable to turn the jacket around so the slashes weren’t visible and add a discreet lapel badge on it made from a pair of dice, representing the soldiers casting lots for the robe of Jesus.

After this adjustment, both the owner and his wife were happy to let this stay there for the duration of Lent, which was just as well, because I had already printed 5000 flyers outlining the whole path, including this location. It was good to resolve this issue, not only because it was important to me that every retailer hosting our art was happy, but because it also became an example of positive interfaith dialogue.

Most of the time, we created bespoke work to fit the shop, but sometimes I would find shops that already had something that we could incorporate into the trail, like the architectural salvage shop that already had a five-foot-high wrought-iron cross from France in their window. This became Station XI and the climax of the story, when Jesus dies.

Unfortunately, we almost had to abandon this Station halfway through Lent, as a shop assistant sold the crucifix, not realising it was part of our trail! I got a panicked call from the owner when he found out, and we had to source an emergency cross to replace it until Easter.

Station XII completed the trail and also featured art that was already in place in the seafront workshop of a neon artist, who was repurposing bits of old fairground rides, and had happened to create a couple of five-foot-high neon crosses. We were able to reference his work in the placard with an accompanying Bible quote from 1 Peter 1.3-4 (The Message).

In total, the trail encompassed 12 locations within the centre of the city, creating an Easter Path that took about an hour to complete overall and involved a walk of almost two miles. The trail was in place for the whole six weeks of Lent, 24 hours a day, and it’s impossible to know how many casual shoppers engaged with it over that time, but the potential footfall past these installations would have been many thousands.

Some groups made special trips to Brighton to experience the trail, and we ran guided tours at various points during Lent, culminating in a Good Friday pilgrimage, as an alternative to the traditional Good Friday walks of witness which often take place in some towns.

Ultimately, as Christians who want to engage with mission, we want to create spiritual events that provide opportunities for God to be revealed. That revelation may not be the one that we had intended: that is up to God. All we should be seeking to do is to create an environment where God can work.

This is an edited extract from
Church Beyond Walls: Christian spirituality at large published last month by Canterbury Press at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.59). Read a review here

The Revd Martin Poole is the Vicar of St Luke’s, Prestonville, in Brighton.


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