The Headington Stations

Denis Egan, parish priest at Corpus Christi, Headington, Oxford, from 1980 – 1998.

The Church has a long tradition of commissioning works of art, e.g. by Giotto, Michelangelo, Pugin. We also have a long tradition of buying poor-quality repository art, especially in parishes where there is no money to commission artists. Corpus Christi parish was heavily in debt when the previous plastic stations were acquired. I became parish priest in 1980 and discovered that comparatively few people came to the Stations of the Cross on Fridays in Lent. We tried sharing stations on alternate Fridays with St Andrew's parish (C. of E.) as an ecumenical venture. It did not really work well, even though St Andrew's acquired a rather good set of poster-style stations.

When I first preached (in 1981) about the possibility of commissioning a new set of stations by an original artist, I suggested that ten stations might be sufficient, and thereby planned to drop the non-scriptural ones so that other Christians could more easily take part. Since Clifton Cathedral had already introduced a new sequence, it was clear that the traditional sequence was not mandatory. In fact, the only 'legal requirement' is to have crosses, as on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, where the custom began with the sites marked with small crosses on available walls. Interest in the project greatly increased in 1982 when generous donors offered to fund the enterprise. The church needed something more than the stained glass behind the altar to give it artistic character. There was a wish to be innovative, to belong to our long tradition of commissioning works of art, even if we could not match the Way of the Cross, in ceramic glazed tile, by Henri Matisse in the Chapel of the Dominican Sisters at Vence, France, which is considered one of the outstanding achievements of a great 20th-century artist.

In 1983 a committee was established to supervise the commissioning. Six artists were invited to visit the church and to submit preliminary sketches and samples. As Nicholas Coote (Secretary to the Committee) explains, "It was made clear in the briefing letter that a work of artistic originality was sought, which should be specifically suited to the church's design, decoration and dedication. In the course of 1984 the submissions were studied, and the support and approval of the Archbishop was sought for what was clearly going to be an innovative and bold undertaking. The Committee's final choice was unanimous and enthusiastic. Faith Tolkien began her work in 1985, producing sketches and models which she brought to the parish hall for explanation and discussion with the Parish. Neither the committee nor the artist herself fully anticipated the scope and demands of what was not one, but fourteen original works of art. During three years of long and at times exhausting work by the artist, members of the committee were at all times in close contact and consultation with her. They were conscious of being privileged to witness, and in a small way to contribute to a growing of a religious work, which seems to develop a dynamic of its own". (from Preface to the text of Ceremony of Blessing and Celebration of Stations, 1988)

The medium was cold-cast bronze (resin bronze). A distinctive feature of Faith Tolkien's stations is that she devised a sequence which covers the events of Holy Week as told in the Gospels, beginning with Christ's entry into Jerusalem and ending with the disciples' recognition of the risen Lord in the breaking of bread at Emmaus on Easter Sunday. The last station, as well as the second and third, relates to the dedication of the church. On 18 October, 1988, Bishop Crispian Hollis presided at a service of blessing and ecumenical celebration. Verses to be sung at particular stations were written by our organist, May McGarrity, and set by her to a Jacques Berthier Taizé melody. The scriptural reading chosen for each station were those reproduced in a booklet, highlighting the Gospel basis of our new sequence.

What emerged was the value of merging the scriptural devotion of Protestants and the characteristic Catholic ritual celebration. Ecumenical participation built up gradually with ecumenical concelebration, two clergy from different churches sharing (one taking the odd numbers and the other the even numbers). The scripture readings were shared in the same way, and still are. Choosing an appropriate acclamation for each station (to be said by all) evolved over the years, as did the choice of a short verse to be sung at stations 8 to 14. The Revd. Christopher Walker, organist and liturgist, was especially helpful at each revision of the pamphlet, and proved quite expert at choosing hymns we could all sing rather well.

Eventually, doing the Headington Stations became the official Good Friday event for the area with congregations of over 200 – young children, teenagers and adults. Some of the children stand on the ends of benches in order to get a good view. The popularity of the new format was helped by the fact that it provided for extensive congregational participation and was felt to be a genuine ecumenical experience. After all, if Christians cannot make the Way of the Cross together there is not much that is significantly ecumenical they can do together. Everybody felt welcome. Besides, the celebration takes approximately 45 minutes and few people, if any, ever appear to be in a hurry to leave.

The point of it all was expressed by the distinguished Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in his last testament, penned on the very eve of his death: "In the final analysis, our participation in the paschal mystery – in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus – brings a certain freedom… The more we cling to ourselves and others, the more we try to control our destiny – the more we lose the true sense of our lives, the more we are impacted by the futility of it all. It is precisely in letting go, in entering into complete union with the Lord, in letting him take over, that we discover our true selves." (The Gift of Peace 1997, p.48)

Lighting three-dimensional stations presented problems, complicated by the barrel roof in the church. A young electrician, Ashley Bale, recently arrived at the Oxford Playhouse, devised an elegant style of spot-lighting that defeated the best efforts of commercial firms. The photographs reproduced for the booklet were taken by Nicholas Meyjes of Horton-cum-Studley, who is a specialist in illustrative photography. Pam Coote was highly efficient as an editor. The De La Salle Brothers were very accommodating at all times: Brother James organised, designed and printed a booklet.