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Stations of the Cross reinterpreted

Recent debate in the Australian Catholic Church over the new English translation of the Mass shows the difficulty of expressing age-old spiritual truths in contemporary language and symbols. An associated challenge is how to communicate with the broader culture about those truths in a way that's meaningful and enriching for all.

For the last five years at Easter, the Uniting Church at St Ives in Sydney's north has risen to this challenge. Led by minister Doug Purnell, this parish has commissioned leading contemporary artists to depict the Stations of the Cross. These representations of Christ's passion are then exhibited in the church over Easter, and used as a basis for lectures, discussion, prayer and reflection.

This spiritual practice is usually associated with Catholicism, and its origins generally attributed to St Francis. But Purnell explains that as the Stations of the Cross appeared in medieval times before the Reformation, it is a form of spirituality that 'belongs to all Christians', including Protestants.

In this special Easter interview for Eureka Street TV, Purnell shares his insights into some of the works in this year's exhibition. His enthusiasm is infectious, and he obviously has deep respect for the efforts of the artists as they grapple with expressing their particular episode.

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Purnell is well qualified to lead this exercise as he straddles the disciplines of art, ministry and theology. He's been minister at several Uniting Church parishes in Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales, and has lectured in pastoral theology and the arts at a number of theological schools in Australia and the United States.

He gained his doctorate from San Francisco Theological Seminary with a thesis entitled 'Doing theology through expressive art', and is a practicing artist of some standing, with ten solo exhibitions and eight joint exhibitions held over the last ten years at various galleries in Australia and the USA.

He has been artist and scholar in residence at a number of prestigious institutions including the Andover Newton Theological School in Boston, St Mark's National Theological Centre in Canberra, Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC, and Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey.

He is a director on the board of the Blake Society for Contemporary Religious Art, and was one of the judges of the Blake Prize in 2004. He is in demand as a speaker, making regular presentations at conferences here and overseas.

He is a prolific writer, contributing chapters to a number of books, and articles to a range of journals. He has published several books including Working with Families, Exploring Your Family Story, Conversation as Ministry and, most recently, Being in Ministry: Honestly, Openly and Deeply. 

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Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. 

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Liturgy translation, Doug Purnell, Uniting Church, St Ives, stations of the cross