The Canonry Cushion Project 2018

Crosstalk article by the Reverend Canon Linda Hill

There are four new saints in the Cathedral! Deborah, the Old Testament judge and prophet, seventh century Hilda of Whitby as well as two of the women who went to the tomb on the first Easter – Joanna and Mary Magdalene – are now each represented with a canonry stall named after them.

It is a long-standing Anglican tradition that from time to time the diocesan bishop appoints respected priests as cathedral canons as an expression of the esteem the bishop holds for them. Each canon is named to a particular stall, thus being known as the Canon of ‘St __________.’          

Christ Church Cathedral has ten canon stalls and until last year all of them were named after male saints. Bishop John Chapman and Dean Shane Parker realized this did not accurately reflect Christian history and thus decided to retire four of them and add four women saints.

Since each stall is outfitted with a needle-pointed seat cushion displaying symbols of the canonry saint, the cathedral commissioned four new cushions. A small team worked with Dean Parker to design the cushions which were then stitched by Phyllis Paryas and Sue Lockie of St John’s Church, South March. The designs relate to those of the existing cushions yet each displays a unique approach that is sure to delight the viewer. Phyllis has researched and written extensive notes that outline a history of each saint as well as the design features of the cushions. 

The cushion for Deborah features the palm tree where tradition says she was consulted as judge and prophet. “The fronds and trunk of the palm are stitched in Palestinian Embroidery traditional designs, also used for St Joanna’s cushion face…. The base of the palm shows the seat of judgment (cushion on a rock) in red with tassels and a footstool. It is surrounded by rocks (symbol of strength, endurance, justice and the protection of God.) … Displayed diagonally across the tree trunk is a Torah scroll with the single word ‘Justice’. The design is similar to one found on Jewish Tallit bags which hold the traditional prayer shawls….  The oasis of Deborah, an arbiter of the God of Israel’s justice, shelters under the palm tree.”   

Hilda of Whitby’s cushion centers on the abbey where she served as abbess and spiritual leader of both women and men. Images alluding to the cross, death and resurrection as well as scholarship, music, fruitfulness and light hint at the meaning of Hilda’s life and ministry.  As is fitting for a leader of the Celtic Church, Celtic designs are used throughout including circles, spirals as well as a Celtic cross.   

“It was determined by the committee to focus St Mary’s cushion on the empty tomb and resurrection and St Joanna’s on the theme of ‘companion and provisioner’ for Jesus…” even though both women were witnesses of the empty tomb as well as travelling companions of Jesus. The centre of Joanna’s cushion therefore “depicts the road to Jerusalem… The landscape is envisioned at sunset (the approaching end of Jesus’ earthly life) with accompanying traditional symbols…” for God, baptism, life, crucifixion, death and anointing. The Israeli artist, Bracha Lavee, is acknowledged as a creative inspiration.

The cushion representing Mary Magdalene uses light, darkness and the bright colours of flowers to contrast the suffering of Jesus’ death with the new life of the resurrection. In addition, two eggs – one white and one red – are included because one of the many legends about Mary Magdalene refers to “the egg which turns from white to red as a symbol of the truth of the resurrection.”         

The clergy fortunate enough to be appointed the first canons of these new ‘stalls’ are the Reverend Canon John Wilker-Blakely (St Deborah), the Reverend Canon Linda Hill (St Hilda of Whitby) and the Reverend Canon Beth Bretzlaff (St Joanna), and the Reverend Canon Pat Martin (St Mary Magdalene). As Pat has retired, a new Canon of St Mary Magdalene will be announced at the opening Eucharist of Synod in the Cathedral at 7 p.m. on Thursday, November 1. The new cushions will also be dedicated at that service and will be on display throughout the Synod.   All quotes are from the Canonry Cushion Project 2018 notes which will be made available from the diocese upon request.