Mother and son team, Stephanie and Jonathan Tibber, are a hugely creative part of St. George’s church Weald. They head up a prayer shawl ministry and they create interactive, multi-sensory prayer stations set within the context of a journey towards God based on the ancient Christian symbol of the prayer labyrinth. Rochester Arts in Mission interviewed Stephanie about their work.
What first got you interested in labyrinths?
I had seen a labyrinth installed at a number of Diocesan events and I found myself walking one for the first time at the Rochester Diocesan conference. On reaching the centre of the labyrinth I had a personal encounter with God. It’s hard to find words to describe how that felt but I was filled with a deep peace but also with an excitement about what I had experienced. I wanted to find a way to replicate it so that other people could experience it too. On returning from the conference I talked it over with my son, Jonathan, and that’s how our involvement with labyrinths began.
How do you think a labyrinth encourages people?
Each person makes the journey in their own time and at their own pace. The degree to which that person engages with the experience is entirely up to them. It is wonderfully inclusive and can be enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds – no previous ‘church’ knowledge or familiarity is required. People often say that they lose track of time in the labyrinth and we encourage them to stay for as long as they wish. Modern life is so busy that finding a place and a means of spending quality time with the Lord can be difficult for all of us. The labyrinth creates that opportunity.
What labyrinths have you created?
We started simply by hiring the labyrinth which was available from the Diocesan Office and setting it up at our church, St. George’s, Weald. Then we moved on to building on what we had learned and began to develop some fresh ideas. We were soon inspired to create a completely new labyrinth on the theme of God’s promises. The success of this labyrinth encouraged us to continue devising new ones and we were pleased to be invited to bring one to the 2009 Diocesan Conference. We brought three labyrinths, on the theme of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Since then, we have continued to devise and create new labyrinths, often with a season of the church year in mind, such as Advent or Holy Week. Subjects have included ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ with a theme of salvation; ‘the Good Shepherd’, ‘Hands’, ‘Who is He?’, ‘Bread and Wine’, ‘People of Holy Week,’ ‘Daytime’, ‘Remembrance’, ‘The Revelation of Christ’ and ‘Identity’. We’ve also done a ‘Labyrinth of Light’ for All Hallows Eve, which provided both spiritual comfort and a powerful Christian witness to light up the darkness associated with that night.
Where do you get your ideas from?
Jonathan and I are always open to labyrinth ideas. Sometimes we might be inspired by a sermon or a talk we’ve heard, sometimes we are commissioned to devise a labyrinth on a particular theme or to fit a particular space. Sometimes our ideas are impacted by what’s happening in the church or the world, and sometimes – most excitedly – one of us has an illuminating vision or a dream.
What goes into the making of a labyrinth in terms of planning and acquiring props?
We start with the designated theme and write down all our ideas. Then we might leave it for a day or two and then return to it. Then we devise the structure. We picture the space and decide where the centre will be located and how many stations there will be. We work on the logistics, trying to ensure there is flow on a practical and content level. We write down the aim of each station and how we might achieve it, usually through the use of props and interaction and we test out our ideas. We also do a lot of research on the theological aspects of the subject and decide what images we can use.
We visit charity shops regularly in the quest for suitable props and we search the internet. Sourcing props can be a bit of a challenge but it’s also very rewarding. Another thing for us to think about is music. Although it is not essential to have music playing while people explore the labyrinth, we have found that it can add an extra dimension to visitors’ experience. We might make up an album of songs that reflect the topic or have some CDs of Taizé music or Gregorian chant to create an atmosphere of stillness and worship.
The entire process is soaked in prayer. It is the key to everything.
What is your favourite labyrinth and why?
Each labyrinth has its own character. Sometimes the ‘buzz’ is in the amazing things that we ourselves learn through the process of devising a new labyrinth. This was especially true of the ‘Bread and Wine’ labyrinth where our research led us to scholarly revelations about the cultural significance of ancient covenants, the symbolism of bread and wine, seed-time and harvest and the promise of eternal life. Our challenge was to interpret what we had discovered in tangible ways for our visitors.
Some labyrinths become favourites because of the impact that they have had on the people who have attended them. One, in 2014, was created in place of a Sunday morning service. Our chosen theme was ‘Daytime’ and we had such positive feedback from many people who hadn’t experienced a labyrinth before.
What feedback have you had from the labyrinths you have done? How has it encouraged people’s faith?
We always place a notebook at the final prayer station, where people can write a few words about their labyrinth journey. The comments confirm that the labyrinth becomes a ‘thin place’ where the Holy Spirit is felt. People speak of experiencing extraordinary peace, of feeling a closeness to God, or having received divine guidance for a personal dilemma, of burdens being lifted and of being greatly blessed…so many wonderful things.
What advice do you have for those who are thinking of using labyrinths in their worship?
I would urge them to give it a try. Regular members of your congregation will be blessed by visiting the labyrinth but additionally, you might find that you have visitors who are rarely seen at regular church services. It’s wonderful to be able to reach out to those people and encourage them to meet the Lord in a setting which is simple to access, requires no prior knowledge of the Bible or church etiquette, and yet speaks to them in a profound way.
We really want to encourage people to get involved in this ministry and we are happy to be used as a resource and to share what we have learned about creating labyrinths and sacred space. Please contact the AIM Co-ordinator on firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to get in touch with us and we’ll do our best to help.
If you would like to experience a labyrinth, Stephanie and Jonathan are putting one on at St. George’s church in December. It is open to the public from 10-12pm and 6-8pm on Tuesday 5th – Thursday 7th December. St. George’s Church, Church Road, Weald, Sevenoaks, TN14 6LT.