Beginning today, a controversial sculpture depicting a nude female Christ on the cross is returning to New York’s Episcopal Cathedral, displayed on a chapel altar.
“Christa”, the bronze sculpture by artist Edwina Sandys, will appear alongside the work of 21 other contemporary artists according to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine web site: “all exploring the language, symbolism, art, and ritual associated with the historic concept of the Christ image and the divine as manifested in every person—across all genders, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and abilities.”
Sandys’ work was previously exhibited in the cathedral in 1984 as part of an exhibition on the feminine divine, but was removed after significant backlash. Then-Suffragan Bishop of New York Walter Dennis criticized the sculpture as ”theologically and historically indefensible” leading to its removal from the 124-year-old gothic revival church in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood.
The New York Times reports that Christa is being installed on the altar in the Chapel of St. Saviour, one of seven chapels radiating from the ambulatory behind the choir. In marking the return of the sculpture, Sandys is joined by cathedral and diocesan officials in assessing that “Times have changed”:
The current dean of the cathedral, the Very Rev. James A. Kowalski, saw the return of the statue as “an opportunity to reframe the conversation and, frankly, do a better job than the first time.”
And this time, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, Andrew M. L. Dietsche, wrote an article for the cathedral’s booklet — an approving article. “In an evolving, growing, learning church,” he wrote, “we may be ready to see ‘Christa’ not only as a work of art but as an object of devotion, over our altar, with all of the challenges that may come with that for many visitors to the cathedral, or indeed, perhaps for all of us.”
Looking back, Dean Kowalski noted that the statue’s first appearance at the cathedral was long before national debates over such topics as transgender people’s right to use the bathroom of their choice.
Readers of this blog may recall Kowalski as the previous chair of the Board of Trustees for Episcopal Divinity School, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based progressive Episcopal Church seminary which recently voted to cease issuing academic degrees. The school sold much of its property in the past decade and is burning through six million dollars a year from its endowment, an unsustainable level of spending.
Episcopalians in New York State have been hard-hit by membership and attendance decline, with the Diocese of New York reporting significant losses in the past decade.
Between 2005 and 2015, the Episcopal Diocese of New York declined from 64,027 members to 53,353 members, a loss of 10,674 members (-17%). During the same time period, average Sunday attendance dropped from 21,723 in 2005 to 16,878 in 2015, a loss of 4,845 attendees (-22%). Baptisms in the diocese declined from 1,612 in 2005 to 904 in 2015 (-56%) and marriages performed decreased from 579 in 2005 to 290 in 2015 (-50%).
The exhibit will run from October 6 to March 12.