Abomination: Female "Christa" Sculpture In Episcopal Church
An ‘Evolving’ Episcopal Church Invites Back a Controversial Sculpture
Edwina Sandys had seen this before: the 250-pound bronze statue of a bare-breasted woman on a translucent acrylic cross being installed in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.
This time around, however, she does not expect to see something else she had seen before: the statue being packed up after a call from a ranking church official telling her it had to go.
That happened the first time “Christa,” Ms. Sandys’s sculpture of a crucified woman, was shown at the cathedral in Manhattan during Holy Week in 1984.
A controversy erupted, complete with hate mail attacking it as blasphemous. Overruling the dean of the cathedral at the time, the suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York called the statue “theologically and historically indefensible” and ordered Ms. Sandys to take it away.
This time, it is being installed on the altar in the Chapel of St. Saviour as the centerpiece of “The Christa Project: Manifesting Divine Bodies,” an exhibition of more than 50 contemporary works that interpret — or reinterpret — the symbolism associated with the image of Jesus.
Times have changed, Ms. Sandys said on Monday as the statue arrived at the cathedral, swaddled in the kind of dark gray blankets that movers wrap around furniture.
“It was startling then,” said Ms. Sandys, who is a granddaughter of Winston Churchill and whose name is pronounced “sands.” “Now? Well, we have women bishops now.”
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. And the display came five years before the consecration of a woman as a bishop in the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Barbara C. Harris. She served as the suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts until 2003.
Ms. Sandys molded “Christa” from clay in 1974, when she lived in London. “I thought: ‘What should I be doing today? Oh, I know, I’ll do a female Christ,’” she recalled. “It really just happened, more or less automatically.”
It was cast in bronze resin and mounted, at first, on a wooden cross. She ran into a reporter from The Daily Express, a British tabloid. “He ran right over there with a camera and all, and there I was plastered all over The Daily Express,” Ms. Sandys said.
Eventually, she had a bronze version cast, heavier and more permanent than the original. She brought it along when she moved to Manhattan a few years later. “I had ‘Christa’ hanging in my apartment,” she said.
She came to know the Very Rev. James Park Morton, the dean of the cathedral for 25 years until 1996. “I said, ‘How brave are you?’” in 1984, she recalled. “He may not have said ‘try me,’ but words to that effect. I said, ‘How would you like to exhibit “Christa,” the female Christ?’ He said, ‘I’d be delighted.’ I took a deep breath, and that was that.”
Except with that, as Ms. Sandys put it, “all hell broke loose.” Angry letters arrived (the cathedral preserved them in its archives) and, according to Ms. Sandys, the suffragan bishop, Walter Dennis, “said he didn’t want it, and I had to come and get ‘Christa.’”
The statue’s departure was stylish. Ms. Sandys said she put the statue on top of a sports car — red, no doubt, she said — and sped off.
Dean Kowalski said the timing of the exhibition, which opens on Thursday — a little more than a month before Election Day, during a campaign with the first major-party female candidate for president — was unintentional. (Coincidentally, a few months after the sculpture’s installation and removal in 1984, the Democrats nominated Geraldine A. Ferraro as the first woman to run as a major-party candidate for vice president.)
“We weren’t deliberately trying to open this just before the election,” Dean Kowalski said. “I know there are some people who say, as Ronald Reagan said, ‘There they go again.’ That’s not true.”
He said he did not know how much controversy the exhibition would generate this time around. But Lisa A. Schubert, the cathedral’s vice president for programming, said there had already been some “pushback.”
“We have people who worship here who expressed concerns,” Ms. Schubert said on Monday, as the statue was being put into place. Still, “the leadership of the cathedral said this is 2016, not 1984,” she added. “Surely we can have a woman on the cross.”
Ms. Schubert looked up at the statue and said, “She looks beautiful here, doesn’t she?”