Episcopal Bishop Defends Nude, Female Jesus as ‘Object of Devotion’

The Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York is exhibiting a naked, feminized statue of Christ’s crucified body, which the bishop has defended as an appropriate work to hang “over our altar.”

“In an evolving, growing, learning church,” Andrew M. L. Dietsche, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, wrote in a booklet accompanying the exhibit, “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.”

The bronze statue, named “Christa” by its creator, British artist Edwina Sandys, had briefly been exposed in the Cathedral Church in 1984, but was soon removed after the church received a wave of complaints. It is now installed on the altar in the Chapel of St. Saviour, one of seven chapels in the ambulatory behind the choir.

In depicting a female Christ, Sandys said, “I wanted to portray the suffering of women,” though she hopes the work appeals to both men and women.

“In the past there were matriarchs in many societies and religions, and gender was not always a factor,” Sandys said. “Today women are finding their way to take their place in the Christian church and in society in general.”

Christa is being exhibited together with the work of 21 other contemporary artists, as part of a show called “The Christa Project: Manifesting Divine Bodies.” The show proposes to explore “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.”

The new show follows on the heels of another exhibition, a reprisal of 1970s feminist exhibition “The Sister Chapel,” which also showcased female portrayals of divinity.

According to official church data, the Episcopal Church in New York State has been hemorrhaging members, and attendance at services has similarly declined.

In the ten years between 2005 and 2015, membership in the Episcopal Diocese of New York dropped by 17 percent, from 64,027 members to 53,353 members. Average Sunday attendance at services also declined by 22 percent during the same period, from 21,723 to 16,878.

Episcopal church baptisms and marriages dropped even more precipitously during the ten-year period, by 56 percent and 50 percent, respectively.

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