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Sydney Anglicans reject the sacred feminine

Date

Elizabeth Farrelly

What has got into Anglicans? The cover of this month’s Sydney Anglican magazine, Southern Cross, shows a scarcely clad female in black lycra. Headless and hairless, she kneels full frontal; naked thighs, leather finger-gloves, red nails and, centre page, the coveted "box gap". The graphic focus, where all lines converge in swelling cruciform, is her barely concealed crotch.

Say what? Anglicanism is usually double vanilla. This cover is flavoured somewhere between X-treme workout and S&M. The blood-red headline, stamped across the woman’s ovaries, graphically reinforces this message. But the text tells a different story. The phrase "knee workout" offers its slender pretext for the faux porn: a story on the art of prayer.

And that makes it weirder. Instead of some gold-leaf icon or smoky Gethsemane, some bruised Goya or stark, textual McCahon to lend reverence, we have depersonalised pseudo bondage. Dumbing down is one thing, but seriously? This?

Yet church is about symbolism, right? So what does she mean, this headless chick? Possible readings abound. Perhaps, at the pragmatic level, Anglicanism is just so desperate for congregation and coffer-fill that its cover strategy is reduced to whatever it takes. Desperate times, desperate measures.

This interpretation is supported, for instance, by the attempted sale of Bishopscourt, at well over market value; a small sod in the massive hole left by the diocese’s avid stockmarket overreach (driven, in turn, by a mad evangelical craving for world domination).

Or perhaps the S&M cover invites women to leave their heads (and clothes?) at the door, abandoning mind and identity both, bringing to church only their generic, sanitised sexual self – and that for subjugation.

The Sydney diocese’s proud stance against both women and gays supports this construction. While world Anglicans have moved on to debate female bishops, Sydney’s lot – leaders in backwardness – join with Africa in staunchly refusing women even as priests.

But consider also April’s cover, featuring two people, man and woman, wrapped in cling film. "Bound," declares the headline. "Same-sex attraction, human frailty and God’s love."

The feature depicts homosexuality as "brokenness", a kind of malaise or captivity (hence the cling film) from which "every human being can be rescued ... in Christ".

It's bad to be gay, goes the argument, but acceptable (whew!) to love someone "struggling" with homosexuality, providing there’s genuine self-hatred. "Same-sex attraction," the piece insists, is in no way inherent but, rather, a "lifestyle". A choice, being chosen, can be unchosen.

Allowing that "Jesus doesn’t explicitly speak about homosexuality in the gospels at all", the magazine nevertheless insists Jesus condemned homosexuality "by implication". (Then again, if everything Jesus did not endorse – bicycles, flu shots, cheese souffle – were thus condemned the world would be bleak indeed.)

Southern Cross tells of "Tom", an "active part of Sydney’s gay scene" before "stumbling across a Christian website". It took five years of church before Tom was finally attracted to a woman but he is now "happily married". My heart sinks.  

Never mind the Church’s willingness to condemn Tom’s "habitual sin" of pornography while circulating its own sexualised, headless object. Never mind that, as Muriel Porter points out in The Sydney Experiment, even St Paul’s ban on homosexuality probably related only to lustful, predatory or violent sex, which was also sinful amongst straights.

A third possible reading of the headless-female imagery is still more bizarre: the Church’s hardline rejection of anything historical, cultural or beautiful; anything not rooted, that is, in demotic populism.

They’re odd bedfellows – the ultra-low ecclesiastical aesthetic and the ultra-conservative social values – until you understand that both manifest a radical puritanism. The Sydney diocese’s abrogation of sacred beauty is so deliberate and so complete it makes Cromwell seem a dilettante fop.

This rejection underpins everything. Take the May issue of Southern Cross, themed on church music. Flipping through, you’d be forgiven for thinking sacred music was invented some time around the (second) millennium.

No one likes contemporary church "songs". They’re bland and pompous. Even Southern Cross recognises that "dismay at the choice of songs sung in churches is widespread". Yet it proposes still more dumbing-down – slower, easier, less vocal range. Still more stripping of the beauty.

Enlightenment culture betrayed beauty, persuading us that it was merely subjective, superficial, luxurious and dispensable. Modernity has left us stranded in psychologist Ken Wilber’s positivist "flatland" – mundane, uninflected, unengaging. Our response is (ineffectually) to self-medicate with materialism, appetite and ego.

Never have we needed beauty more. Yet Sydney Anglicanism, far from resisting this dangerous push, intensifies it; banning the cathedral choir from evensong, putting the altar on wheels, replacing carved pews with padded vinyl, letting massive flatscreens obscure entire chancels, using carved marble fonts as birdbaths.

Beauty is the necessary counterpoint. It’s not just solace, or pleasure, or escape. Beauty, said philosopher Iris Murdoch, was “the visible and accessible aspect of the Good".  Beauty – the experience of ex-stasis, or ecstasy – is a connector.

Enabling a sense of connectivity with something greater, beauty is both a core ingredient of joy and our best hope for effecting that large-scale behavioural change we’ll need to save the planet.

Persuasion doesn’t change behaviour. Science, as the climate debate disturbingly shows, shifts minds, not hearts. What changes behaviour – as Steve Jobs knew – is desire; seduction, poetry, enchantment.

Melbourne theologian David Tacey writes of our need for re-enchantment. Reared in Alice Springs, Tacey contrasts white Australia’s embarrassment at the sacred with Aboriginality’s grasp of sacredness in almost everything. For Tacey this "white man got no dreaming" explains the unbridgeable chasm between the cultures, our failure to grasp age as anything but loss, and our trashing of the planet that sustains us.

Only glimpsing the sacred, argues Tacey, can give us the intuitive feel for landscape to save the planet and ourselves. "The revelation of the sacred in this country," he writes, "will be profoundly feminine." And, paradoxically, it will be by "recalling the image of God as Mother that God the Father will be revived".

You can bet God the Mother, this sacred feminine, won’t come headless, ultra-depilated and shrink-wrapped for your delectation in gleaming black lycra.

Twitter @emfarrelly

46 comments so far

  • They were pretty quick in deleting the offending cover image from the on-line edition!
    Check out http://sydneyanglicans.net/southerncross June Issue

    Commenter
    Protea
    Location
    Moruya
    Date and time
    June 05, 2014, 6:49AM
    • @ Protea,

      Yes the Anglicans do struggle with embracing Biblical traditions and creating their own Church - making it modern. They range from ultra-conservatives being more conservative than Catholics to ultra-liberals which turn the sacred into a feel good event.

      They struggle with the feminine because if they embrace "Mary", which Catholics and Eastern Orthodox churches have been doing for 1500yrs, they will be forced into admitting the errors of the Protestant reformation. The true path to God leads to Rome - and Jesus has crowned "Mary" as the feminine queen of heaven who leads people to him.

      Commenter
      John Burnell
      Date and time
      June 05, 2014, 10:13AM
    • They also apologised for it.

      http://sydneyanglicans.net/blogs/ministrythinking/when-we-get-it-wrong

      Commenter
      Snickersnee
      Date and time
      June 05, 2014, 12:00PM
  • Ms Farrelly, it appears that while you love the notion of the sacred and crave the Divine, you can't quite get there because you won't kneel. Even U2 understand this.

    Commenter
    Joel
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    June 05, 2014, 6:49AM
    • And all this cods wallop in the name of a spirit in the sky that (in all 4asonable probability) doesn't even exist!

      Commenter
      Doobie
      Date and time
      June 05, 2014, 6:54AM
      • Well it makes a change from the usual sermon at the Church of the Holy Bike

        Commenter
        SteveH.
        Date and time
        June 05, 2014, 7:13AM
      • Doobie
        I assure you no thinking Christian (and I promise you, there are a few) believes in a 'spirit in the sky' as you put it. Our concept of God is vague to be sure, because we are talking about a divine being largely beyond human understanding. But I promise you, we don't imagine God to be a man with a beard in the clouds. Personally, I believe in God, but I admit to having trouble articulating what that means exactly. Then again, I also believe in love but have a hard time describing it.

        Commenter
        lacebug
        Location
        annandale
        Date and time
        June 05, 2014, 7:54AM
      • lacebug I certainly respect your right to believe in whichever God you choose.
        The only thing I can suggest is that perhaps your version of God is not same as more mainstream version; the interventionist designer version that the Bible refers to and that the major Christian religions preach.
        In the million to one chance that this God did exist, he would have a lot to answer for. Just to ponder a few examples.
        A God who designed cancer
        A God who condoned and indeed inflicted the massacre of women and childeren
        A God who waited a hundred thousand years before gracing humanity with morals ( therefore what chance did pre-bronze age people have to behave in the right way?)

        Commenter
        Doobie
        Date and time
        June 05, 2014, 9:04AM
      • No such thing as gods, deities, supernatural beings, whatever you want to call them. They do not exist @lacebug. Now that is a fact.
        Just because people think there are deities and/or read about them in a book written by superstitious goat herders and fisher folk, does not make it fact. Probably means there are a lot of people who are easily swayed.

        Commenter
        PB
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        June 05, 2014, 9:14AM
      • lacebug, I appreciate your attempt to describe your sense of a supreme being. My issue with many who are religious is that they are dogmatic about their beliefs regarding their supreme being is, and the rules this entity insists everyone should live by.

        As someone once pointed out, there are about 4,200 religions in the world, so the thing separating an atheist and someone who insists that their religion is the only truth is, in fact, one religion. That is, an atheist and a Christian, for example, both believe 4,199 are fantasy. It is amusing to see that people of one religion can be so adamant that the others' version of god is wrong, yet they are distressed by others denying their version.

        I prefer to describe myself as an agnostic - I simply don't know. I suspect all religions hold some of the answers, and none of them hold all of the answers.

        Commenter
        Country observer
        Date and time
        June 05, 2014, 9:28AM

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