Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
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 among 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.