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The Crucifix on the wall  - up or down?

Ovingdean News May 2024

May has to be my favorite month  - the month of Mary, the Mother of God and the season in my opinion of the best weather, flowers, light and we have these wonderful feasts of the Ascension and then the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  Do join us at our Pentecost bonfire service on Sunday the 19th where we will have the chance to celebrate and give thanks for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit - as well as enjoy some toasted marshmallows! 

With this lovely weather the new nature club called ‘Wulf in the Woods’ has started.  These first sessions have gone extremely well, with all the sessions fully booked and feedback has been excellent. I am very grateful for everyone from across the community who have worked so hard to get this village club off the ground and I am delighted our young people have this new opportunity to explore and value our precious natural world. 

Our work to progress on the Next Generation programme continues and we are taking the outline of these ideas to the diocese for feedback. Using this feedback we will then work on more detailed plans and the associated required permissions. We will as part of this work ensure we make links with Ovingdean Energy’s sustainable energy plan that is just getting started as well as the proposed Neighborhood Plan. 

Quite a few areas of feedback from the next generation engagement process were about using the church for art exhibitions and associated with this were numerous comments about the existing traditional art in the church.  I thought I would give some thoughts on this and I want to start by saying we are not proposing changing any of the existing art or religious imagery in the church.  I am keen though for us to reflect on it and consider what it means, how others might experience it and how we might better explain it to those new to faith. 

The crucifix on the rood screen (the image of Jesus nailed to the cross) is perhaps the single most striking religious image in St Wulfran’s. This image was commissioned by Charles Kempe and was carved in the German village of Oberammergau. Similar to other churches, the image of the crucifix is repeated throughout St Wulfran’s in every space.  Hearing the recent feedback made me think: how would St Wulfran's feel when visiting and worshiping if there was an image of the resurrected Jesus depicted on the rood screen instead of the present agony of the crucifixion? We have many paintings of Jesus in the chancel  - the vast majority of these are scenes of suffering and crucifixion and only one of the resurrection. How would it feel for visitors and those enquiring about faith if they came into the church and they saw images that spoke more straightforwardly of hope, life and hope? Jesus the Good Shepherd? Jesus the teacher and healer? The ascended Jesus? The Holy Spirit?  Much church art before the 10th century did not focus on the crucifixion but resurrection and many modern churches today have the image of the resurrected Jesus in front of and triumphant over the cross.   

This is something for us to consider, though to be clear again, I am not suggesting we remove these images - but I think we have an opportunity at this time to consider how they shape our worship and mission and how visitors and people new to faith are supported in understanding and engaging with them. This is not the Victorian age when these images were placed in St Wulfran’s and we therefore need to take care to not assume people understand what's going on and what things mean when they come to St Wulfran's today  - most people these days do not know or understand Christian imagery and the theology behind it.

Whilst I'm not for taking down crucifixes,  in considering all of this, I’m reminded of one of the people who brought and kept me in faith, the Pastor of Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco, the Reverend Cecil Williams. Sadly Cecil died last week and I mourn his passing and give thanks for his life and ministry.

With his wife Janice Merikinani, he led Glide Church for 50 years, basing it on radical inclusion and hospitality, building it from a congregation of 35 to 10,000. This is an extract from an interview with Michael Martin about the decision to take the cross down from the sanctuary when he started his ministry: 

MARTIN: You know what I wanted to ask you about, though? This is one of the things that's always fascinated me. One of the most controversial moments in the life of the church - and you know what I'm going to ask you about - came when you...

WILLIAMS: That's right. That's right.

MARTIN: ...decided to remove the church's cross at the altar. First of all, what do you make of that? Why did you do it?

WILLIAMS: Because I wanted to bring the suffering to the people in the street. I wanted the people in the street to know that there were those of us who cared and to bring the cross meant that - to bring the struggle from the walls, from the statues, from the many, many, many different kinds of ways of using and misusing the cross.

It was apparent to me that the cross needed to live rather than die and so, immediately when I began to work at it, it began to make a lot of sense and a lot of commitment on my part and Jan's part and all of our parts to say to the world, we are going to bring life. We celebrate, we affirm, we bring life, not death and this is why we bring the cross to where the people really exist and the people are really hurting and there's so much suffering going on. Let's bring it where the people really have to go through the trials and tribulations.

MIRIKITANI: And, for me, I think it was not only a frightening experience because I still held onto some old belief that we were going to get struck by lightning or something, but it was also very liberating. And the analogy that I make is that we've lived in the shadow of the cross. We've lived in the shadow of shame and sin and I think that taking the cross down was a major, major statement of liberating us to feel, you know, that it was about life. It was about unconditional love and, if Jesus' life meant anything to me, it became very real that his life meant that he spent it in unconditional love and that is the message of the cross.

Lots to consider there and think in their context this was the right decision. 

Picking up on Janice and Cecil’s comments but making some other conclusions …I agree our faith is based on the reality of death, and suffering  - as well as resurrection joy. In my experience it is the story of pain as well as joy that speaks so powerfully to many believers. That is the reality of life after all and our faith is in a God who is with us and knows us in all this messiness.   For this reason the image of the crucifixion remains central and very important to me. 

At times of deep distress, I don't know about you, but I find myself in front of the image of the crucifix, on my knees  - feeling understood  - and I have often heard the phrase in my head: “Only a suffering God can help.” The line it turns out belongs to Dietrich Bonhoeffer - that amazing man of faith who opposed the Nazis and was executed just a few days before the end of the second world war on the 9 April 1945.  A prison guard found a piece of paper with the line scribbled on it, and smuggled it out of Bonhoeffer's cell shortly before his death.  Only a suffering God can help.

The paradox of resurrection is that when Jesus appeared to the disciples the scarred body of the crucifixion identified him and comforted his disciples.  His wounded hands and feet pulled them out of disbelief and into radical, life-altering faith.  As another American theologian, Debie Thomas points out, ‘We dare not treat this fact lightly, because it testifies to a great mystery’.  Debie says that if, at the apex of his resurrection victory, Jesus’ witness was a witness of the crucifixion and scars, then maybe we should take heed.  Maybe when the world looks at us to see if we are real, to see if the Jesus we love and the faith we profess is truly approachable and trustworthy, they need to see our scars and the crucifixion.  Our vulnerability, not our triumphalism.  The crucifixion and wounds aren't pretty, and no, they don't tell the whole story of the Christian journey.  But the stories they do tell are holy.  Jesus didn't hide the bloody and the broken; the cross.  Neither should we.

I think Debie is right, but still perhaps we could tell the story better and perhaps any new images, temporary or permanent, could better balance the existing imagery in the church. I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

With love and best wishes

Fr Richard

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