[Episcopal News Service] Arguably the biggest firestorm of controversy in The Episcopal Church this week started at 11:37 a.m. Oct. 31 with an intriguing post on the Facebook page of General Theological Seminary, which promised a “performance of weeping” in the New York seminary’s chapel.
The post generated intense reactions almost immediately, particularly from Episcopal clergy. Nearly all the comments were negative.
“This is embarrassing,” commented the Rev. Everett Lees, vicar of Christ Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Superficial virtue signaling” was how it was described by the Rev. Wesley Evans, rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Lakewood, Washington.
“You have to be kidding,” Long Island Bishop Lawrence Provenzano commented.
After facing a social media outcry for the better part of three days, the seminary, The Episcopal Church’s oldest, posted an update saying it had canceled the Nov. 18 event. The artist, Lia Chavez, would no longer be welcomed into the Chapel of the Good Shepherd for five hours of crying, as commissioned by the Foundation for Spirituality and the Arts.
“In response to the strength of feeling this event has generated, we have made the decision to cancel it,” the seminary said in its update late Nov. 2. “We do not always get things right, but we are committed to listening to the concerns of our community. While we still believe the arts provide rich opportunities for exploring our faith and bringing people to the close, we apologize to those who felt this particular performance was inappropriate for the sacred space of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd.”
General Theological Seminary, located in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, regularly welcomes outside groups to use its facilities for events, especially organizations from the vibrant Chelsea arts community. Many of those events’ organizers pay to use the space, which generates revenue for the seminary.
The seminary first opened its doors to the Foundation for Spirituality and the Arts a year ago, when the nonprofit scheduled a lecture in the chapel with sculptor Theaster Gates. The nonprofit organization’s website says its mission is to offer “conversations, residencies and other programs to nurture connections between contemporary art and faith.”
The organization responded to an Episcopal News Service inquiry with a written statement: “Lia Chavez is an internationally-respected artist whose work is dedicated to invoking an awareness of divinity. She has conceived this piece as a poignant sacred art work for a sacred space. We encourage people to read for themselves the artist and curatorial statements for the work.”
A seminary spokeswoman clarified that the nonprofit wasn’t charged to use the space, nor did the seminary pay to host any of its artists, including Chavez and her canceled Nov. 18 performance of “Water the Earth.”
Though they were few, the planned performance also had some defenders. Chavez is “a well-respected performance artist whose work lies firmly within the practices of the art form,” commented David Groff, a poet who lives in New York. “I can imagine that this would be a powerful and moving work, especially as presented in the chapel.”
Chavez, on her personal website, touts a multidisciplinary approach to art through performances and immersive installations that represent “a revitalization of the archaic visionary consciousness of primal religious experience and a direct revelation of the transcendent.” She also has been featured by The New York Times for her 4,500-square-foot “minimalist” house on Long Island and for her “line of nutrient-rich, anti-inflammatory botanical facial oils.”
Much of the negative reaction to Chavez’s planned performance seemed rooted in confusion: What would it even mean for an artist to sit in the chapel for an extended weeping session before an audience of registered but non-paying guests? Chavez summarized her method in a written preview, saying she would practice “darkness meditation, prayer, fasting and sensory purification” before the performance. The event’s description gave few other hints, specifying only that Chavez’s bout of crying would echo “the collective tears of nature and humanity” as she “considers the physiological emotional and performative expression of tears as a sacred act.”
Many of the clergy who responded to the Facebook post begged to differ. To them, it didn’t sound sacred – or appropriate.
“This is a profoundly unserious event, and as a theological educator it makes me really sad. Please do better by your students and the wider church,” commented the Rev. Kara Slade, associate rector at Trinity Church in Princeton, New Jersey.
By the time the event was canceled, the post had generated 150 comments and more than 75 reactions, few of them positive. (Sad and angry emojis outnumbered likes by more than four to one. Nearly half of all reactions were laughs.)
“Just tragic that the seminary so many of us loved has been reduced to whatever this is…which seems like a mockery of the genuine weeping that is occurring globally for human tragedies,” commented the Rev. Laurie Brock, rector of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Lexington, Kentucky.
Other reactions echoed such concerns that a depiction of crying as performance art was distasteful. Sandra Montes, an Executive Council member who serves as dean of chapel at Union Theological Seminary, posted to her own Facebook page that other people in the world may have more legitimate reasons to cry than the artist.
“Now, how can we pay people who weep and who have shed tears for so many years because of injustice, lynchings, being enslaved, being targeted, etc.,” Montes said. “Weeping may seem like a performance or art to some – what a privilege – and it’s a daily occurrence for many.”
The Rev. Lilo Carr Rivera, assistant rector at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Sayville, New York, said in a comment on the seminary’s post that she also had practical concerns about the performance.
“How does one maintain active sobbing for five hours?” she asked. “If one is able to do so, how does one not become completely dehydrated?”
The complaints were almost exclusively confined to Facebook. The seminary spokeswoman said she was unaware of anyone calling or emailing seminary officials to voice their objections.
Antonia Terrazas, a graduate of Duke Divinity School, commented on the original Facebook post to say she didn’t understand the level of outrage at the seminary over Chavez’s plans for “Water the Earth.” Terrazas described herself as “a seminary-trained Episcopalian who has loosely followed Chavez’s work (and FSA) over the years.”
“When we think of ‘performance art’ from someone like this, it seems clear that we are not talking about a Broadway play,” Terrazas said. Some level of audience engagement is assumed. “So the point for some might be to come watch this weird lady crying, but the invitation is to engage in some way in the space with her and with others. Why not make space for weeping? Why do we insist that this is less spiritual — or dare I say sacramental — than a written litany?”
The Rev. Gene Bourquin, a deacon in the Diocese of New York who leads ministries serving people who are deaf, said he has worshiped in the seminary’s chapel for years and was married there. He didn’t see the problem with inviting Chavez, and he noted that many congregations across The Episcopal Church invite outside groups to use their spaces. “Really, this griping seems to be inappropriate and unbecoming,” Bourquin said.
But the Rev. Clare Nesmith, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Babylon, New York, suggested this scenario was more troubling.
“I have had singing bowls in my parish church and chapel for healing prayer services, and there’s a strange beauty that feels like it’s of the spheres,” wrote Nesmith, who earned her Master of Divinity degree from General Theological Seminary in 2005. “I’m not opposed to performance art, but this feels wrong for the Chapel of the Good Shepherd.”
In its update announcing the cancelation, General Theological Seminary said it remained committed to the arts community but couldn’t deny that this particular performance art had struck a nerve.
“Our intentions were good,” the seminary said. “We believe art should be part of the urban worship experience, but in a season when so many people are shedding tears, both the nature of this performance and its timing should have been taken into consideration.”
– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.