Episcopal Church Trades Cross for Seashell

I’m often the first to defend Episcopalians when people joke about what they see as excessive people-pleasing and inclusivity. Though I’m an atheist, I consider myself a “cultural Episcopalian” due to my upbringing. I find their consistent adaptation of doctrine and policies that open the church up rather than close it off not as people-pleasing but as measures to be more loving and Christ-like. But even I have to shake my head sometimes when the church does something so clearly aimed at getting people to like them. Such is the case of the seashell adorning The Episcopal Cathedral Church of St Paul in Boston.

For those who are not familiar with Episcopal traditions, there are no maritime elements of central or even secondary importance. None of the saints are mermaids. They don’t serve clam juice in lieu of wine at communion. I know a fair number of Episcopalians who have sailboats but I don’t think they were motivated by faith to buy them. The Episcopal liturgy is refreshingly Christ-centric in a climate where Christian denominations are so eager for relevance that they’re eschewing talk of the Incarnation, Eucharist, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. And yet the cathedral in Boston has “a giant aluminum sculpture depicting a cross-sectioned chambered nautilus” instead of a cross on the pediment.

Cathedral Dean Jep Streit provides an Onion-worthy explanation for why they’ve decided not to put a cross on a Christian church: “Streit insists a cross wouldn’t have been inviting to non-Christians. ‘My question,’ Streit said, ‘to people who wonder whether we’re selling out is: Does a cross say, ‘come and see’? Or does it say, ‘we’re Christians here’?’

Um. Streit’s been informed what a church is, right? It’s where Christians go to proclaim the truth of Christ crucified. On the cross. Resurrected on the third day. Is this ringing any bells? Church is arguably the most appropriate place for the proclamation “We’re Christians here.” That statement is neither threatening nor exclusionary. It is simply factual if you’re talking about a Christian church. If you’re afraid of being Christians in a church, then God help you carry the message of Jesus’ life and ministry into the world if you’re that embarrassed to be his followers at a house of worship.

I can’t imagine what this seashell is meant to accomplish. If it’s to lure unsuspecting non-believers into the church, well that’s sneaky and kind of weird and my guess is that they wouldn’t stay. If they’re afraid that the cross would be unwelcoming, what on Earth are they going to think of the liturgy? Will you scrap the Nicene Creed because it speaks of sin and salvation? Will the Eucharist be substituted with a round of trust falls because some people find the ritual a lot of hocus pocus? A church can be welcoming without capitulating to popular culture. A church can welcome all people without being all things to all people too. You’re a church, start acting like one.

alanakmassey@gmail.com'

Alana Massey is a graduate of New York University and Yale Divinity School, where she studied the increasing political legitimacy of religious political parties and the potential implications for trade, energy, and economic policy. She lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. 

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