Is the Church Ceding Her Sacred Space?: As Goes the City, So Goes All of Society 



September 7th –13th, 2014, was New York’s Fashion Week. Key events, including the Fashion Show and the Cocktail Reception, were held at the historic Riverside Church. Riverside Church is a beautiful sanctuary in the heart of the city, built with significant funds donated from faithful members including the wealth of the Rockefeller family. I was not at the Fashion Show that was held Wednesday night at the Riverside Church. One of my friends was there and shared photos and video from the event.

If you have seen the photo gallery and/or video (see below) of the Fashion show, there is no doubt that you would take pause. Certainly, the images raise many questions in my mind. To mention a few of them: Why Riverside Church or any church for that matter? I don\’t mean to pick on Riverside Church, as I am aware that using the sanctuary for these sorts of events is not idiosyncratic to Riverside Church. Other churches do it as well. Also, why on a Wednesday night? First of all, the event seems very fashion forward and reminiscent of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, or even the former Atlanta Freaknic experience. So, the fashion show itself is not as shocking as the placement of the show within sacred space — the Church sanctuary. It is situated in the main sanctuary of a prominent urban church and on a Wednesday night.

Beginning with the later point. In the Deep South, where I am from, traditionally (and in many Church circles today) Wednesday nights are considered mid-week “holy” days. While prayer and Bible study are always appropriate, Wednesday night Bible Study and prayer meetings were common times to rejuvenate ones’ self in the Lord. So, in many ways, Wednesdays were like the main service time on the weekend.

Furthermore, the church has always carried with herself, not only significance in the community but also symbolisms. Her sacred space has been both theological and sociological. Theological because Christ built the Church to continue His presence in the world. Again, theologically speaking, the Church is the body of believers. So, wherever that Body of Christ with accompanying symbols shows up, their presence imposes new meaning on secular space, transforming it into sacred space. From this traditional theological outlook, congregations are able to meet in non-ecclesial building and superimpose sacred value. This is how we explain having church in clubs, performing arts centers, community centers, gymnasiums, etc. Yet, theologically speaking, the reverse would be condemned as sacrilegious.

Furthermore, I mentioned the church’s sociological significance because her continued presence of Christ has had sociological impact on the ways that people have developed and fostered everyday communal and religious life. But also, the church has stood as a symbol of hope, help, and refuge.

Particularly, in the African American community, the church has had a nuanced meaning. The church bore witness to the liberating nature of the gospel and we have benefited from the so-called “Black Church” as a people. So, the sociological meaning of the church in the African American experience has been deeply meaningful and dare I say largely part of the emerged African American culture – though not entirely.

Equally, the symbolisms related to Christianity, such as the cross, candles, architectural structures, the pulpit, the altar, tables, dress, etc, have profound meaning and have help to define the sacred space where they are situated.

Religious symbolisms reaches beyond the New Testament times into the Old Testament. Symbols in the Temple have meaning and evoked divine presence. The New Testament and the early church have shared the meaningfulness of signs and symbols. They have carried such significance until contemporary times.

Moreover, today, the significance of the church and her symbols seem challenged by ideological shifting in society that are impacting social significance of the church, and moreover, begs for reconsideration of the theological significance of the church\’s symbols as well.

Given the situation of hosting NY’s Fashion Week at Riverside Church, one wonders if while this was not during worship, and it may not be sponsored by the church, why at the church? Has the church become a locale for non-ecclesial performing arts? Or, what does this mean for the theological and sociological value and meaning for the church?

Lastly, as Riverside Church is a historical site and well-respected religious representation in NY, one wonders what this suggests or predicts concerning the future of sacred spaces throughout the country.

If not more, Fashion Week hosted at Riverside Church has profound meaning for the current situation for the emerging relationship between the church and society. Importantly, Harmony (the singer) did not stumble into the church in search of Christ, “Just as I am.” Rather, her presence and attire was carefully designed and arranged as part of the Fashion Show, along with so many other questionable images (as seen in the video attached).

Pay attention to the full image in the photo (above). The image of Harmony in her skimpy attire from Adrian Alicea’s “Spring/Summer 2015 Collection of ‘Pleiadian Vogue’” with the symbol of the risen Christ (the cross) and of the Holy Spirit (the candle) in the background provokes a rather pungent image. The observant Christian would at least acknowledge that something is “strange” about this. The devout Christian would question the mingling of symbols.

Dress is symbolic. Harmony’s attire, regardless of the context, is suggestive of unholy appeal against the backdrop of holy symbolism. Chester Williams was present for the Fashion Show. He comments that when Harmony approached the pulpit to open the Show, the entire section where he was sitting exclaim with shock, “Whoa!” While we cannot interpret the shock with full certainty, Williams was convinced that at least in part it had to do with the appropriateness of her suggestive image in the sacred space of a Church. Yes, even in New York people would be shocked at the confused symbolisms.

Williams further comments that he needed to go back to check to see what Harmony sang. He said, “While the melody was very nice, I don’t remember a word that came out of Harmony’s mouth! I was looking at her and then the cross!” Later, Williams found out that her featured song was not a hymn or religious song. This outfit was designed for Harmony\’s performance of her single \”Somebody Like You\” to open the fashion show.

Christians often fail to understand the significance of sacred space to protect it, preserve it and participate in it. Until we truly understand and appreciate the value of sacred space, we will be both vulnerable and/or apathetic to sacrilesiousness that could potentially invade that space.  

If nothing else, NY Fashion Show at Riverside Church raises questions about the mingling of sacred space with contradicting symbols and spirituality.

Music evokes spirituality. Depending on the message of the song, the spirituality that it evokes could be wholesome, or sensual.  In this case, the lyrics of the song drew attention to her own self-centered, individualistic choices. One would think that out of respect of the church, why not at least sing, “Eyes on the Sparrow.”

Perhaps we could give the Show a pass on the basis of “not knowing better.” And perhaps, they still don’t know the implications of this choice. Then, we really do need to re-educate society and the church on who the church is and the mission of the church in society.

After speaking with Williams, I decided to write this blog for three main reasons:

On the one hand,

  1. To raise awareness to apparent shifting in cultural appropriateness (evidenced by the NY Fashion Show at Riverside Church) as relating to the church and society.
  2. To provoke conversation about this particular situation as a matter of public discourse. I find the images here very worthy of note and quite concerning. Although a worshipping group did not sponsor the event, there seems to be underlying religious and cultural implication for allowing this into sacred space. This situation provokes serious consideration and conversation about the church that God intends as well as local congregations, their purpose in the community, their sacred symbols, their present state, and their future.
  3. To consider the question: what other Abrahamic religion would allow this in their sacred space? Why should Christian churches allow or perhaps affirm sacrilegious practices, symbols, and programs in our sacred spaces? While Jesus was intentional to open up His Body to the participation of all who believe on Him, the biblical Church is called to be holy. Is this a cultural manifestation of holiness? Or is there something else other than holiness implied here? Could it be that the contemporary Western churches are becoming too accomodationist to culture rather than transformative through their own divine expectation to advance holiness? Are Christians desperate for acceptance and membership that we are acquiescing to society rather than reproving the works of darkness?
  4. Does the image above predict what Sunday morning worship will soon look like? Will the future worship leaders wear the latest Adrian Alicea\’s vogue outfit? Will the choir wear this to demonstrate the lyrics to \”Just as I am?\” Or, are these speculations too far fetched?

On the other hand,

  1. To challenge us to self-reflect our own biases, our own hypocrisies, our own prohibitions, our own reverence, or the lack of reverence,                                                         
  2. To encourage us to ponder our own vision of the church and who we as a Body of Christ are called to be in the world.

Stated simply. Is this despicable or permissible in the church\’s sacred space regardless of whose sponsoring the event?

Dr. Antipas L. Harris
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