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November 22, 2019

Sacred spaces and blurred lines

Q: Archbishop J, a fashion show in a cathedral?

There are many implications in this wonderful parable of modern life. I want us to read it as a parable. We are all actors in the drama, and we all need to locate ourselves in it. This is not about the Anglican Church—it could happen to many of us. We have all blurred the lines between the sacred and the secular.

I invite you to leave the sensation behind and enter into the deeper issues that this event has opened. As a modern parable, it invites us to reflection, contemplation and discernment. It invites us to recognise ourselves and our ideas in the drama.

The eclipse of the sacred

If a frog were put into a pot of boiling water, it would jump out to save its life. If it were put in a pot of water and the temperature was raised slowly, it would stay in the water and eventually die.

In the drama of the sacred in the modern world, the temperature has been slowly changing. The eclipse of the sacred has been so subtle and incremental that we have not jumped out of the pot.

I believe the Cathedral fashion show has provoked our consciousness. It has shocked us to realise just how far we have gone from our starting point. It has pivoted us into a reassessment of the “modern” consciousness with its accommodation to the secular. Let us accept that the sacred has been eclipsed and we are all guilty.

The [il]logic of the promoters

Ellis Briggs, chairman of Zetick Caribbean Limited, the organiser of Style Week, was reported to have said to the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian that those having an issue with the fashion show at the church were just being “hypersensitive”.

There are a lot of hypersensitive people in Trinidad and Tobago. Thank God! Fortunately, it is not hypersensitivity, it is outrage.

This event tore the veil that usually keeps us in a happy place of accommodation. It provoked us from slumber and woke us up to see just how far we have gone away from the reverence for the sacred that our grandparents had.

This shock is wonderful. It has brought the conversation about the sacred back into sharp focus and has invited us all to review our relationship with sacred spaces and the divine.

As a child, Catholics generally made the Sign of the Cross when they went past a church. They paused on entering and made the Sign of the Cross as they dipped their finger into Holy Water and blessed themselves, recalling their baptism. They genuflected upon entering a pew.

Do we do these practices still? Or has the church become one more marketplace among others.

Briggs said, “There is a lot of talk about a photo of a model in a bathing suit. I didn’t realise that the human body was something to be ashamed of. I didn’t realise that we as human beings were born with clothes. I think people are just hypersensitive.”

Michelangelo sculpted naked bodies for churches. His imposing painting of Creation forms part of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. The sculpture David is a 17-ft high nude figure. But this is art.

At a meeting of Caribbean youth, in Martinique, I asked: What is the difference between art and pornography? There is a big difference: one inspires, the other excites. We know the difference.

In the fashion industry, modelling sets out to excite, arouse desire and create aesthetic norms. It crosses a line. It most often privileges the thin, youthful and anorexic as the ideal of the beautiful. This is not how most bodies are. Many models pay a high price for their profession.

An international perspective

Southwark Anglican Cathedral in England did the same thing. They were the home to a fashion show and the result was the same. Outrage! Commenting on the Southwark experience in an interview with Premier (September 18, 2019), Rev Dr Gavin Ashenden said: “It seems like the church was becoming a religious arm of the fashion industry”.

He went on to critique the value system. In the fashion industry, he said: “Human beings are valuable when they are rich, highly sexualised and animalistically attractive. The gospel teaches the opposite. We teach, no matter how poor you are, God still loves you; how sexually attractive, you are of immense value. What is required is to be forgiven and changed. The problem with cathedrals in this country is that they are just open for business: they have forgotten their commitment to God.”

Sacred space

Recently, we rededicated St Mary’s RC Church, Mucurapo. The liturgy was beautiful. The whole church is blessed with Holy Water. The walls were anointed with Holy Chrism. Then, the same chrism was poured on the altar and rubbed into it. A fire was lit on the altar and incense placed on the coals. The whole scene evoked a sense of the sacred. It was awesome. God dwells in this place.

Sacred space is vital for our religious imagination and our relationship with God and each other. Messing with the sacred, reducing it to the secular, is a significant diminishment to all of us.

With the eclipse of the sacred, a church building is just a building—nothing special. There is no reference to God. Once we go down this slippery slope, we undermine the sense of the sacred and our communion with God here on earth. Then, all is secular and transactional. It is only the sacred that cannot be had on our terms.

When we consciously or unconsciously eclipse the sacred, we become transactional, we lose respect and reverence for God, the human and, ultimately, we lose our sense of responsibility to the poor. We become lesser human beings.


Key Message: Sacred spaces are vital for civilisation to flourish. Without them we descend into transactional behaviour and this undermines everything.

Action Step: Reflect on how you relate to sacred spaces. Do you stop and recognise them? Do you make the Sign of the Cross when passing a church or chapel? Do you show reverence when entering a church? How do you approach communion?

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 6:1–8