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Theological Seminary in New York cancels weeping performance after backlash

10 November 2023


The Chapel of the Good Shepherd at General Theological Seminary, in New York

The Chapel of the Good Shepherd at General Theological Seminary, in New York

THE General Theological Seminary, in New York, has cancelled a five-hour performance of an artist weeping, after a backlash on social media.

The Episcopalian seminary had invited the artist Lia Chavez to perform Water the Earth, in which she intended to sit in the college chapel and weep for five hours, as part of an expression of “tears as a sacred act”, the press release for the event stated. Ms Chavez said that her performance would be “harnessing and ritualizing the mysteriously regenerative power of releasing emotional tears as an offering to the earth”, and watchers would be invited to weep with her.

But publicity for the event, scheduled for 18 November, met with a furious response online, where Episcopalian clergy denounced it as “superficial virtue signalling” and “embarrassing”. One simply asked: “Is this an early April Fool’s joke?”

After three days of criticism, the seminary announced that it had cancelled the event, which it was hosting with a charity, the Foundation for Spirituality and the Arts (FSA).

In a statement, the seminary said: “In response to the strength of feeling this event has generated, we have made the decision to cancel it.

“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.

“Our intentions were good. 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.”

Among those responding on Facebook to the event was the Rector of St Michael’s, Lexington, in Kentucky, the Revd Laurie Brock: “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.”

The Dean of Chapel at the Union Theological Seminary, also in New York, Dr Sandra Montes, posted: “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. Weeping may seem like a performance or art to some — what a privilege — and it’s a daily occurrence for many.”

There were a few supporters of the event. Antonia Terrazas, a graduate of Duke Divinity School, North Carolina, commented on the original Facebook post to say that she didn’t understand the level of outrage.

Describing herself as “a seminary-trained Episcopalian who has loosely followed Chavez’s work (and FSA) over the years”, she said: “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?”

Alongside the performance, Ms Chavez offered a 12-week “Re-divinization protocol”: a series of “wellness” meditations “to uplift body and soul”, according to posts on her Instagram account. She has not commented on the cancellation.

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