Prince Raney Rivers: Removing Jesus

Could the English vicar who removed the crucifix from his church possibly be right? For Prince Rivers the answer is, "Maybe."

Could it possibly be right to remove Jesus from a sanctuary?

The Rev. Ewen Souter, the vicar at St. John’s Church in Horsham, West Sussex ordered the removal of a 10-foot resin statue of the crucifixion. He saw the statue as an ‘unsuitable’ and ‘horrifying depiction of pain and suffering’. Little children cowed under the gruesome depiction of Jesus’ death. The statue has been replaced by a stainless steel cross to offer a more uplifting message of hope.

There is often a reactionary critique of leveled against anyone who acts in a way that seems to diminish who Jesus is. But could it be that Souter is not diluting the Gospel story, but choosing a different starting point for telling the story? After all, the crucifixion is not the end of the story. Are Souter’s actions those of a preacher who will do anything to fill the pews or of a pastoral leader who is navigating new waters by taking a second look at one church’s unquestioned assumptions about the most faithful way to represent Christ in the world?

My point is not to congratulate or censure the vicar for removing the statue (as this piece does). My aim is to reframe the questions we ask as pastoral leaders. Pastoral leaders must think seriously about how to break through a reluctance to change within the church in order to connect with people outside of the church. How can churches do this without becoming amorphous, seeker driven ‘worship centers’? Or can we?

Leaders have to wrestle with how to tell our story in our own time, and not some other. The vicar has discerned that in his context this particularly graphic depiction of the crucifixion may make sense to those on the inside, but is a stumbling block and a scandal those on the outside. How could they understand it apart from resurrection? People may want the 10-foot statue to stay, but authentic leadership is called to take a second look, raise probing questions and take wise risks.

Prince Rivers is pastor of United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC.