An unholy row has been brewing in the Cornish town of St Austell after a statue called the Earth Goddess was put up in the town centre.
It's nearly 12 metres tall and brightly coloured, but it's been called “offensive to God” by a group of seven church leaders who have written a letter to the Town Council asking for it to be removed.
Pete Godfrey from the Light and Life Church in St Austell decided to write the letter which has also been signed by leaders of the local Methodist church and Salvation Army among others. He told Premier he thinks the statue is inappropriate.
"When I look at it, I see an upside down sword shoved into a stone, it's very colourful with lots of different colours and designs all over,” he said.
"I think there's a few different aspects that need to be brought to the fore. Scripturally as Christians, God wants us to be able to experience life in the best possible way and wants us to be able to do life with him. And one of the things that he lays out as part of that is that we're to have no other gods but him. And that's the first commandment of the Ten. And the second is that we're to have no idols, we're to make no idols, no craven images of Gods.
"But I think it's also understanding the wider context. It's also not reflective of the community of St Austell. We passionately advocate for freedom of religion and we would not want to at all impose things on others as part of that. But what is in a public arena as a permanent statue needs to be something that reflects the community, and that the whole community, whatever their beliefs is able to celebrate. Once you attach a spiritual significance to a statue, that's never going to be possible, it's always going to divide instead of unite for a whole array of reasons.”
The statue was designed and created by the artist Sandy Brown who told The Guardian newspaper that she felt "saddened and disappointed" at the reaction, explaining that her work was intended to celebrate "mother earth" rather than having any sort of religious message. She added that the sculpture was also meant to celebrate the area's strong links to the China clay trade and represent a love of mother earth.
Godfrey said he hadn't spoken with Sandy Brown but added:
"I suspect the [religious connotation] is not intentional. There have been a number of statements that she's made over recent days saying that it's not religious. But the artist has very clearly made the statement that the 'earth goddess' represents our eternal and collective roots with the environment, nature and Mother Earth. You may or may not argue that that's a religious statement, but it's certainly a spiritual one.
"The key point is where it is positioned, and the fact that it's this isn't something which has gone into a person's private place where they worship, which is just reflecting themselves. If that was the case, then there would be no issue. This is something which has gone up in a public place, which is something which is then being spoken over the whole community, as part of things. So I think that's where there is a differentiation and why we felt it's important that we speak up as part of it.
"Through the New Testament, Jesus makes it equally clear that there is there is only one God, he makes it equally clear that there's only one way of salvation, he makes it equally clear that he's the only way to salvation. He says 'I'm the Way the Truth and the Life. There is no other way to the Father, but through me.'
"So it's the place where it's been put, which makes it something which we feel we need to speak out about."
David Pooley from St Austell Town Council told Premier that the Town Council didn't “commission or contribute towards the Earth goddess statue. It was commissioned by St Austell Bay Economic Forum (SABEF) and is on private land in White River Place shopping centre. The Town Council corresponded with the church leaders in July 2022 explaining that the Town Council has no powers to remove or re-name the statue and has no responsibility for its ongoing maintenance."
St Austell Bay Economic Forum told Premier it would respond to the letter “in due course”.
The full church leaders' letter, which was also addressed to the local MP Steve Double, reads:
"We are writing as leaders within the Christian community of St Austell with regards to the ‘earth goddess’ statue that has recently been erected in the town. We know that the statue has prompted a reaction from many different people and there have been various concerns voiced around financial stewardship and simply the statues appearance. While we understand and sympathise with these viewpoints they are not our primary concern. The reaction to the statue shows though that there has been a lack of consultation, or at the least a minimal scope to that consultation, meaning that people’s views need to now be seriously considered and the project re-evaluated.
Our concerns are that the statue is firstly divisive and secondly offensive to God.
The statue is divisive because it does not reflect the people of St Austell. While a proportion of the community certainly are pagan this is not a belief held by the vast majority of the community. Many more people are Christians, or at the least hold to Christian values. There are also other faith communities in the town and those who would consider themselves to have no faith. As such, a statue of an ‘earth goddess’ is offensive to many people within the community and divides instead of unites. This is not something that the vast majority of people are able to celebrate and will actually cause some to feel far less comfortable coming into the town.
While it may not be a view that is shared by those who have no faith, or hold to other faiths, our second concern is that the statue is offensive to God. As Christians we desire for St Austell to thrive and alongside looking for practical ways to serve the town we regularly meet to pray for God’s blessing on the town and specifically for the council and leaders in the town and for the businesses that operate locally. The choice to erect a statue of an ‘earth goddess’ means that as the leaders of the town you are actively, though likely unknowingly, choosing to reject God and instead to bring the town under the spiritual influence of an ‘earth goddess’. We understand this may sound strange and may not be language that you are comfortable with. However, as Christians we believe there is a spiritual reality to our world and so this is not an insignificant choice and has the potential to impact on the town in negative ways. While this is not a view that will be held by all it is important that you are made aware of the spiritual significance of the statue.
Anything that is to be a permanent feature within the town needs to be something that is reflective of the whole community and honouring of all people. This is something that the current statue fails in. We would ask that you consider either making significant changes to the statue to show you have listened to the concerns of people in the town and relaunch it ensuring that it reflects the whole community, celebrates who we are or at the very least the name is changed so that it is an abstract piece of art with no spiritual element. Or that you consider removing or relocating the statue to a venue that is not intended to reflect the whole community and represents only their own beliefs rather than that of the town, such as the Eden Project.
We trust that these concerns have been received with an open mind. Our heart is to celebrate the good in our town and work to see it thrive. We continue to be committed to make the most of opportunities to serve St Austell in practical ways and to pray for the town, it’s leaders and businesses and we will continue to encourage others to do the same.
We look forward to hearing from you with regards to the way forwards."