One of the more unprofitable of the many unprofitable discussions we have here, is with those, like our friend Bosco, who seem to take it as axiomatic that God is against art in acts of worship. Their text is Exodus 20:4 and their reading of it ignores Exodus 26:1, Exodus 25:22 and anything else which suggests that what God objects to is our worshipping images, not making beautiful things in his honour. It is not just a peculiarity of the impoverished aesthetic of our society in matters of liturgy that men can think as Bosco does. There was a major outbreak of iconoclasm in the Eastern Roman Empire in the eighth century, partly influenced by the Muslim objection to the use of images. The great defender of icons, John of Damascus wrote that he did not worship matter, “but rather the creator of matter”; he did, however, add: “I also venerate the matter through which salvation came to me, as if filled with divine energy and grace”. The Church decided against iconoclasm, though from time to time, not least during the Reformation, it reared its ugly head and did tremendous damage to the material heritage of Christian culture in this country. One of the things which the Ordinariate brings to the Roman Catholic community in this country is a keen sense of the damage which an impoverished sense of the aesthetic does to the church.
The Anglo-Catholic tradition has always held that the Liturgy is the continuation of the Paschal mystery, and of the High Priestly work of the Redeemer; it is, in the words of Aidan Nichols, ‘an essential sacral reality which joins heaven to earth’. Sacred time and space are special, and as such require something more than the commonplace; the aim of liturgical beauty is to arouse in us a longing for the full vision of God. That means that the Liturgy itself, and the surroundings in which it takes place, should try to reflect the importance of what is occurring. Pusey, who followed closely the theology of St Cyril of Alexandria here, held that communion with the body and blood of Our Lord transformed the communicant – a version, if you like, of what the Eastern tradition calls theosis. Such a solemn and mystical experience requires an architecture, music and setting which reflects these things. Pugin’s architecture sought to recapture something of the numinous beauty of the Gothic style, and to create spaces in which man’s being would be prepared by the beauty of holiness for the transforming effects of the Eucharist.
This is a far cry from the practice of the Roman Catholic Church in this country since the 1960s. There may be uglier buildings than many of the churches designed for the RCC during that period, but if so, they have tended to be shopping centres, many of which have, mercifully, been destroyed. A banal architecture and banal liturgy are not fit offerings to God, they reflect a concern with ourselves and our worldly concerns; they do not help lift us towards our encounter at the Eucharist feast with Our Saviour.
Sadly, we live in an age which seems to fail to understand symbolism, although it uses the word ‘logo’ incessantly, and goes on endlessly about the importance of ‘branding’, so you might think it could grasp the rudiments of a sacramental universe; our forefathers had no such problem. From this point of view, one begins to see why it might be that among the Bishops of England & Wales there was a lack of enthusiasm to receive, as a corporate whole, a body of Christians used to rejecting modernism in all its forms. Once more, one is struck by the genius of Benedict XVI, a man who, more than most, appreciate the beauty of holiness, and whose lived experience of the Liturgy infused him with a high doctrine of the Eucharist – or was it the other way around?