Damian Thompson—An act of liturgical vandalism

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Read it all.

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeLiturgy, Music, WorshipParish Ministry* International News & CommentaryEngland / UK* Religion News & CommentaryOther ChurchesRoman Catholic

Posted August 30, 2007 at 7:07 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Katherine wrote:

Ah, so it’s not just the U.S. Catholic church.  Two of the nearest parishes to my U.S. home look more like barns than churches.  It certainly slows the urge to consider that option.

August 30, 8:22 am | [comment link]
2. Wilfred wrote:

The word “ugly” is inadequate here. 

We need something like “oooogly”.

August 30, 9:58 am | [comment link]
3. evan miller wrote:

Why the headlong rush by churches, and not just the RC’s, to eradicate anything from their buildings that says “church” is beyond me.  All sense of holiness, majesty, and the glory of God is banished, supposodly to make church less intimidating or off-putting to “seekers” or the unchurched.  Insanity.

August 30, 10:37 am | [comment link]
4. Phil wrote:

Maybe ECUSA could ask for Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor as a fair trade for Clarence Pope.

August 30, 10:37 am | [comment link]
5. driver8 wrote:

The neo-gothic revival froma bout 1850 was enormusly fruitful and productive. In the UK neo-gothic brilliant neo-gothic artistry is expressed in the Houses of Parliament, train stations, domestic architecture, factories (etc.) as well as churches. It seems to me that there is a very good case to say that simply repeating the neo-gothic revival marks a failure of nerve by the church. I deeply dislike like the bare modernist spaces that many architects have presented as the only alternative to neo-gothic extravagance. As if beauty was an ornament that churches could be stripped of. Yet there is a desperate need for creative christian art and architecture that does not simply repeat a nineteenth century repetition of the high middle ages.

August 30, 11:06 am | [comment link]
6. Cabbages wrote:

driver8 wrote: “Yet there is a desperate need for creative christian art and architecture that does not simply repeat a nineteenth century repetition of the high middle ages.”


Let us not make a fetish out of novelty.

August 30, 11:09 am | [comment link]
7. driver8 wrote:

Because each age expresses the gospel in its own idiom. Were the basilica churches of the age of constantine making a fetish out of novelty or the churches modeled on mausolea in the eastern Empire.

You know even gothic was new once, and neo-gothic was new twice.

August 30, 11:29 am | [comment link]
8. The_Archer_of_the_Forest wrote:

I wonder who exactly was the intended demographic for this…uh…change in liturgical fashion. There’s not too many people I know, other than perhaps Puritanical hippies who have faux-wood fetishes, that would find that at all appealing.

What’s with the pale blue drywall in the background? (I assume its some sort of drywall.) I do like the church pew in the foreground of the “new” picture. Its a wonder they didn’t tear that out too and go with some sort of weird altar in the round or something. You know they thought about it. All in good time, I guess.

August 30, 11:57 am | [comment link]
9. Cabbages wrote:

driver8, maybe someday a modern style suitable for sacred spaces will emerge. In the meantime, most modernist attempts at church architecture I’ve seen in Europe and America, both new construction and “re-ordering” are either aesthetically offensive, profane (in the sense of non-sacred), or completely forgetable.  It’s inherent in the “modernism” we’ve had since the early part of the 20th century.  Concrete and steel, minimalism, empty space, abstract imagery etc…  I guess you could build a cathedral out of kiln-dried twinkies, but chances are you’d end up with something unappealing.  The same with the modernist impulse in architecture. The materials of modernism do not lend themselves to the sacred.  We’ve given it a century with nothing but failure. Why don’t we go back to our 2000+ year playbook that we know works?

August 30, 12:08 pm | [comment link]
10. Terry Tee wrote:

I apologise to elves for going off the subject, but I would be curious to know what the respondents above thought about the new Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles.

August 30, 12:14 pm | [comment link]
11. Cabbages wrote:

Terry, you mean this monstrosity?
Los Angeles Cathedral
It’s not as bad as The Cathedral of Christ the King in Michigan, but both are perfect exemplars of why modernism and sacred architecture are antithetical. 

I’d love some counter-examples, though! [note, this is my first ever attempt to code in links, so it’ll probably fail…]

August 30, 12:38 pm | [comment link]
12. driver8 wrote:

Cabbages, I agree with much of what you said though there is a bit too much exaggeration for weffect for my taste. Thus I agree in general that the problem with using modernist architecture and styling for christian art and building is the lack of theological and symbolic depth in a style that is avowedly secular. (Of course, the church has baptised and made her own secular styles before).

However I do think some modernist churches can work particularly where they make connections with a symbolic and theological richness: which is to say, make connections with tradition. So, that you get a theologically and symbolically thick modern church architecture. I think, for example, of the renewed cistercian monastery at Novy Dvur.

I also agree that the response from our architects and artists should be a renewed drawing on the wells of tradition. But pulling up such ‘fresh water’ should and will be far from mere antiquarian repetition of the past. It will be a genuine ressourcement - to coin a phrase.

August 30, 12:49 pm | [comment link]
13. Terry Tee wrote:

Austerity of design has always been part of the Cistercian heritage, and post-modern minimalism seems to give a wonderful design to that monastery at Novy Dvur.  The simplicity speaks of removing from life all clutter that comes between us and God. 
# 11, I agree that the Catholic cathedral is lumpen but I would not go quite so far as to compare it to that monstrosity at Kalamazoo.  At least Our Lady of the Angels has a certain grandeur of scale interiorly.  But the exterior, oh dear ...

August 30, 12:56 pm | [comment link]
14. Newbie Anglican wrote:

Amazing.  I’m at a loss for words.

August 30, 12:58 pm | [comment link]
15. driver8 wrote:

I think the Jubilee Church  in Rome is interesting. It is modern without being modernist and gestures towards beauty and sacredness (especially in its exterior). I just wish there was a greater use of distinctively christian symbolism. I think the appropriate desire to focus attention on the cross, altar and font doesn’t necessarily mean that the building has to be stripped of all evidence of the community’s devotional life. I haven’t visited it so it is difficult to know what it might be like to worship there.

August 30, 1:08 pm | [comment link]
16. driver8 wrote:

Apologies I mucked up the first link. I hope this works:


August 30, 1:12 pm | [comment link]
17. Phil wrote:

Interesting building, driver8 - thanks for the link.  I see what you’re saying, but I agree with you about the interior.  This comes off as iconoclastic, stripped of all the images traditionally found in churches that draw our minds to things of God.

August 30, 1:22 pm | [comment link]
18. Cabbages wrote:

Driver8, I agree the Cistercian monastery looks appealing. Even while “exaggerating for effect” about the incompatibility of architectural modernism with the sacred, I don’t think I said anything negative about simplicity. I’d argue that there’s a difference between simplicity and modernist minimalism.  Hard to define, but I think it’s real.  If I had to guess, I’d say the style of the monastery owes more to the Shakers than to Gropius…

As to the Jubilee Church in Rome. It’s simply profane. The Syndey opera house, but smaller.  It’s about as evocative of Christianity as my mechanical pencil.  That’s in large part in the eye of the beholder, but I’d bet dollars to donuts that if you took 100 Christians (or 100 pagans you would hope to convert) and showed them the Jubilee Church and any random gothic (or other traditional style) church and asked them which evokes greater sacred feelings, 99 out of each group would pick the traditional.  Is that not the goal of church architecture? 

The 1 in each group would be the professional artist/professor type who has trained himself to appreciate that which is off-putting to natural tastes.  You could run the same experiment with classical music.  The only people who would choose atonal “modern” classical music over Bach or Mozart are people who have trained themselves to appreciate the repellant.  Not that I’m being judgmental or anything wink

It’s also interesting that “modernist” sacred architecture works, if at all, only to the extent that it reflects traditional forms.  The more reflective of traditional forms, the better.  I pictuer it as a continuum. So why not simply build traditional???

August 30, 1:31 pm | [comment link]
19. NWOhio Anglican wrote:

driver8, you’re right. The Jubilee Church is pretty decent—I especially love the view from the congregation, with all the vertical curves that draw the eye inexorably to the crucifix.

August 30, 1:34 pm | [comment link]
20. evan miller wrote:

Why is their such a need?  What’s wrong with more good neo-gothic?

August 30, 2:16 pm | [comment link]
21. driver8 wrote:

Hang on - let me suggest a thought comparison - a large red brick neo-gothic Victorian pile or the Jubilee Church. I would I choose the latter as the more interesting building and mroe condusive to worship and, it’s just a guess, but I think many others would too. However between the Jubilee Church and, say, Durham Cathedral - there is no contest IMO - one is interesting but flawed the other is one of the greatest buildings in the world.

At the minute all I have to show is that there and should be some interesting and worthy modern churches. I believe that christian art and architecture of our time should be renewed by drinking from the well of tradition. But I’ve also said that such renewal will not look like an antiquarian repetition of the past and nor should it.

One final thing, the church at Taize has a basilica form (i.e. it is a big rectangle). But its distinctive character comes from lighting, and icons, and decoration, and smell and perhaps above all use. As a crazy generalisation, many modern churches are almost inhumane in their reluctance to offer beauty to the senses. My sense is that the Jubilee Church falls short in this way. However I have not worshipped there and as NWOhio Anglican said large windows opening to the heavens play a major part in the ‘feel’ of its interior (in a way simply not architecturally possible before modern glazing technology).

August 30, 2:18 pm | [comment link]
22. evan miller wrote:

I just read all of the other comments and found that in my #20 I simply repeated the comment of another particularly astute commentor.  Sorry.
Cabbages, you’re spot on with every one of your observations.

August 30, 2:22 pm | [comment link]
23. evan miller wrote:

Faced with the choice, give me the “large, red brick, neo-gothic Victorian pile” every time!
There is one “modern” church building I can think of that works, at least architecturally.  It is sadly lacking in appropriate interior decoration, but that’s, alas, typical of our RC churches in the US.  The church is the cathedral church of Christ the King in Lexington, KY.  It is nearly 50 years old, and I recall how my father loathed it when it was built, but while not something I would choose, it works. Unfortunately, I don’t have an image to post but maybe one of you more computer literate folks can find one.

August 30, 2:31 pm | [comment link]
24. driver8 wrote:

OK let me repeat my comment - because each age should be capable of expressing the Gospel in its own idiom and using the building technology of its own day to glorify God. The Romans did it, the medieval masons did it, the Victorians did it. I think we should be capable of it. I demand better from our artists and architects not simply antiquarian recreation nor modernist boxes but contemporary beauty. A beauty that stands clearly in continuity with our theological and symbolic tradition but is not simply a repetition of the past but is a renewal for the present.

August 30, 2:36 pm | [comment link]
25. Cabbages wrote:

Driver8 “I would I choose the latter as the more interesting building”.
No argument. More interesting indeed. Just not sacred.  And just wait 30 years.  The flavor of the day today will old and tired and ignored. While the victorian neo-gothic pile will still be appealing to most Christians…

August 30, 2:38 pm | [comment link]
26. driver8 wrote:

If it’s England, the tired Victorian gothic pile will be pulled down in 30 years if it hasn’t already been converted into a carpet warehouse. If it’s TEC, I guess it may still be going on its endowments. I think many (not all) of those Victorian neo-gothic shrines were failures as buildings.  I think too that many (not all) modern churches fail and have tried to point out where. But my response is not then just to build more piles but to encourage our artists and architects to drink again from the breadth of our tradition (and not merely repeat what the Victorians did) and create wonderful contemporary christian architecture.

In reality the alternative to great modern christian architecture is not the neo-gothic but it is churches that are styled like sports halls or cinemas or convention centres. I think we can do better than that and need to encourage our artists and architects not build again what Pugin and his imitators built but to do, in our generation, what he did in his - namely return to the sources and be refeshed in order to create a truly christian style in the present.

August 30, 2:49 pm | [comment link]
27. driver8 wrote:

I should also add, to finish because time presses, that I don’t really find many modernist liturgical reordering of neo-gothic churches aesthetically appealing. They often leave yawning empty spaces (in the chancel behind the new nave altar), the materials used are often utterly out of keeping with the aesthetic of the building, they are sometimes of poor quality in a building where lavish beauty may be seen everywhere else. All I am saying is that, particulalry in new builds, there is a real need for beautiful, new, contemporary christian art and architecture in thick continuity with tradition but not simply some sort of antiquarian recreation.

August 30, 2:59 pm | [comment link]
28. Cabbages wrote:

Driver8: “because each age should be capable of expressing the Gospel in its own idiom and using the building technology of its own day to glorify God. The Romans did it, the medieval masons did it, the Victorians did it. I think we should be capable of it.”

“Should be” is not the same as “is”.  My argument is that the prevailing aesthetic of our age is not only less capable of “of expressing the Gospel” than traditional idioms, but is in many ways INCAPABLE of doing so. 

What’s more important, novelty for the sake of novelty (again, I have not seen in your responses any argument in favor of novelty, just assertions that novelty in architecture is somehow required of each age) or “expressing the Gospel” and hinting toward the majesty of God?

We should not make an idol of “progress” for the sake of progress. Change or novelty can be good, but change or novelty are not, in themselves, inherently good. 

Maybe someday a new aesthetic that is appropriate will emerge, but in the meantime hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to destroy the sacred and erect spiritually barren constructs that provide no beauty or nourishment to faith.  Why?

And to what extent, if any, can the godlessness of Western Europe be laid at the feet of a prevailing Church aesthetic where God is hidden away from sight in a back room or the attic, like some unwelcome wall clock received as a wedding present?  After the destruction of WWII we saw the turning away from traditional forms in Europe and we also saw the simultaneous enervation of European Christianity.  We know from our personal lives how important it is to project an image that is confident.  We wear a suit to make a good impression for a reason.  Christianity in the West has thrown off the resplendent robes and vestments of tradition and changed into a faddish outfit of ripped t-shirts, cargo shorts and flip-flops (to stretch a metaphor well past the point of breaking).  Does an embrace of the secular aesthetic and the banishment of Christian forms and imagery project confidence in the Christian message or embarrassment?  Is it any wonder people instinctively turn away? Modernist church architecture and the following of modernist aesthetic trends are indicative of a lack of confidence in the Christian message.

Look, our church is as cool and cutting edge as that new modern art museum, it’s shaped like a pear! Isn’t that interesting?

August 30, 3:02 pm | [comment link]
29. Cabbages wrote:

One thing about contemporary architecture and materials. We can build a building in any shape, have it look like anything, from a giant can of soda or a hotdog, to an amorphous blob, to a coffin. It turns out though, that the best shape for a church, is church-shaped!

August 30, 3:09 pm | [comment link]
30. Florida Anglican [Support Israel] wrote:

I like “modern” architechture for things like a house or an office building.  For a church, it’s not so much the architecture for me as it is the presence of God.  That said, it is hard for me to imagine God’s presence in the cold, unfriendly feel of most of the “modern” architecture pictured above.  Give me a white wood-sided, late 1800’s, red door, arched ceiling building with the warm presence of God any day over any of the cold, cubist-like monstrosities pictured above.

August 30, 3:15 pm | [comment link]
31. evan miller wrote:

The only “modern” architect of stature I can think of whose public buildings indicate the ability to design a church with appropriate gravitas and beauty was Sir Edward Lutyens, and that was 100 years ago.
Cabbages, thank you forso eloquently expressing how I feel about this matter.  I only wish I had your way with words.

August 30, 3:44 pm | [comment link]
32. Sarah1 wrote:

I prefer the “large, red brick, neo-gothic Victorian pile” please.

August 30, 3:55 pm | [comment link]
33. Adam from TN wrote:

I too prefer the “large, red brick, neo-Gothic Victorian pile,” or something like that, but I think driver8’s point is that not all people do.  Should we tell these people to shove it? 

This reminds me of the controversy over “contemporary” music in my Church of Christ days (I know many other churches have the same issue).  People grew so attached to late 19th and early 20th century, four part harmony hymns that the idea of singing anything else was deemed “un-Christian.”  As God is my witness, one preacher I heard actually said that the songs sung “in Jesus’s day” were good enough for him, and should be good enough for everyone (I promise I’m not making that one up).  Heck, much of what is in the current TEC hymnal would have sounded too contemporary.

In Nashville we have a cruciform Gothic (or neo-Gothic; I’m no architect) cathedral for the Episcopal diocese, and a basilica form RC cathedral.  Both are beautiful, and I can’t help but feel closeness with God upon entering either nave.  But my church meets in house that was converted into a dance school (with a big room built onto the back), and is now converted into a church.  It took some work, but that place feels sacred now as well. 

Now, the church that the article refers to?  That’s a travesty.  Even your average Church of Christ member (very minimalist) would have trouble with that…

August 30, 4:40 pm | [comment link]
34. Cabbages wrote:

Adam writes: “I too prefer the “large, red brick, neo-Gothic Victorian pile,” or something like that, but I think driver8’s point is that not all people do.  Should we tell these people to shove it?”

We absolutely should not tell them to “shove it”.  The problem is, almost entirely without exception, these modernist travesties are foisted on communities entirely against the will of anyone but the bishop or priest in question (at least in the RC context) and the 3 or 4% of people who prefer the empty box aesthetic.  If a community wishes to worship in a sterile shoe-box, they should certainly be allowed to do so, but the fact of the matter is, every day Christians around the world are being told to “shove it” when they complain about the de-sacralizing of their worship space.

August 30, 4:53 pm | [comment link]
35. driver8 wrote:

Actually int he CofE that is not true - modernist ‘multui purpose’ churches are often the result of community consultation. They are hardly the flagship models of beauty that I (and you, in your own chosen idiom) aspire to, being principally utilitarian, but folks do choose them.

As an outsider, I am astonished at how conservative TEC folks are on the externals - things like the most radical clerics wearing a dog collar straight out of Jeeves and Wooster, an obsession with religious titles, anyone who can do wacking a robe on inthe liturgy, a baffling preference for pastiche neo-gothic church architecture but ‘a red door’ takes the biscuit! Lord have mercy on us!

August 30, 6:07 pm | [comment link]
36. Lapinbizarre wrote:

Not being into badly-executed Tridentine tat, I find both photographs equally distasteful.  There is nothing neo-gothic about either of them.  Both would have the Blessed Percy Dearmer spinning in his grave!

August 30, 6:45 pm | [comment link]
37. Adam from TN wrote:

driver8 - IMHO, the conservatism on the externals is in part due to the fact that they are what TEC has to offer that is different from other churches.  The modernist (and minimalist) buildings are generally left to the other Evangelical Protestant denominations. 

I also think part of it is that TEC members have traditionally been some of the wealthier and more powerful citizens (demographically speaking).  More money to spend on more lavishness and less utility, preserving a lot of tradition (and legacy).

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I prefer this more “traditional” church architecture.  In fact, it may not be as traditional in the States, as the colonies were not settled with a lot of high-church Anglicans.  That may explain some of its popularity as well in much of TEC. 

Anyway, those are my hypotheses, coming from the Southern Baptist capital of the world.  Talk about your modernist, minimalist buildings (not just the Southern Baptists, mind you).

August 30, 6:46 pm | [comment link]
38. driver8 wrote:

Yes - that was my conclusion too - they have become, so to say, markers of brand identity. You find much greater diversity about such things within the CofE and so much less fussy ‘antiquarianism’ about externals (perhaps because they are the ‘dominant brand’ and so more relaxed about their identity).

I was at Wippell’s the other day and asked about a particular old fashioned surplice. The chap said he couldn’t recall the last time he had had an order over the counter in England for that surplice but they kept them in stock mainly for the American market.

I should say the baffling thing for me is the allegiance to ‘late nineteenth century’ dress and architecture allied to a willingness to junk the very doctrines that architecture and dress was intended to symbolise. It seems the wrong way round to me, but there you go…

August 30, 7:06 pm | [comment link]
39. driver8 wrote:

Quite a lot got Pearcy Dearmer spinning - in the end, he made up his own way of doing it and was brave enough to call it the ‘English use’ - when in fact it only really existed in his own church. In the CofE anyway there are rather few apings of the Tridentine rite but there are hundreds of neo-gothic Victorian reconstructions with the choir and organ sited anachronistically where only clergy would have been. If we going to have gothic, then lets really have it - get the choir and organ out of the chancel, remove the pews, paint the walls with colourful images

August 30, 7:23 pm | [comment link]
40. libraryjim wrote:

Has anyone brought up the new Houston Catholic Cathedral

In some pics it looks like a giant cinder block with a dome on top.

And in the Resurrection window Jesus doesn’t look a bit Jewish. grin

August 30, 8:18 pm | [comment link]
41. libraryjim wrote:

oops, while that first link gives a good overview of the construction, this was the link that I meant to post.

August 30, 8:22 pm | [comment link]
42. Adam from TN wrote:

It’s not just brand identity, though I think that’s part of it, but it’s almost countercultural.  So many Protestant/nondenominational churches are not traditional at all, without altars (maybe a temporary table put in place) in some cases.  We have old arenas and movie theaters converted into churches.  We have very few buildings in general that are over a century old.  And I don’t care for the colonial-style white wood church buildings (or even those built in the late 1800’s, as allyHM suggested).  I don’t know how much the Gothic revival hit us in the nineteenth century, but we have no thousand-year-old cathedrals; heck, one-hundred-years old is historical to us.

I should say the baffling thing for me is the allegiance to ‘late nineteenth century’ dress and architecture allied to a willingness to junk the very doctrines that architecture and dress was intended to symbolise.  It seems the wrong way round to me, but there you go…

On that, you get no argument from me.

August 30, 8:34 pm | [comment link]
43. Lapinbizarre wrote:

On the American Gothic Revival, check Phoebe Stanton’s “The Gothic Revival & American Church Architecture” (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins U Press, 1968).  Easily available, tho’ it only covers the years 1840-1856.  Dearmer’s “English use” was a potent force - principally for the good - in the ordering & decoration of British churches in the first 1/2 of the last century.  Don’t blame him for the organ/choir business, which was a mid-19th c Victorian practice - and one which works at least as well as the RC practice of sticking both in a gallery at the west of the church, or as the late medieval English practice of cramming organ and singers into the rood loft.

August 30, 9:02 pm | [comment link]
44. driver8 wrote:

The west gallery/west end was, before the ‘neo-gothic revival’, where many Anglican parishes put their choir and organ/band too.

The Cambridge Camden Society were principal movers. Dearmer’s idiosyncratic project of unting the 1662 text to pre Reformation liturgy was surely heroically crazy.

August 30, 9:20 pm | [comment link]
45. driver8 wrote:

I have to say that stained glass Resurrection Jesus is spectaculalry dire.

For a relatively contemporary take on gothic revival I very much like have a look at Coventry Cathedral. It is architecturally conservative, essentially replicating the lay out of the Viuctorian gothic revival churches, but uses modern materials and contemporary art. The glass (both stained and West Screen engraved with saints and angels) is IMO extraordinary.

August 30, 9:36 pm | [comment link]
46. BCP28 wrote:

If you want to see the vandalism of ECUSA parishes, look up Trinity in downtown Toldedo and the Philadelphia Cathedral.

Modernism works well in its own idiom.  The problem is arrogant clergy, architects, and interior designers who are perfectly content to destroy something beautiful to satisfy their own philosophical, theological, and aesthetic needs.

August 30, 10:43 pm | [comment link]
47. MikeS wrote:

You might not like the Vatican II references and influence but I thought the remodeling work here was done well despite the initial outcry from the congregation.

They seem to have made the Cathedral the place of beauty it should be for the whole Archdiocese while leaving the exterior untouched, except for cleaning the brick and fixing the leaky roof.  You would never know this is downtown/inner city congregation.

August 31, 12:27 am | [comment link]
48. trooper wrote:

The people know what doesn’t work, and they speak with their feet.  How the Church hasn’t caught onto that escapes me completely.

August 31, 1:52 am | [comment link]
49. evan miller wrote:

Odd, I was thinking of Coventry as an example of a strikingly ugly modern attempt

August 31, 9:50 am | [comment link]
50. Cennydd wrote:

11   Cabbages, the cathedral in Los Angeles reminds me of the Santa Clara County Main Jail in San Jose, California…...complete with subterranean parking garage!

August 31, 11:43 am | [comment link]
51. John Wilkins wrote:

I like the Jubilee church, personally. 

As for the article - do people go to church in England anymore?  What would the young people say?

August 31, 1:31 pm | [comment link]
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