Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A visit to Westminster Cathedral

The other week I popped in to Westminster Cathedral, the home base of Roman Catholicism in England and Wales.  I've walked past it quite a few times, but never been in, and I was curious to take a look.  I liked it.  I enjoy a church building in the Byzantine style (I assume everyone has a favourite style of ecclesiastical architecture?  No?) and the decoration is tasteful and not so baroque as continental Roman Catholicism tends to display.  It is massive, as you'd expect, but seems to scale; one is dwarfed but not crushed.  It's a lovely building.

One thing I noticed is that some of the ceiling decoration remains unfinished.  This is apparently deliberate.  Here space is provided for future generations to add to the Cathedral, to express their own faith in the architecture.  The leaving of space seems to me to be a statement of faith by this present generation, too; it says that despite the history of Catholicism in this country, they expect to be here in the future.  They expect the church to go on.

This has got me thinking about models of church, and of the relationship between church and eschatology.  I come up with two basic models.

Here on the one hand is Westminster Cathedral, displaying its faith in the future, or rather its faith in the God of the future, through architecture and decoration.  It's about the incarnation, isn't it - this stable faith, this understanding that God has entered history and therefore the church is in history, a human factor (albeit established by God) in the midst of other human factors.  The church is a contributor to the wider culture, because all humanity is affected by the reality of the incarnation, whether they know it or not.  The church belongs here, because Christ was here.

On the other hand is the little band of disciples of Christ meeting in a community centre on a Sunday afternoon.  Their faith is displayed differently.  Because they believe in the God of the future, the God who is always breaking in, their community looks more like a band of rebels.  They don't expect to be able to make a positive Christian contribution to the wider culture, or at least not necessarily.  The wider culture represents the mission field, something they go out into for the sake of Christ but not the place they live.  They don't have the money to build cathedrals, but they wouldn't if they could; it's not about bricks and mortar.  There is something unsettled and unsettling about them.  They belong elsewhere.

What are we meant to be?  Cathedral builders or eschatological warriors?

Maybe the question is wrong.  Maybe we need both.  I wouldn't want to be without all the artefacts of Christian culture - the music and the art and, yes, the cathedrals.  But what about being strangers and exiles?  Yes, we need that too; at the moment, I think, we need that most of all.

Should we say, perhaps, that the spiritual reality of the cathedral builders is still that they don't belong, that they are exiles?  And perhaps at some level the exiles are spiritually at home in the world which Christ their Master claims as his own?

I feel the tension.


  1. Crucial questions.

    I have to say that, as much I too admire the cathedrals and churches in an aesthetic sense, I can't help but think of the oppression and exploitation that went in to building them, as well as 'don't lay up treasures on earth'. I can't see them as particularly 'Christian' in that sense, at least - the minds behind them were very far from being strangers to the world in any meaningful sense. These days when at such places I can't help but think of 'I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another.'

    Perhaps predictable to hear this from me by now!

    1. Westminster is perhaps helpful in that regard, in that it doesn't have some of that baggage (it's a 19th century foundation). But there's a whole load of connected stuff. I wouldn't want to be without the choral music of Bach, for example - but I can guarantee that no FIEC church could ever produce anything like that, at least partly because of ecclesiology. Still puzzling it through!

    2. Yeah, in the flesh I really do love a lot of the architecture and some of the music. Its just that the NT doesn't make any of that as a going concern... singing is barely mentioned, even. I'd be happy with a couple of a cappella songs off the cuff to make the emphasis on sharing of the Word, teaching, and communion. The simplicity of that probably is to avoid being so tied to this world... you only have to look at the time- and money-draining effects of buildings and elaborate music to feel priorities are quite radically shaped by them.

    3. Agree totally on the danger that buildings, music, and other entirely incidental things tend to shape priorities in a big way - just because, as you say, they tend to be the things that cost in money and time.

      I'm not sure about your hermeneutic here, though. I guess a pretty radical biblicism might lead to this conclusion, but I'm not convinced we can bracket out everything the Bible does have to say about culture, society, and general human existence just because these things don't feature in a big way in the Pauline epistles... I suppose what I mean is: as well as being an eschatological community which lives entirely from grace, the church is also a group of human beings who need to be human - and that surely must mean some sort of cultural endeavour.

      So again: I think it's more complicated than all that.

    4. Despite the obvious difficulties, I do tend towards a sort of radical Biblicism these days, largely because I don't trust the philosophical leaps needed to construct a 'Christian' politics, economics, aesthetics, etc, least of all the leaps I'd make myself.

      The Bible has much to say about human civilization... but nothing to sacralise it. With Ezekiel we can lament the downfall of even unbelieving Tyre, appreciating its achievements... while also knowing that all will be burnt up anyway. As much I appreciate the arts, I doubt if much, if anything, of that will be carried over to the New Jerusalem. We are harbingers of a new humanity, after all, beyond this world's full comprehension or civilizational purposes.

      Not that it's wrong to pursue artistic ends on an individual basis and so on, but... the time's short. We're to suffer for the truth, to be the poor and lowly, and recognition in the world's eyes for some cultural endeavour usually means leaving the pilgrim path far behind. I think that's a theme throughout the Bible, pulled into focus through the cross.

    5. Well, I can't quite enter into that hermeneutic - especially the 'all will be burnt up anyway' part, which (despite it being a fairly mainstream bit of Christian interpretation) I think significantly misreads Scripture. I guess I see a good deal more continuity between creation-redemption-new creation than you're envisaging here.

      On the other hand, my thought for today seems to point more in your direction!

    6. Continuity, yes, but still, 'we can carry nothing out' (1 Tim 6:7). There's a parallel in individual microcosmic/universal macrocosmic salvation: completely killed off, but then somehow born again; a genuinely *new* creation, but somehow in continuity with what was destroyed.

      Interesting you think that's mainstream - it seems to me all the talk these days is of 'the physical resurrection affirms the goodness of this world, including culture, politics... every inch claimed for Christ... the riches of Christian social and cultural endeavor carried over into the New Creation...' Gothic architecture, Bach, ballet, investment bankers planted into the New Jerusalem, etc. Indeed, I'd almost say that such Kuyperianism is the default among any shade of evangelical at the moment.

    7. Nah, there's still plenty of 'it all gets burned and we go up to heaven' stuff doing the rounds - I'd say still the default in many places.

      The resurrection body of Christ is obviously the key here: the same, but new. It might be interesting to explore the continuity at the other end as well - i.e. the creation-redemption continuity as well as the creation-new creation continuity. Suffice to say I think the overall picture in Scripture is of God's commitment to his creation and his will to bring it through death to new life. That's the basis for my expectation of significant 'pull through' from this age to the next, and therefore of my sense that we have to be engaged culturally.

    8. Fair enough - maybe I've overestimated Tim Keller's influence on conservatives. Thinking of the evangelical scene as a whole.

      The city is redeemed by God, yes... but is reshaped by Him into a new form, with not much of our intentions and purposes for it remaining.

      As for cultural engagement... yes in the sense of being informed and thinking about culture, and necessarily so for the purposes of evangelism, discernment, etc. But I would posit that to get to the place of significantly influencing the broader culture is usually (not always) by the way of selling out and losing what makes the church's mission distinctive. But I won't go off on that one for now...