Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Beauty and the New Evangelisation

In recent weeks, the Marylebone Ordinariate Group has been joined by a number of Anglicans who have now started off down the road to full communion with the Church. This is a great blessing for the group, one among many, for which we are grateful to Almighty God for continually pouring out grace upon grace upon us and prompting the hearts of those outside the Church to seek reconciliation with her. One of these individuals has offered a reflection (the first of many, we trust) on the New Evangelisation which our Holy Father has urged especially during this Year of Faith, with particular consideration of the place of beauty in preaching the catholic faith.

The text from the Synod of Bishops in Rome has certainly been giving me food for thought over the past few days. Members of the Ordinariate will be particularly pleased with much of what has come out of the Synod; the New Evangelisation being a central part of the Ordinariate’s mission. Beauty, art, and aesthetics were picked up at several points over the message, but two particularly stand out: 

We also want to thank men and women involved in another expression of the human genius, art in its various forms, from the most ancient to the most recent. We recognize in works of art a particularly meaningful way of expressing spirituality inasmuch as they strive to embody humanity’s attraction to beauty. We are grateful when artists through their beautiful creations bring out the beauty of God’s face and that of his creatures. The way of beauty is a particularly effective path of the new evangelization.
Here, beauty is seen primarily in its relationship to mission and evangelism – beauty is an effective path of the new evangelization because human beings are attracted by the beautiful. We can express something of the beauty of God in beautiful things, and these can awaken something within both the non-believer and the non-practicing believer. This point was made really quite fully by David Bentley Hart (better known for his work Atheist Delusions, a critique of the new atheism) in The Beauty of the Infinite. This is a fairly dense theological treatise which shows how beauty and sublimity can be used to transcend the everyday violence of the post-modern world. God uses beauty to draw people to Himself, beauty is the very language of God. 

Closing Mass of the Synod of Bishops

The Synod of Bishops was very clear that this theological concept has to have an impact on everyday life of parishes. I’ve already hinted at the central role which the Ordinariate has to play in the New Evangelisation, but the Synod is quite clear that this focus on beauty must be part of every parish, particularly in their Sunday celebration of Holy Mass: 

The beauty of faith must particularly shine in the actions of the sacred Liturgy, above all in the Sunday Eucharist. It is precisely in liturgical celebrations that the Church reveals herself as God’s work and renders the meaning of the Gospel visible in word and gesture. 
This focus on the beauty of the liturgical celebration has long been highlighted as part of the Anglican patrimony that can find its fullest expression in communion with the Holy See. This should not strike us as particularly surprising, as Anglo-catholics have long seen their vocation to be to commend the Catholic faith to the Church of England. To a degree they’ve achieved their goal, and been about as successful as they are going to be. As the Bishop of London made clear in his (in)famous Ad Clerum of Advent last year, there will no longer be ritual martyrs because no-one objects to candles on the table anymore, no-one really strongly objects to the use of liturgical vestments, and most people in the middle of the road churches would think the use of incense is nice, or atmospheric. In short, Anglo-catholicism has played a part in changing the aesthetics of the Church of England. Liturgical texts in the Church of England provide for a form of Chrism Mass in the shape of the blessing of oils and renewal of ministerial vows on Maundy Thursday. There are the Stations of the Cross (which stand alongside the bizarrely named Stations of the Resurrection) and provision is given for the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. A form of vigil service is also given for Easter morning, with various different sets of readings picking up themes from the salvation narrative. There’s even a set of optional texts under the title Exultet which provides for something akin to the 1973 translation of the Exultet, along with a metrical version and a responsorial prayer of blessing. Most people aren’t really aware of the extent to which Common Worship contains these texts, most Anglo-Catholics either having a complete distrust of the volumes, preferring instead to use the Missal, or they see them as simply diluted versions of the Easter Vigil and simply refuse to use them. 

Five hundredth anniversary of the Sistine Chapel's completion

What does all this have to do with beauty? Following the trail of breadcrumbs back to my original argument, Anglo-catholicism has been broadly successful in commending a catholic aesthetic to the Church of England, if not in actually commending the Catholic Faith. But this is, to a degree where Anglo-Catholicism has lost its way. ‘O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’ has often been the rallying cry of Anglo-catholicism, with its focus on the liturgy. But this masks something of the long history of the Tractarian, Ritualist, and Anglo-catholic movements in the Church of England. What these gave faithful Anglicans was not a shell of aesthetics, but a language of beauty, of lives transfigured by the love of God and by grace. Something has been lost along the way. One of the key aspects of the writings of the Tractarians was the emphasis on the call to holiness of living. A holy life is a beautiful life simply because it is a life in which the beauty of God is given room enough to shine through. Anglo-catholicism seems to have lost this language of a call to holiness of life, simply because it no longer seems to possess the language to talk about a change of life. 

It has also excluded the broader concepts of beauty which go far beyond the aesthetics of worship and the beauty of the holy life. If we follow on from Hart’s argument about the way in which beauty is the language that God uses to communicate with creation, and that thereby, beauty is also our way of connecting and communicating with God. Because of this, the Church naturally reflects this through the beauty of her teachings. This is something that has been touched on in an earlier blog post dealing with the slow take up of the Ordinariate in central London. The Anglo-catholicism of my (earlier) youth expressed some concept of a call of all Christians towards unity. When I was going to confirmation classes as a teenager, it was clear what this meant – we were ultimately striving towards a reunion with the Catholic Church. But none of this is quite so clear anymore, what unity is the Anglo-catholic movement searching for? There now exists a situation in which many Anglo-catholics are not in Communion with their diocesan bishops, and after the removal of the structures of PEVs in the November legislation, the state of their communion with bishops will be even more ambiguous. Anglo-catholicism seems to have missed something of the lesson of Psalm 133, whose opening line sums up the beauty of the Church’s teaching about the Church itself: ‘Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is : brethren, to dwell together in unity!’ What has been lost is a focus on the broader concept of beauty, a divine language which finds its fullest expression in the Church. 

The Holy Father exchanges the Pax with the Ecumenical Patriarch

And this is the truth which lies at the very heart of the Bl. John Henry Newman’s motto; leaving an ecclesial community to find full communion in the Church is ultimately an expression of a response to beauty towards the fullest expression of the Christian life. Much of the discussion surrounding the Ordinariate, and of converts more generally, makes it seem as if people are simply running away from the something. To be sure, there’s plenty of things which are concerning about Anglicanism, and they were very well put by Dr Edward Norman when he announced he would be received into the Roman Catholic Church. But what is more characteristic of the journey of faithful Anglicans into the communion of the Church is the response to the divine beauty of the Church and its teaching. It’s this process of continual conversion, of grace perfecting nature, of dying to the old self, and rising to the newer, fuller expression of ourselves in Christ that makes the story of converts so important to the life of the contemporary Church. This is why the Ordinariate is so important to the New Evangelisation, and why converts can be so important to expressing and articulating the truths of the faith. Many would brand this as simply the zeal of a convert; and to be sure they have a point. But this should not cloud the fact that this is the time to turn our response to divine teaching into a tool for the conversion of this land.

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