In the third instalment of his article, Barry E.B. Swain SSC concludes his reflection on the medieval world view
Another place where we have profound differences is the connection between liturgy and culture. Our world places a premium on learning about, appreciating and placing on an equal value level all cultures, cultural expressions and, even, increasingly, all religions. This ‘Universalism’ is a direct result of the Enlightenment values of the eighteenth century which were, after all, at the heart of the foundation of our country. Most of the so-called Founding Fathers of the US were very much in this tradition. It led, in turn, to the Unitarian-Universalist movement of the nineteenth century, and fed into the Liberal Protestant traditions of the twentieth century. It has found its secular echo in our current culture. While we would naturally wish to endorse respect for other cultural and religious traditions, if we take this philosophy too far, we end up with an untoward embarrassment about our own culture and without an appreciation or sometimes even a knowledge of Western religious tradition and its Christian history.
Lack of knowledge
This has resulted in some very odd manifestations: a recent article in a Catholic newspaper about a senior honours student who didn’t know who Charlemagne was (but had done a senior paper all about the Upanishads), students at Boston College who couldn’t give a definition of the Incarnation, but had spent a semester in religious studies studying different varieties of Islam, and finally a recent guided tour I took with some friends in the Cloisters, which was meant to elucidate a few interesting issues in medieval art and architecture. This tour, obviously taken almost entirely by educated and cultured people with a special interest in the topic, produced some extremely strange questions about the most basic Christian doctrines and for that matter some of the most basic Christian signs and symbols in art.
The only true Faith
Obviously to the medieval person, this would all have seemed bizarre. It was taken for granted that Christianity was the only true Faith, and in the West that the Papacy was God-given and had both a spiritual and temporal right to authority. With the Crown, it was the foundation of the feudal system, and as such anchored everyone else’s place, even the Sovereign’s. When the Sovereign and the Pope fell out, as with Henry II in England, or even, cataclysmically, with Henry VIII, there were seismic consequences all over society. This translated also to culture, and the Western European certainly believed he was culturally superior to the Eastern European, to heretics like the Cathars, and of course to Muslims and Jews.
The good side of this absolute certainty was that the culture had the confidence and authority to create social structures and wonderful works of art and architecture, music and performance. The bad side was that lack of respect and knowledge of other cultures and faiths led to violent interaction, and hundreds of years of violence, not only between Christians and Jews and between Christians and Muslims, but among Christians of different beliefs. Obviously, this heritage continues even today, and is hardly a wholly-owned subsidiary of Christianity, as militant Islam makes clear. Christian participation in these attitudes and particularly in such violent interactions is a cause for continuing shame, but it is no less so in any other religion.
Authenticity and dedication
In the liturgy, this dynamic also had consequences. It meant that there was absolute authenticity and dedication to the principles behind the liturgy for musicians, artists, architects and textile makers. They had complete confidence in what they were doing. Even those who were themselves hardly paragons of virtue or piety, and had what would have been regarded perhaps as irregular lives, were believers. As the Western cultural tradition began to separate more and more from Eastern Europe, and in places like Spain and Eastern Europe where it engaged with Islam, took a more militantly separate stance, it became self-sufficient, confident and authoritative. In architecture, this led from the fortress-like appearance of Norman and Romanesque churches to the much more open and fragile Gothic style, full of glass and beautiful details. A Norman Church like Durham Cathedral or Vezelay is about defending one’s self, one’s family and belongings against the darkness outside, and keeping God in with you. A Gothic church like Westminster Abbey, Salisbury Cathedral, Chartres, Cologne or especially the Sainte-Chappelle in Paris floods light in from the outside world and reaches for the sky, transporting us to God. I suppose it could be argued that the development from Plainsong to Polyphony suggests the same kind of movement.
Changes in the buildings
One of the main changes we see in the liturgy is reflected in the buildings in which they take place. In the Early Church, from the time of Constantine in the mid-fourth century down to perhaps the ninth century or so, the church buildings were basilican, based on the Roman basilica or law court. As in law courts, the church was set up with the priest-celebrant sitting in front in the magistrate’s place. Churches were all-seeing, everyone could see everything from every seat, and could hear the proceedings from anywhere. A sense of awe and mystery prevailed – everyone faced East, awaiting Christ’s coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead, which was expected from the East, the sun rising. Many churches in Rome and elsewhere are still like this (San Clemente in Rome for example and the Pope’s Cathedral, the Lateran Basilica, and the magnificent churches of Ravenna).
By the year 1000 or so, this had begun to change. In the East, what we would now call Orthodox Churches began to erect screens to screen off the sanctuary or presbytery area from the view of the congregation. This increased the sense of ‘otherness’ and the awe and mystery of the act of consecration in the Mass. In the West, screens also became common, often, but not always, completely solid as in the East, but very effectively delineating the areas and marking out different places for clergy and laity.
The Christian pilgrimage
In the medieval West, the Gothic church building actually taught the worshipper about the Christian pilgrimage. The nave, where lay Christians sat, was like the Church Militant here on Earth, still striving towards God. The choir area where the choir, who were normally at least in minor orders, was like Purgatory, moving towards God, seeing and hearing more of him, but not quite there still. The sanctuary, used by the sacred ministers, and housing the Tabernacle, where God himself was, symbolized Heaven itself. The arrangement of relics of the Saints around the Tabernacle further accentuated this, suggesting the Saints in Glory worshipping God.
This church arrangement persisted until the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries when Baroque ‘all seeing’ churches began to be built. One of the first was the Gesú in Rome, the mother Church of the Society of Jesus. In the nineteenth century, in the wake of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England and the accompanying influence of Pugin in the Roman Church, medieval style churches began to return. This lasted until the Sixties when many modern churches began to be built again as ‘all seeing’ churches, and even in designs which were round or featured completely new, and often dispiriting and ugly, arrangements, such as altars in the middle of the church.
Need for critical evaluation
It is not wrong that the liturgy reflects who we are as Christian people, and it is quite understandable that we bring to it much of our own daily life and our understandings. It would be quite strange if that were not the case. It is fairly easy for us to look back hundreds of years and judge objectively what were the salient features of the worshipping Church in, say, AD 500 or 1066 or 1350 or 1900. We can decide that we approve of certain features and disapprove of others. But this is doing our ancestors a disservice, it is blinding ourselves and it is intellectually dishonest. For in doing so, we assume that our concerns and objectives are unqualifiedly correct in all respects, and that we know best how to worship God. This can scarcely be true.
It remains then for us to evaluate critically at all times how we are worshipping God, how true we are remaining both to the deposit of the Faith and the Holy Spirit of God, but also to look appreciatively at the worshipping Church both in other places in the world and also in other times. They do do things differently in the past, it is a foreign country, but we cannot assume that it has nothing to teach us. Even if we find that we believe we are doing things better today, the past and its differences may still have much to teach us. It is also, of course, always just possible (a hard saying though that may be for twenty-first-century ears) that the past got something right, whose value we have somehow lost.
Canon Swain is the Rector of the Church of the Resurrection, New York City, Spiritual Director of the SSC in the Americas, Vicar of the SSC Chapter of St John Fisher (which includes New England, the Canadian Maritimes, and the Middle Atlantic), Superior-General of the Guild of All Souls, an Honorary Canon of St Peter’s Cathedral, Koforidua in Ghana, and St George’s Cathedral, Ho, in Ghana. He is American Commissary for the Church in Ghana, and received the Star of the Order of the Living Rosary from the Most Revd David Hope, Lord Archbishop of York, Master of the Guardians of the Shrine at Walsingham, in recognition for his work for the Shrine. The Order’s membership is limited to fifteen. He was previously Rector of St Clement’s, Philadelphia, and Curate of the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Times Square. He is a graduate of The General Seminary in New York, and was previously Princess Louise Lecturer in Latin & Greek in McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, where he was doing his Ph.D. degree.