“There is only one thing to do: for the future of the Church, we must build again, drawing on those cultural accomplishments that are timeless, in the service of Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, in saecula saeculorum.”
— Dr. Anthony Esolen
From the incomparable Anthony Esolen:
“I am struck by the strange inability of the council fathers to do the very thing they were urging the Church to do, which was to take stock of the times. Again and again, they instruct bishops and priests to adapt the life of the Church, including her places and manner of worship, to the times and to the characters of the various peoples of the world.
“What they missed, and what was right in front of them to be noticed, was that modernism as an ideology, with mass entertainment and mass education as its main engines, was obliterating cultures everywhere. Romano Guardini had written of this loss in The End of the Modern World.
“It was therefore the task of the Church not to be enculturated in a vacuum, which would be akin to emptying herself of her peculiar character, but to be herself and thereby to form culture, i.e., to bring culture once again to people who were rapidly losing their hold on all cultural memory.”
He is speaking of the Roman Catholic fathers of the Second Vatican Council, but his words apply equally to most “mainstream” churches in this day, including mainstream Anglican ones. He continues,
“This did not happen. It would have required profound meditation upon the meaning of culture, by churchmen steeped in the learning of three thousand years of Jewish and Christian arts and letters, and of the Greco-Roman matrix wherein the Church, by the providence of God, was brought to birth. However, schools and universities were abandoning that learning by throwing it overboard as ballast.”
I have commented more than once, in more fora than one, on our collective tendency to throw out the baby with the bathwater! So it is good to hear a scholar with the eminence of Dr. Esolen confirming my intuition. Here he is again:
“I am aware that the Church has often had to prune back an excessive exuberance in the arts, so that the visible would not overmaster the invisible… [however,] we now have the worst of both worlds.”
In other words, mainstream contemporary churches have given up “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome” – by which I mean both culturally, as representing the core of Western civilization and, if by Greece is understood Eastern and by Rome Western Catholic Christianity, theologically and spiritually – for a doctrinally and aesthetically diluted and diminished form of Christianity which fails to uphold “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3), and which embraces vapid kitsch in what passes for liturgical art, music, and architecture.
In traditional Anglicanism, there is another challenge to be met: on the one hand a too-eager, overly enthusiastic embrace of Anglo-Catholicism to the point of seeking to become Rome without the Pope; and on the other, an Anglo-Calvinistic insistence on “Anglicanism as established,” which can almost make an idol of liturgical starkness and simplicity, and which theologically and spiritually threatens to thrust the Anglican tradition into Protestant sectarianism, rather than its true identity as a distinctive expression of the Church Catholic.
It is not as easy as one might suppose to maintain a healthy and fruitful “via media” (middle way) between extremes, “not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth,” in the words of a Collect for the commemoration of the gifted Anglican divine and champion of that via media, Richard Hooker! Yet it is a task worth undertaking even if we often fall short of its accomplishment. As the great conservationist Aldo Leopold put it, “In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.”
The alternative is more of the same, the period and ethos which since Vatican II has transformed (and often not for the better) not only the Roman Catholic Church, but most of the Churches of the West; a period in which, as Dr. Esolen expresses it,
“we have endured fifty years of lousy church buildings, lousy music, lousy art, banal language, lousy schooling, dead and dying religious orders, and an unfaithful faithful whose imaginations are formed more by Hollywood than by the Holy One. We have been stuck in cultural and ecclesial neutral, i.e., rolling backward and downhill… neuter, effete and infertile.”
It is ironic indeed that a movement which was intended to make the Church more “relevant” to contemporary people and culture has had precisely the opposite effect: the more it attempts to ape popular culture, the less relevant it becomes.
For the relevance of the Church has always been in its critique of popular culture, pointing toward things which are higher, timeless and eternal: and ultimately, of course, to God the Three in One, Who is their Source – the perfection of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, of which our attempts at the same are always but pale reflections. Yet that does not mean we shouldn’t strive toward the higher things, quite the contrary:
“There is only one thing to do: for the future of the Church, we must build again, drawing on those cultural accomplishments that are timeless, in the service of Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, in saecula saeculorum“ [unto ages of ages].