The dialogue of reconstruction continues

Pruning the Rose-tinted spectacles by Fr Jonathan Munn.

I love the eloquence of his writing and his vast culture not only in the sciences and mathematics, but also in art and beauty. He quips at me for “cruelly” accusing him of Romanticism. We all have our “classical” rationalistic tendencies, as I have, but he certainly has an attitude to the world that would involve the imagination, a love of nature, freedom of spirit and a yearning for something out of the common. That being said, we are in 2017, not 1817, but there are certain parallels between the two years two centuries apart.

The Romantics did tend to look with nostalgia at the medieval period, because it preceded the Renaissance that brought the classical spirit and rationalism, stifling the elevation of the human spirit and the whole person – the heart.

I ought really to point out that the hankering for a “golden age” is shallow and delusional. But, that doesn’t mean that we have to accept everything that is modern because it is modern. I remember a visit to the chapel of Pusey House in Oxford with Dr Ray Winch, and he brought my attention to the Comper baldachin over the high altar. Why something in classical style in a Victorian reproduction of a medieval church?

Dr Winch’s conjecture was that it is what might have been had there been no Reformation in England and architecture evolved as it did in France and other countries. I was introduced to a notion of retro-futurism, on which I have written. In about 1880, you build a copy of a fifteenth-century collegiate church of modest size, and then you fast-forward to about 1580 in the hypothesis that there was no Reformation in England. Another example of retro-futurism is doing a pastiche of what we thought things in the twenty-first century would look like as imagined in the 1960’s. The reality is more conservative than the imagination. I was always fascinated by Jules Verne with his prodigious imagination in the world of science and technology, a kind of modern Leonardo da Vinci.

I did something like the same thing. As I was fitting out my chapel, I was almost “obsessed” with the Arts & Crafts aesthetics of William Morris and others up to about 1914. Itself, it was an exercise in retro futurism with the medieval era as the inspiration but a new idiom that produced Art Nouveau and a reaction from the Victorian aesthetics of the age of the machine. It all added up even if it was pastiche and “fake”.

I think we would be in for a big surprise if someone transported us back to the 1520’s somewhere in southern England. Yes, we would get the Use of Sarum, but probably very sloppily celebrated in a forest of popular religion and devotions, something like the Roman rite in a southern Italian parish in the early twentieth century. There would be other aspects like the absence of medical care and sanitation. I would imagine that people smelled like pigs except when they had a swim in the river, perhaps. So 1520 is hardly a golden age, but that era was building beautiful churches and the Reformation and Counter-Reformation hadn’t happened.

We can’t go back in time, but we can take the best from different historical eras, just as we do when we play the music of long-dead composers or look at paintings by dead artists. The Romantics did not recreate the middle-ages, but they did seek human values of before the Renaissance and the downward slope of human spirituality to materialism. They found principles for art and architecture which they would develop and interpret, rather than inventing something entirely new and founded on rationalism. Thus, the notion of retro-futurism, which is imperfect as everything human is imperfect.

Like in our children’s fairy tales and fantasy cinema for adults, we live a moment of magic and wonder. It is perhaps in these moments when God is most present and we relate to a world outside our own. This for me is the essence of Romanticism as in the books of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien.

Christianity is something of a fairy tale, not because it would be false or untrue, but because it appeals to those childlike instincts for myth, beauty, wonder and a vision of heaven. I would say, let it be so, and I have no care for postmodern brutalism and so-called “realism” which speaks only of man’s base instincts.

I am thankful that Fr Jonathan has written as he has expressed himself, because as always, progress is made in our new movement which seeks to be above liberalism and conservatism.

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11 Responses to The dialogue of reconstruction continues

  1. F. David Marriott SSC says:

    ‘Romantic’?? The series ‘Tudor Farm’ was shown on ‘The Knowledge Network’ here in BC Canada, but it is also available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Tudor-Monastery-FORMATTED-VERSION-REGION/dp/B00FY5FTV6. This series did give a very clear impression of farm life in England together with the smells, poor food, smoky rooms etc. – even to the challenge of stitching your clothes on to you each morning (in the time before buttons!) Perhaps what they did have was the ‘magic and wonder’ of which you write?

    • I hope you know that what I mean by Romanticism is the awakening from the 18th century and the French Revolution, not the warm fuzzy feeling of “being in love” or some superficial nostalgia for what is “pretty” or “cute” or whatever.

      I have seen farm life in rural Switzerland in the 1980’s, and it was more or less like the middle ages except with electricity and a tractor. Half of the house was for the family and the children slept in the loft above the sheep and cows where it was warm in winter. I compare my childhood with children nowadays. I think I was happier without the electronics and enjoyed being outdoors in nature, even when I went on farms with my father “to see a cow” and to be told “If you want to be sick, it’s outside”. Life has never been all “magic” and “wonder”, but there is still some of it now even if one has to look for it harder.

      As for clothes, still the case with tie-up albs, what usually preceded buttons were bands of cloth or cords that were tied in a bow or some other suitable knot. Of course in some places it would have been some kind of stitching – how tiresome!

  2. F. David Marriott SSC says:

    Perhaps the point of the Tudor Farm programme was to demonstrate that whilst the ‘Romantics’ were enjoying the hospitality of Mr. Beaumont at Cole Orton, or the lovely gardens of the Wordsworth home at Rydal, the vast majority of the population, especially those working in agriculture, or the early industrialisation lived in abject poverty, unchanged from the previous 100 years: which in turn provided the funds for the ‘elite’ to initiate the ‘romantic’ practice of travel to remote places like the Lake District of England or, a little later, the Swiss Alps where, from your hotel on Lake Lucerne one could admire the beauty of the mountains without the effort of climbing them!

    • It is a good point, like the Arts & Crafts movement. For something with such a “democratic” spirit, objects made by craftsmen in this perspective could only be afforded by the well-to do. Does the fact that many or most people in the middle ages like now invalidate the aspirations and philosophy of men like Lord Byron, Shelley and Keats? Should everything be reduced to the lowest common denominator? I am on a low income and live a simple life, but I live in quite a nice house in the country and my work leaves me leisure time. Is that wrong?

      I can see your point with the dilettante who admires but is a spectator. I do like to make the effort and get out on the boat or with a good pair of walking boots and attempt something I am capable of.

      A part of Romanticism was Anglo-Catholicism and the monastic revival in France and Germany. Was that reprehensible? Should we come to terms with the blue, grey and black buildings in London or Beijing and submit to the boot stamping on a human face forever? I don’t think that such is your thought, but I don’t think you misunderstand the “wild” and aspiring spirit of Romanticism, not the sappy sentimental stuff in our own days that uses that word.

      I do believe that without Romanticism at the beginning and end of the 19th century, Christianity would have more or less died out with the influence of rationalism and atheism, and much of what we take for granted would not exist. Not all Romantics were holy men of God. Some were dissolute and went the way of Hogarth’s rake, but others made up for them. Wordsworth might have had a happy time in Rydal, a little more pleasant than his time in Paris when the heads were rolling.

      Some Romantics like William Blake showed their anger with the way children and poor people were exploited, and Charles Dickens took the relay. I am sure that much of the heroic philanthropy of the 19th century was inspired by the Sturm und Drang of Romanticism.

      All that being said, Romanticism is something elite and inaccessible to most people. It approaches the “aristocracy of the spirit” written about by Berdyaev, the notion of the “spirituals” in Gnosticism. Some people “get it”. Others don’t.

      • ed pacht says:

        I think the Slum Fathers had it right. The poor do need material help, but even more do they need beauty and pageantry and splendor to relieve the awful greyness of a life deprived of both material and spiritual resources. It’s not either/or, but both/and.

    • Dale says:

      When one considers that Paris Hilton and her ilk of the rich are representative of modern, secular taste, even the very rich are seriously in need of the Beauty of Holiness a well as the poor.

      Of course, perhaps the complete absence of beauty in the novus ordo Roman Church is the new banality that is indeed the Church being relevant to the modern world.

      • ed pacht says:

        Sometimes relevance comes from direct opposition to what is both ordinary and wrong. There is no real relevance in telling the world that it’s OK when it isn’t. .

      • My own experience is that I was not very religious as a young boy. I preferred doing boyish things outside school and things I had to do. Only from the age of 13 did I discover a whole world in the Church that was different from “ordinary life”. The first thing that attracted me was the organ and choral music – hardly what was on Top of the Pops at the time! I have to say that I preferred Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture or the other bits and pieces of “classical” music I preferred at the time to what was more “correct” like pop, rock and so forth.

        The other thing is how aesthetically inclined we are, sensitive to beauty as opposed to money and status. I have noticed how few women, relatively, are sensitive to liturgy – perhaps it’s because they can’t bear seeing it done by men. I do know some women who are uplifted by classical liturgy, but only if they have a certain cultural and intellectual predisposition. Church and liturgy will only ever be relevant to those who are relevant to the Church and liturgy. Trying to make the Church like secular life – it was a failed experiment.

      • Stephen K says:

        The other thing is how aesthetically inclined we are, sensitive to beauty as opposed to money and status. I have noticed how few women, relatively, are sensitive to liturgy – perhaps it’s because they can’t bear seeing it done by men.

        Father, I can’t dispute what you say you’ve noticed, for if you say you’ve noticed this, then so it is. I myself can’t say what it is that other people are sensitive to unless they tell me, or show signs I can interpret. But what I do call to mind is that for 2000 years of Christian history (give or take a few decades) men have been running the show such that liturgy is a male affair. There is no inevitability to this: I am sure that in other religious contexts where women have had a major part to play one will find women responding with sensibility and sensitivity and intelligence and that men of a certain disposition or prejudice can find it hard to bear seeing it done by women. I think this is sad. Liturgy should be sexless in the sense that since both men and women can perform liturgy with grace and dignity and spiritual power, so they should be able to do so. I consider myself aesthetically inclined, sensitive to beauty as opposed to money and status, I am a man, and sensitive to liturgy but I can’t accept that liturgy must only be done by men or that men have some innate superior aesthetic sensibility.

      • The problem is that women priests have taken on a political dimension, and Pandora’s Box is open. People can do what they want in the Canterbury Communion. Whether there is a valid theological objection to women’s’ ordination, that can be researched and discussed, and history can be researched to see if there is any precedent in the early Church or in periods like the 12th century when women were better esteemed. The article I wrote was a follow-on from a previous one about Continuing Anglicanism. One of the foundational tenets of the Affirmation of St Louis in 1977 was objection on theological grounds to the ordination of women.

        Would women be more sensitive to liturgy if it were celebrated by women? Perhaps someone could do some research in the Church of England or the American Episcopal Church. The results of some intellectually honest work would be interesting.

        Men and women do things very differently. For example cooking. When a man cooks well, he is very good. Men tend to see the big picture and women tend to see the details, and there would be a wide spectrum between the two. There are few known women composers or artists. That could also be a subject for research. However, the list is impressive – List of female composers.

        These are open questions, but the fact that many Churches do not and will not ordain women for theological reasons has to be respected.

  3. F. David Marriott SSC says:

    The entire ethos of the SSC is based on the ‘slum fathers’: one of the books on my shelf: Ten years in a Portsmouth Slum’ by Fr. Robert Dolling, about his time at St. Agatha’s in Landport, Portsmouth. This also reflects the work undertaken in the East End of London, where the beauty of worship became something to look forward to with great joy, as the only expression of absolute beauty that people might experience in their daily lives.

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