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Debate: Is it important for churches to be beautiful?

Or is an obsession with beauty immoral?

By on Thursday, 7 April 2011

St Andrew's Cathedral in Glasgow will be consecrated on Sunday

St Andrew's Cathedral in Glasgow will be consecrated on Sunday

This weekend St Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow will be re-opened after the biggest renovation and redecoration in its 200-year history. Before it looked tatty; now it looks beautiful. The work cost £4.5 million.

In the 1970s the then Archbishop of Glasgow, Cardinal Thomas Winning, had plans drawn up to build a new cathedral, but decided to spend the money on social causes instead.

His successor, Archbishop Mario Conti, says a church should be “worthy of its purpose”. It serves the glory of God and so should be built and designed to reflect that.

Cardinal Basil Hume, the late Archbishop of Westminster, had a similar idea. He once wrote: “In the worship of God nothing but the best is ever good enough… God speaks to us through beauty, and beauty is the correct language to use when we speak to God.” Yet he did not spend much money on Westminster Cathedral.

Some may argue that the Catholic Church, or at least parts of it, has lost a sense of beauty in recent decades – beauty in its art, buildings and liturgy. In 2008 Pope Benedict XVI spoke of an “urgent need” to reconnect beauty, truth and goodness.

On the other hand, is it immoral to get carried away with beautiful things when so many basic human needs are left unmet? Many people would feel that diverting money from disaster relief or homeless charities, say, in order to decorate a building would be wrong.

So, is it important for churches to be beautiful? Or is an obsession with beauty immoral?

  • Mark

    I would say it is important for churches to be beautiful, and I agree with Cardinal Hume’s reasoning. Beauty elevates the soul.

    But I disagree with the statement that the financial side is a case of either/or. Why not and/and? Money for important social causes and for architecture and liturgy? Provided, of course, that a given diocese has a healthy financial household at its disposal.

  • Anonymous

    The great lie!

    Remember the tale of St Lawrence – The Roman Prefect demanded possession of the treasures of the Church and St Lawrence presented the leper, the beggar , the orphan, the widow….

    Whoever wrote this article needs to be beaten about the head with every volume of von Bathasar’s ‘Glory of the Lord’ !

    Beauty doesn’t require money – but if money is going to be spent it must be on beautiful, reverent and inspirationally symbolic reflections of the Divine Order…

    It’s not that Churches should be beautiful – for it’s obvious that they should be – yet beauty can be pretty cheap and minimalist – liturgical and architectural drama doesn’t need to be ostentatious or baroquely grotesque.

    The main problem is the larcenously expensive ugliness…Take a look at the catalogues for Church furniture and vestments – obscenely overpriiced and scandalously offensive in designs and almost defiant disrespect…candlelight robbery!

    How many tens, if not hundreds of millions of pounds were squandered on the modernist obscenities which now haunt and tyrannise our Churches throughout the land? How much destruction of our sacred altars and statues – we made Henry VIII and cromwell look like amateurs in their desecration….

    So yet again on these Herald ‘debate’ questions – a false premise is being presented – it is not one nor the other – that is a lie – some of the most simple, basic Churches can be beautiful, some of the most ostentatious and opulent be the most vulgar and ugly…

    It never was an either/or – we had significantly more funds in the seventies with which we could have both helped the socially deprived AND beautify our Churches – WE DID NEITHER!!!! We systemically ignored our neighbour under the grotesque ‘pastoral ministry – let the people come unto me’ paradigm and destroyed the already-present beauty.within our glorious churches of old.

  • Anonymous

    Cardinal Basil Hume was right when he said that “In the worship of God nothing but the best is ever good enough…”

    I believe that the concept of making churches beautiful goes hand in hand with the smell of the incense, the ringing bells, the colours in the vestments, the sound of the choir or organ. The catholic church at its very best provides us with stimulus of ALL the senses including sight, sound and smell that lifts the soul up to God. When we go into a church and there is no art work or stained glass then we are being deprived of one of these crucial senses. The saddest thing in a church is when incense is not used. Once again we are being deprived of a stimulus to help us lift the soul heavenward.

    This wholesale deprivation has been about by two factors, primarily the reformation and more recently the erroneous liberal interpretation of Vatican II. Let us not forget that pre-reformation many Anglican churches would have been considerably more colourful before they were striped away by Henry and Cromwell. I find it ironic now that it is actually Anglican churches that are actually bringing some of this beauty back.

    It is not immoral to have beauty in our Church. We should be striving to bring all the sacramental senses back. Are there no modern day artists who wish to be immortalised in their local church for something of great beauty? One great example I give is the recent work of James Gillick and his brother Gabriel who designed the stained glass windows for St. Mary’s Louth which are truly glorious.

  • Anonymous

    Archbishop Conti used about £4.5 million – over 80% from bequests, donations and legacies – this is a mere drop in the ocean compared with the larcenous profligacy of Bishops Conferences and Quangos – and it was utilised for a specific purpose – The greater glory of God and the future worship of the Faithful – has any good ever come from a Bishops Conference?
    Cardinal Winning instead chose to delay the project to fund REAL social needs rather than Conference committees and initiatives where there’s a lot of handwringing and idealistic posturing – but nothing is ever done – Cardinal Winning did differently – one of these must be accentuated – the Winning project which has saved hundreds, if not thousands by example, of unborn lives….A phenomena which brings tears to the eyes and makes the soul sing and proud to be a Catholic.

    Both Clerics in these regards have served the Church well.

  • Ratbag

    Why shouldn’t our Catholic Churches look beautiful? Whose house is it anyway?

    Wouldn’t you want your own home to be clean, well maintained and pleasing to the eye? Would you go into a shop, for example, that looks less than clean and inviting?

    I, for one, love plenty of colours that are so prevelant in old churches, whether through stained glass or artwork. It draws you in and makes you feel you are in someone’s home – God’s! The Holy Name of Jesus on Oxford Road in Manchester is breathtakingly beautiful, as is any church designed by Pugin – or by another architect worth his or her salt. Don’t forget that they are making an offering to God Himself through their skill and talent. Manchester’s Hidden Gem (St Mary’s Mulberry Street) is what it says on the tin – a gem!

    Sadly, there are churches that make even a dentist’s surgery look less depressing. There was one church that looked beautiful when it was first built (I saw the old photos in its anniversary brochure) – then someone (presumably a priest) decided to go bananas with wood panelling, wooden this, wooden that… so much so that one parish priest said that the church resembled one big coffin!

    … one more thing. The tabernacle belongs in the centre of the altar, not on one side or the other. That would make the biggest difference of all!

  • Robertaljoseph

    Both needs should be met – both are designed and required by God. For the beauty just look at His directions for both the Tent of the Covenant and the Temple in Jerusalem. At the very same time food and money was to be spent on the for. It is both/and – not either/or and we see this in God’s direct revelation in the Word

  • Elias

    One problem is that Christian’s have a poor understanding of what beauty actually is. Our individualistic culture values beauty only as a subjective thing, something ‘in the eye of the beholder’. Christian culture said something different, and the first Christian culture – the Byzantine – brought to birth not just Christian themes but a form of art rooted in it: iconography. Indeed, the seventh ecumenical Council presented a profound understanding of Christian art as a Christological reality. Sadly, few clergy, let alone architects and artists, have the faintest idea or understanding of these fundamental roots and all manner of inappropriate work is produced, even if some of it is beautiful, it isn’t intrinsic to the liturgical context it serves. I wonder how many seminaries concentrate as much time and effort on teaching liturgical art as on rubrics and ritual? In most diocese in my experience the oversight of Church architecture and art is in the hands of well meaning but largely uninformed individuals who have perhaps a sense of good taste, but little depth of understanding about liturgical art. Without the right understanding of the Truth about how art relates to Christ as the Tradition of the Church has come to understand it, how on earth can we expect to build churches which satisfy the soul at a deep, and largely unconscious level?

  • Jeannine

    “So, is it important for churches to be beautiful?”

    The answer is a 1 word, no-brainer———–> YES!

    And we should be obsessed to give our best to God.

  • Joel Pinheiro

    Having a place of worship that inspires the faithful instead of turning them away from faith IS a basic need.

  • george kalappura

    the beauty of the church is in the sanctity of its members wich is a light shining

  • Ken Purdie

    I do hope he replaced the awful little postage stamp of an altar!

  • AgingPapist

    Too many churches in America built since 1970, and many before that date too,are about as inviting and spiritually uplifting as a public restroom. A concrete bunker more closely resembling a “Walmart” or “Target” store. Many complete with butcher block or ironing board altars, terrible infantile banners hanging from the ceiling, ugly vestments of synthetic fabrics, worn by philistines celebrating mass for other philistines who wouldn’t know any better.

    There will be no improvement in beautifying churches on a broad scale until Catholics have recaptured a sense of the sacred, the sacredness of liturgical actions, language, music etc., and returned to erecting “sanctuaries” not “worship centers”. By all means let us see a return to the smells and bells, lots of candelabra, flickering sanctuary lamps, and restore the choir or rood screen, together with the Sarum rite custom of veiling the entire sanctuary during Lent (the Lenten array). Icons, statues, and choir stalls should be brought back in great abundance.

    The Anglican Ordinariate will awaken in Catholics the desire to worship the” beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty” again. Inspiring the Church to throw out the ugliness of the 1960s and 70s concrete bunkers and brick monstrosities which sprang up in these years. How can Catholics who wish to see the great gems of medieval architecture returned to Rome someday, justify such a return when they haven’t been very successful in achieving beauty in the Catholic Church since Vatican II? Tasteless priests, liturgy committees, and bishops have been more destructive than Richard Cromwell or the reformers ever were. Perhaps, Parliament should just retain these gems and protect them for the use of the CofE. The same for Anglican churches in America.

    On another matter, I have no objection to the people standing close to the altar. In fact, many a church would be far more impressive with few pews and congregants crowding around the chancel screen as was common in the basilicas of old. Perhaps, pews could be placed along the walls for the elderly and the infirm.

  • AgingPapist

    Elias, Don’t forget we have a generation of architects in America (I can’t speak for the UK) who know nothing about religious architecture and their churches prove it. Unfortunately, the selection of these firms to build “worship centers” tells you volumes about the lack of education and training in the sacred arts in seminaries too. As for the parish liturgical committees,with few exceptions,very disheartening, hopeless!!!

  • AgingPapist

    the beauty of the church is in the sanctity of its members wich is a light shining

    Then, if the appearance of so many of today’s parishes is a reflection of that sanctity, it appears a lot of work is needed in that department to restore the shining light.

  • AgingPapist

    “For the beauty just look at His directions for both the Tent of the Covenant and the Temple in Jerusalem.”

    Correct. I would add, the Byzantine church has NEVER lost sight of those directions when constructing a church. High time the west took those same directions to heart too.

  • A Asomugha

    the church ought to be beautiful. as humans we move with the environment and the environment speaks to us. a beautiful church properly adorned would remind us of the glory of Heaven – (as the bible constantly uses beautiful imagery), as well as helping us to contemplate more easily the Beauty of God.
    culture is very important -and proper building is a very important aspect of liturgical culture.

  • AgingPapist

    Yes, with important images dramatized within the church building: the womb (in the early Church representing the special abode for images of the Virgin Mary), the tabernacle in the desert, the Shakinah and Pillar of Fire associated with the place of eucharistic reservation, the image of Moses speaking to the Burning Bush; the edge of the sanctuary where the altar rail in a sense is symbolic of the old dispensation, set off with a pair of menorahs (Brompton Oratory has done this with powerful effect), and other illustrations of the importance of the Mosaic law.

    Then the ciborium magnum needs to return in a big way sybolizing the Holy of Holies. The veiling of the sanctuary or the altar at certain points in the liturgy, particularly during Lent, to illustrate the natural world separated from the divine realm. Unfortunately, the destructive power of the Council of Trent de-emphasized this once widespread veiling and threw the sanctuary open. Thus, destroying that important element of mystery. The rood screen too started to disapppear because of Trent.

    While the traditionalists and advocates of museum piece liturgy tell us Vatican II resulted in “wreckovations”??? That’s a laugh. The list is endless.

  • AgingPapist

    lol lol we have thousands of them in the U.S.

  • salvemaria

    Priviliged to be among those celebrating the splendidly restored St Andrew’s Cathedral, with beautiful music and song, in radiant, majestic surroundings and in the honourable company of the Archbishop Conti, the First Minister Alex Salmond, artist Peter Howsen et al, one felt like a crusader in the ranks of the Counter-Revolution vanguard as it struck a perilous blow to the rebellion, which is ‘the Culture of Ugliness’.

    If this is what can be done with a “chapel”, as the night’s performers informed us, how blazingly resplendent could we transform the long-lost St Mungo’s Cathedral up the road, if ever it were returned?