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Beauty is not enough for the Church

The National Churches Trust question about the nation’s favourite churches says much

By on Wednesday, 17 July 2013

St Bridesæ a beautiful church

St Bridesæ a beautiful church

The National Churches Trust is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary and has asked 60 leading public figures, including the Prime Minister, to nominate their favourite churches. This is of interest in itself – you can see the whole thing here  - but it also gives us a snapshot of just how sixty random people feel about religion.

Many of the people who name favourite churches are people who have never been Christian, such as Ed Miliband (who is the only one, as far as I can see, who manages a joke), and Alain de Botton, so it is not suprising that their choices are largely to do with aesthetics or some sentimental association. There is nothing wrong with good taste, and it is nice to know that Joanna Lumley loves St Bride’s in Fleet Street, though it is important to remember that good taste is not a substitute for faith or morality.

One or two of the celebrities, and it is only one or two, actually make some theological points. Two Catholics, Alex Polizzi and James MacMillan, nominate churches because they are the churches in which they have received the sacraments, but Bear Grylls, an Anglican has this to say:

“This is my favourite because a church is made beautiful by the people inside and this church is full of normal, hard working but humble people who know their need for God’s help.”

His choice is Holy Trinity, Kensington, better known as Holy Trinity Brompton, or simply HTB. Bear Grylls, among his many other achievements, is something of a theologian as well. Kudos to him.

Also revealing theological depths is Eamon Holmes, who has this to say about Saint Patrick’s in Belfast:

“This is the Parish Church of my family and extended family. I was baptised here in 1959, and my father’s funeral service was from here – as will mine be.”

These words reveal a sense of identity and belonging, which is not specifically religious, but without which faith would be difficult; and then it goes on to reveal a sense of personal destiny: the God who calls us at the start of our lives will gather us in at the end of them, and both in the same building, a sacred space in which we encounter the divine.

I do care about Church architecture, and I am glad that the 60 people here seem sensitive to architectural beauty. But beauty itself is not enough; and likewise that some churches are socially involved in community life, to which many refer, is, of itself, not enough. A church to be a church must be a place of encounter with God. If it is beautiful it may help faciliate that encounter, but it does not have to be so.

What is discouraging about so many of the opinions expressed here is that they stop at the beautiful, but do not go beyond it; they stop at the social concern, but do not go beyond it. There is more to every church that the building and the coffee mornings. The structures are there, but the reason for the structures seems to have been forgotten. May God, who calls each one, give us back our faith! And may the Church proclaim the Triune God! For without Him no church building would ever have been built.

  • Tom_mcewen

    Where I live there was scientific atheism and there was no beauty, When God is outlawed, then beauty is also outlawed, because it is God and comes from God. An Atheist would say we are our DNA so beauty is encoded in the DNA, so why was there no beauty? The DNA is the same, an Atheist can produce just as much beauty as a medieval stone mason. But it did not happen. Beauty is subjective not empirical as I understand empirical, so why does beauty exist. For me, the answer to atheists, more then their cruel treatment of people, their gun in the forehead, their destruction of the church was the lack of creation of beauty.

  • NatChurchTrust

    We have also tried to include a representation of church leaders including from the Catholic, Anglican, Quaker, Baptist Christian denominations.. Many churches or chapels they have chosen have a connection with vocation and priesthood. The choice of Archbishop Nichols reflects this

    We’d very much like to hear from people as to their choice of favourite church

  • Guest

    My family fled as refugees from a country which is still communist and I have lived in East Berlin, so I get some of what you are saying. But then I listen to Verdi or go see Monet’s paintings and certainly find beauty there.

  • Guest

    It’s stereotypical for TLMs to be confined to the most remote or run-down parts of dioceses. I have been to one such Mass in a building whose decor put me in mind of a public swimming baths. Because it was the same Mass of ages I still felt in contact with the universal Church both past and present. The building, therefore, did not matter, but if the funds are there it is always desirable to make the best offering to God that one reasonably can.

  • Agniezca

    Why do you have a problem with beauty, Fr?
    Was iT too much” beauty” that caused the homosexual scandals in the church?
    Don`t you think it would be more valuable for the church and her faithful to address :
    HOMOHERESY( please see Fr Oko`s articloe on this)

  • $24570317

    Even in the Communist days there was a Catholic cathedral (with the large and lowish green/copper dome) in East Berlin – always open and always with people in it. The Vopos (Volkspolizei) would happily give you directions to it.

  • Guest

    St. Hedwig’s. That’s just good Kirchenpolitik, comrade. But I don’t understand your point?

  • Julian Lord

    He’s desperately trying to reconcile his Marxist beliefs with his so-called “catholicism”.

  • Jade

    Exactly my thoughts… The only one out of 60 people who doesn’t talk about beautiful architecture is Bear Grylls. He seems to understand the biblical NT meaning of ‘church’, which is that Christians ARE the church.

    It’s sad that the majority of these people don’t link God/faith to the church anymore. They only talk about the buildings itself, youth memories and sacramental stuff, but there is no mention of God at all (with exception of -again- Bear Grylls, good on him!). Not even by vicars and archbishops among this list, how sad is this?! May all one day declare that Jesus is Lord.

    Btw, I wouldn’t call Bear an Anglican, but Evangelical. HTB church is not very traditional in its worship :-)

  • Simon James Perry

    On the contrary Beauty is certainly enough for the Church. The problem is that we have such a debased understanding of beauty in both the modern world and the church. For the ancients beauty and truth were synonymous. I think we need to recapture something of this understanding. In the West I can think of no greater writer on aesthetic things than Hans Urs Von Balthassar. I am convinced that without a true recovery of the concept of Beauty we will never recover as a society. The blame cannot simply be laid at the door of Atheism, Christians are responsible too.