'Re-ordered' and 'new' churches - symptoms of a wider spiritual malaise

'Re-ordered' and 'new' churches - symptoms of a wider spiritual malaise

Marie Cassey

In recent decades - up to the present day - the splendid architectural tradition embodied in Sydney churches, such as St Mary's Cathedral and St Patrick's, Church Hill, has been progressively eroded.

Many new churches continue to be designed in a very different way, with plain slabs of wood and stone, large empty spaces, a central butcher's block "altar", and no recognisable faces or figures on the walls, plinths, or in niches (indeed, there are no plinths or niches to speak of!)

The cherished, familiar images of saints and martyrs, even Jesus on His cross, have inexorably made way for symbols designed to distil the essence of the religious experience into simple, contemporary terms - a tree, a vine, a geometric star shape or a cruciform piece of wood. But without our Saviour depicted upon it, no cross can convey the enormity of the sacrifice, or the overwhelming love it took to make it.

Those of us who have grown up in the tradition of a sacred worshipping place, encompassing ecclesiastical art as expressed through statues, Stations of the Cross, stained glass windows, carved wood and marble - may grasp the significance behind the stripped facades and unfamiliar symbols.

But what of our children, and our children's children, who lack a background to their Faith of a deep sense of reverence and the sacred atmosphere fostered by the traditional-style church, with its rich legacy of religious art and revered objects?

What sort of disservice will this do to their sense of the sacred? Will they gain from the pared-down, sterile space of many of the "new" churches, the same sense of soul-soothing calm and comfort obtained by a visit to the Blessed Sacrament where the tabernacle occupies a position of prominence in the sanctuary? If they never experience such spiritual replenishment, we will have severely deprived them.

Perhaps more disturbing than the appearance of the new genre in church art and architecture has been the wilful destruction of old icons, removed to make way for less valuable - historically or artistically - modern substitutes, despite the lack of any legitimate Church mandate for such action.

The tinted vine that decorates the plain glass panels of a recently erected church may well suggest to the lay viewer the fruitfulness of Mother Church; or represent the sacramental wine, the Blood of Christ, a parable, even, in these days, the environmental conscience of Catholicism. Who can be sure? Without some explanation, it is an obscure message.

There was no mistaking the stained glass windows of old: the Last Supper, the Madonna and Child, the Good Shepherd, the twelve Apostles, St John baptising Jesus - no hidden agendas here with their meaning as clear as the jewel-coloured glass with which they were crafted.

That a technique such as stained glass, which has changed little since the 12th century monk, Theophilus, described it in his Book of Various Arts, should reach glorious peaks in churches around the world, only to founder in this day and age in our churches, is surely an indictment of those responsible.

Our problems seem to be the "ism" of the modern age - minimalism, symbolism, counter-traditionalism. Realism is out, symbolism is here to stay. If you like and can understand what you are looking at, then by new standards, it is quite unsuitable for use in a church. Hence, the church itself should look like anything but a church - a barn, a meeting hall or a hexagon.

No recognisable points of reference within is the follow-up plan: no tabernacle, no altar rails, no Stations of the Cross, no statues, no Christ on the crucifix, no pews in familiar configurations. The list goes on.

Why has the past, and our religious heritage, become such an embarrassment for some? For ours is a religion rooted firmly in the past; and it is this past that we quarry for the foundation stones of our future.

We look back for our teachings and our examples: to the writings of the Apostles and the lives of the saints and martyrs, from which we derive inspiration and instruction for our future. In our past is the celebration of realism and honesty, a blunt Catholic way of calling a spade a spade, and drawing a line between black and white. Is there a "use by" date for these qualities?

Erosion of faith

Christ has always been depicted in statues and paintings, stained glass and mosaics, in a recognisable human way - not as a spreading tree or a shaft of light. Sin has always been called "sin", not known by euphemisms, such as "not being Jesus' friend" or "inappropriate behaviour". The Ten Commandments were taught to all Catholic school children before they received the Sacraments of Eucharist and Penance, with the express purpose of providing them with guidelines for understanding where sin lay. There was Heaven and Hell, fasting before Communion, daily prayer, and even family prayer.

In an age when we decry the lack of faith, the falling numbers of practising laity and priestly vocations, should we not be putting our energies into conserving and preserving Catholicism?

We have seen moves to make the Faith "user-friendly" lead to no gains at all. Relaxing the rules, bending over backwards to accommodate the fringe "semi-faithfuls", has unfortunately been at the expense of the core of the faithful. What will these continuing assaults on our beliefs lead to? How much further erosion can our Faith survive?

The next time you gaze at the crucifix above an altar, or are bathed in the translucent glow of stained glass, consider the spiritual loss were these things to be removed, as well they might.

Yours could be the next church to be "reordered".

Marie Cassey is a Sydney Catholic writer with a particular interest in church design.

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