The Catholic Church has been lambasted in the past for trig "too baroque", too packed with kitsch, too like "the inside of a pub".
In their own church Anglicans used to denigrate High Church decor as "Murphyite"; Murphyisms occurred all over the East End of London in the High Church parishes: There was sense in this, because the display of the High Church was designed to give a thrilling alternative to the pubs and gin palaces where the majority of the population retired to.
All this was a hundred years ago. but it still has a relevance for us today. Perhaps the use of "Murphyism" would nowadays be deemed a bit politically incorrect. In the interest of ecumenism it is better forgotten. But the denigration of the Catholic Church in this country still continues.
And it is certainly not the case that the Irish content of, or influence on, Catholicism in this country has the monopoly of bad taste. excess or sentimentality. This rather gross misappreciation of the truth seems largely to have been put to rest by the "sane" reordering of the insides of our Catholic churches in this country which followed after the Second Vatican Council.
"Simplification, simplification, simplification. Too many saints, too many pictures, too many images; simplify them. Get rid— of what? All? The majority? Some? Paint the whole interior one chosen colour — say bright blue, for
instance: so bright. SO serene, so stimulating, so reassuring. And carpets. Let's have a field day on carpets. Lovely things, carpets."
This last (imagined) quotation is not far from the truth in many Catholic churches in England. Some of the Catholic interiors are of dismaying ugliness. Re-decorated with the most sincere intentions, but all the real instinct for decoration (dirty word now, that) and for aesthetic unity and for the sheer joie-de-vivre that used to invest churches — all that gone. Music, too, has been transmuted to banal concessions of embarrassment to the ear in order to "popularise" It is popularism, without the wholehearted gusto of "pop". There are very few hymns that everyone knows instinctively, and sings with gusto and passion. The Catholic ones of the 19th Century by Faber. Lingard and so on, and the Church of England ones and the Methodist ones of the 17th and 18th centuries. These are all memorable and beautiful when sung well. But of' any authentic Catholic chant, let alone the beauty of the Orthodox part-singing there is no trace.
Surely it is time to admit that, from the point of view of aesthetics, the Catholic Church, certainly in this country, has lost all sense of continuity and conviction between its present activities and the past — and also the connection between the rhythms of secular life and the expressive language, such as it is, of the Church's self-knowledge.
I do not imply by that, that the liturgy is in itself defective. But the carapace, so to speak, of presentation, expression, and historical continuity has been badly ruptured. By historical continuity I don't merely mean the reference backwards in time, highly important though that is; no,1 mean the impact of something of such quality and appropriateness that the members of the Church of the future will preserve it as a treasure able fully, though "old", to support the depositor?? fidei. But of this sort of inventive visual and aural support for the liturgy I do not see any evidence; not a trace.
hat has happened is that the general patterns of culture in society have veered off at an angle previously inconceivable. That was understood by the late Cardinal Hume when he noted that the shopping mall had largely taken the place of church in England's experience and appreciation of Sunday. There seems no gratification save debt. In the past the Church provided the aesthetic substance that human nature craves and thrives on. Each week, as in large parts of Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Spain, Portugal and Italy today, this authentic craving for beauty and wonder was supplied by daily Mass attendance and participation in the sung liturgy.
I remember at Oberammergau, some 50 years ago, the whole village turned out for 8.00 am Mass on Sunday with upwards of 30 fiddles, 10 violas and three or five "cellos in the choir loft". Everyone in the Tyrol in those days played the violin; taught as children of 10, by their parents, they were proficient by the age of 15 or 16. The playing of the violin was so universal that even Arnold S c hw arzene gger, born not far from the Tyrol, was photographed playing the fiddle– stripped to the waist, it goes without saying.
We begin to realise that the Church cannot forge its own aesthetic experience. To be authentic and relevant to the society it finds itself in, something from that society must be found and used in a positive way.
We're told that there are no less than 70,000 art students in England today. 70,000 in higher education, studying the arts, either history, or craft, or decoration, or painting, sculp ture and graphic media — to say nothing of television and the media in general. And that does not include students studying architecture. There is, unfortunately, no tangible evidence that their activities are in any way fruitful, either in the improvement of general design in our homes and our environment, or in our public buildings, or in our offices.
And, come to think of it, where on earth are 70,000 art students going to find something to do? I am not sure how many music students there are — probably a quarter of that — and what will become of' them too? As it is much of the art activity so stimulated and subsidised (at least at the training stage) by educational authorities and Government, will doubtless be disposed on the air of England's natural and irremovable philistinism. But why has all that money been spent?
Why should not each diocese have an art-scout or two, not necessarily the clergy, for the possibility of employing some of this potential talent? As it is, why leave such a delicate matter to the clergy? They've got enough to do. Surely there is someone in these 70,000 who would prove a good artist with a willing ear inclined to the needs of the Church?
Or even two, or possibly three. But how to find such? That is the difficulty. We should all pray that the Church might begin to regain its senses.