1T was a double nostalgia that took me the other day A to the exhibition of Victorian church art at the Victoria and Albert Museum (admission 30p., closing January 30). The Gothic Revival which dominated ecclesiastical design a century ago was a kind of flashback to the ages of faith before England was separated from the Universal Church : but the Gothic Revival itself now belongs irrevocably to the past.
(To avoid misunderstanding I will explain that in this article I propose to apply the adjective "Roman" to the Church in communion with the See of Peter, and use the adjective "Catholic" to suggest more generally the sacramental view of the Christian religion which that Church was founded by Christ to uphold. You will soon see that the context demands this terminology.)
The Gothic Revival was much more than an aesthetic fashion or antiquarian fad. It was the cultural expression of a particular way of looking at the relationship between God and man. In this sense it was an early, and peculiarly English. foreshadowing of ecumenism. High Anglicans used it to express their belief, or their hope, that the Church of England was still as much a part of the Catholic Church as she had been in the Middl. Ages: Roman Catholics used it to demonstrate that they were the true heirs of St. Edward the Confessor and St. Thomas of Canterbury, and therefore as English as any of their fellow Christians. This did not lead to any coming together of the two ecclesiastical institutions. Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics were trying to occupy the same territory. But they had the same basic attitude to religion. and it was above all a Catholic attitude. What this rivalry did lead to was those individual conversions to Rome, in the wake of the Oxford Movement, which have done so much to offset the Irish element in modern English Roman Catholicism and turn it into a true native product.
Pugin. the first great Gothic Revivalist, was himself a convert to Rome. How such a scholarly genius could have reached the conclusion that pointed arches represented the highest form of Christian architecture is difficult to understand. He missed the truth that the universality of Catholicism can find different expressions north and south of the Alps, and in the nineteenth and fourteenth centuries.
What he did have was a sense of continuity and of worship. It -hurt him that, • in England's medieval churches, the sedilia should be unoccupied and the holy water stoups dry. Ritual ornaments had been destroyed at the Reformation. and he had few models; but his inventive genius did not fail him. Under his influence many Anglican churches were restored to colour and life, and new Roman churches were built like them.
Above all, Puoin and his gifted followers, both Roman and Anglican, believed that it was entirely appropriate that money and human talent should be lavished on the adornment. of God's house. In what we sometimes think of as a materialist age they did their best to revive the spirit that produced York Minster. The spin-off from this was an unexpected gleam of colour in the lives of the poor. The churches were built to the greater glory of God, but there was a reflected light that shone in the darkest slums.
Today, though we are now more affluent, that spirit has been lost. We build churches functionally designed for the purposes of popular worship. We no longer think of them as the precious ointment poured out by Mary Magdalene on the feet of the Saviour.
Ideal church art
In a recent article, through careless writing, I unwittingly gave the impression that I thought that Malta's peculiarity of building great churches was a substitute for other forms of piety. I did not mean that at all, and I hereby apologise to my Maltese fellow-Christians. After my visit to the V. & A. I regret more than ever that we, who are so much richer than the Maltese, have lost this particular aspect of devotion.
The Gothic Revivalists of England were mistaken in imagining that ideal church art could be frozen at one particular point in place and time. They were right, however, in drawing inspiration from the past, and, more especially, from the past of their own country. They saw liturgy as.something whose validity depended on its having grown and changed as slowly as a great oak, and not as something that could be dreamed up suddenly by a handful of clever people at the Vatican.
They wanted to leap across the gulf that separated them from pre-Reformation times. Having done so, it would never have occurred to them to dig a new gulf themselves.
Today the sedilia are again unoccupied, and we find a "president" uncomfortably seated behind a makeshift altar. The ancient antiphony between epistle and gospel, each sung at its proper place, has been replaced by odd bits of Scripture, sometimes meaningless and even unedifying when torn out of their context, read in atrocious English at wobbly lecterns. The sanctuary is no longer set apart for the most sublime act that God has given man to perform, and Pugin's own noble roodscrecn at St. Chad's Cathedral, Birmingham, has been sold as though for firewood.
This is "progress". like the bulldozing of motorways through our lovely countryside. But at the V. & A. it is still possible to recall a time when God's house, being so obviously His, was therefore all the more ours.