By Thomas Rock
IT IS COMMONPLACE in Catholic writing these days to describe the mid1960s as a Period of Transition, from preto postVatican H. Which, indeed, it patently is. Re-think and implementation are visibly and extensively taking place. Determination to be "with it"—in the best sense of the cliche' is evident in many spheres.
It is also assumed by the more sanguine observers, in moments of euphoria, that the movement a quo ad quern has been widely and enthusiastically endorsed, and is proceeding rapidly and smoothly. Give or take a decade or so, and we will have reached the millennium en bloc.
But is such manic optimism justified? Are we really witnessing full-blooded commitment, say, to new emphases in ecclesiology and worship?
A glance at the current issue of a well-known annual review of Catholic churchbuilding in Britain is a sobering exercise. It makes one pause—to wonder if some of us. clients especially, are not also living in a Period of Hesitancy with a certain amount of Incomprehension thrown in.
There are. of course, outstanding exceptions. Nonetheless, not a few of the buildings erected in the past year betray only a faint-hearted attempt to penetrate and express the insights of conciliar declarations on Church and Liturgy. And the 50-year-old modern architectural movement, to boot.
For at least a sizeable minority of Britain's churchbuilders, Jungmann and Crichton, Schwarz and Hammond (to name but a few), might never have put pen to paper to enlighten and guide client and designer.
If the 1966 review is a fair indication. then conceptions in some instances of "what a church is for"—surely basicpre-date Vatican II by a considerable number of years. Nostalgia and romantic preoccupation with styles and forms of another age emerge from page after page. The ghosts of Victorian revivalism and medieval 'chancel liturgy' still, apparently, stalk the land and remain to be exorcised, Expecting an affirmative reply, Pere J. Gelincau, S.J., asks: "Is it possible, upon entering a church, to imagine forthwith from its disposition, the living assembly, in the act of common prayer under the presidency of its pastor, in the act of listening and response to the Word of God, in the Eucharistic action around the altar, in communion with the Lord's table, and in the act of welcoming new-born partakers of the Holy Spirit in Baptism?"
Many of last year's churches merit a thundering "yes." They "come off" as meaningful and sensitively-planned centres of Word and Sacraments, and as valid symbols of the Servant Church's renewed understanding of its communal nature and its mission in the world of today.
Two have been deservedly commended in the past month by the Civic Trust for being "both undemonstrative and exceptionally restrained" and for "achieving a humility not inappropriate in a Christian building."
Others fare less well on priorities, and on the disposition of their A's. B's, C's and F's. Inadequate grasp of function. and lack of courage and conviction reveal themselves in one project after another.
Works of "art", with little or no relation to sacramental action and sacrificial-meal, intrude and distract. Altars, dwarfed on occasion by overwhelming reredos tapestry and "decoration", move out timorously. from east end walls on traditional rectangular ground plans, with an air of reluctance and regret. Ambos, • innocent of the importance of the Word in the liturgical action, wander about the place—unrelated and unintegrated.
Baptismal fonts, usually of the "bird bath" variety, sit rootlessly and insignificantly in west end corner, or sealed off in narthex, devoid of symbolism and with an air of afterthought. Congregations remain encased, cramped and isolated in rigid blocks somewhere in between. And as for the siting of Choirs and Consoles . .
Fr. Jungmann reminds us that: "The new-found sense of the Church, one of the most welcome aspects of the contemporary religious revival,' carries with it the recognition that the Church, gathered together and held together by the Eucharist. is not a vague, shadowy reality beyond time, but is the empirical Church here and now. drawn from this world, grouped around this altar, made up of men and women of all classes and ages. And this multitude of people, assembled to celebrate the Eucharist, is not raised above the earthly world into a sphere which has nothing to do with everyday cares . . ."
Over-emphasis on transcendence can so diminish imminence as to add up to a denial of the Incarnation. It scarcely needs to be stressed that for the churchbuilder "this world" means "this world in which we live" and not the secular environment of Christians of a former century — neither fourth, sixteenth, nineteenth, nor any other.
As custom would have it, inadequate and ill-conceived churches of the past have brought down contumely on the head of the unfortunate architect and sympathy for the priest-client as the recipient of "a raw deal." But members of the architectural profession have recently and rightly refused to accept all the blame.
Of late. Prof, Wilfred Cantwell, president of the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland, has put his finger on two vital points: (a) "most Christian architects, like most laymen, have only a hazy intellectual grasp of religion and consequently will fail to appreciate the importance of many factors unless their attention is drawn to therm" And (b) "in any building project it is the client's duty to prepare a thorough brief, and if this is well done, he need not interfere with the architect's application of expert knowledge in solving the problems posed by the brief."
Drawing on his experience, this distinguished designer feels that the lack of a thorough brief "is the principal cause of so many inadequacies in our churches." Fair enough. So, ultimately, the onus of securing the best that money can buy rests squarely on the shoulders of the priest-client.
But let's be realistic. Is it reasonable for diocesan authorities to expect a busy parish priest to undertake this enormously important and time-consuming task — unadvised and unaided? Is it even wise? There is so much more to effective pastoral planning in the 60's than a simple request to "put up a building for X pounds to seat 500" plus a bingo-pools drive to meet the bill.
Situation, size, life-span, etc. —considerations now left, more often than not, to the prophetic powers of the current pastor — are increasingly vital factors in this highly mobile society of ours. Preliminary sociological surveys of the concrete pastoral situation, commonplace on the Continent, are becoming more and more desirable.
Again, the involvement of the whole parish community in the programme processing of their church is ceasing to be an optional extra. It has been tried with success by two enterprising Anglican and one Nonconformist parishes in the Midlands. Reports on the experiments are to hand and can be studied.
All these and many other considerations reinforce the recent recommendation of the Diocese of Chichester Buildings Study Group that a Pastoral Planning Officer, au fait with problems liturgical, parochial and architectural, and in constant touch with civic planning authorities, should find a desk in diocesan administration. Alongside chairmen of Schools Commissions.
To recap: on diocesan scale hundreds of thousands of pounds are involved in churchbuilding. Financial resources are limited and precious. We need far-sighted policies and directives. Clients (priest-andpeople) and architects have a straight-forward task to perform. To serve the Liturgy— and nothing else. God's Church today is not truly symbolised by exhibitionism or extravaganza.
*Fr. Rock is a student at the post graduate Institute' for the Study of Worship and Religious Architecture, University of Birmingham.