Old churches

How can a modern agnostic (like me) love old churches? Well, it’s simple, really. Christianity takes credit for them, but Christianity didn’t build them. They were built by people, as expressions of their own creativity and labour . They were built as churches because that was virtually the only form available to their builders at the time. Religion was a secondary factor.

Creativity is a fundamental characteristic of humankind, distinguishing us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Which other animal, apart possibly from a few closely-related primates, arranges its environment not only for convenience, but also for visual effect? It may also be the quality bringing humanity closest to – possibly to the extent of identifying it collectively with – the entity that religious people call ‘God’: the Creator. That’s too big a question for me. But every human person is creative. This can be expressed in many ways: gardening (so long as it’s not just for food), cooking, home decoration, hobbies – or blogs like this. That satisfies most of us. But if you want to express your creativity on a more grandiose level, you require patronage; which can only come from the powerful.

In the middle ages the powerful people were the priesthood and aristocracy; which meant that if you wanted to build big you could only build palaces, castles – or churches. The same applied to musicians, both then and later on. Almost every large-scale musical composition, up to the end of the eighteenth century at the earliest, was either a liturgical work for the priesthood, like a mass, or an opera or symphony, for a rich patron. Some composers and architects (or master-masons) were also devout Christians (Haydn, Bruckner among composers); others weren’t (Mozart, Beethoven). It made no difference. Their faith was incidental. It might determine the form the building or musical composition took: a cruciform church, for example, or the liturgy of the Mass; but little more. Beyond that, their styles and qualities depended, entirely, on the very human genius of their creators. In this way, whatever their patrons liked to think, they are more expressions or celebrations of humanity, than of the ideologies of those old bishops and kings.

In the Middle Ages in the European countryside and small towns, churches were almost the only way that builders and architects could express their highest creative impulses: higher, that is, than mere utility. (Town halls came second.) They also had other ‘latent’ social functions, which might be more acceptable to democrats: for example as meeting places, and expressions of local identity and pride. Even in these (thankfully) faithless days, the parish church is the natural epicentre of any English or French village, certainly visually, with most of them boasting western towers and spires; and the only building in which you can expect to see and hear beautiful things, or ‘art’. Take away the church from any village or small town, or the cathedral from any ancient city, and you will be left with a ‘settlement’, merely; and probably a lot of people all the poorer for not having an adequate expression of their (human) race’s natural creativity nearby. It’s a great shame that our modern age has no real equivalent. (Postmodern supermarkets?)

There’s a passage in EM Forster’s Room with a View where the radical son of one of the characters expresses his distaste for an Italian cathedral they’re visiting on ideological grounds – wasn’t it an expression of Papist superstition and tyranny? – to be answered by his father along similar lines to these. You don’t have to be a conservative to love old churches. There’s a powerful democratic argument for them, too.

Lastly, William Morris, Britain’s greatest Marxist writer – though remembered now mainly for his wallpapers, which is demeaning – also admired mediaeval church architecture. I rest my case.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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