The Oxford Summer Studies program was held this year at Cardinal Newman’s College in Littlemore, a village in the Oxford suburbs in which Newman built the original Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas in 1836 and to which he retired in 1842. The College in Littlemore was originally a post house, then Cardinal Newman’s college, and finally, in the 1990s, became the home of The Work, an order whose members, mostly Dutch, German, and Austrian, now manage the college as a shrine and conference center. And of course being in England gave me an opportunity to spend two peaceable days at Walsingham.
The Slipper Chapel, the tiny fifteenth-century Gothic chapel where pilgrims took off their shoes so as to walk the last mile into Walsingham barefoot, is really in Houghton St. Giles, a hamlet the center of which is perhaps a quarter mile south of the Slipper Chapel, and in it is a fourteenth-century church, Church of England now for five hundred years. The great treasure of St. Giles is a rood screen that escaped the destruction of the Edwardian iconoclasts in the 1550s and the Cromwellians in the 1640s. But it did not escape entirely, for the panels in the rood screen wainscoting depict on the left of the chancel gate painted figures of female saints and their children and on the right the doctors of the church. One can be lost in wonder at their beauty until one notices that the face of every saint has been roughly and thoroughly gouged away.
Why, one may wonder, did some inhabitant of Houghton St. Giles hate the saints? This hatred was not particularly English. The churches in the Spanish Netherlands were despoiled in a three-day rampage in 1566, and this was emblematic of Europe. God must not be incarnate. The classical iconoclasm or image-breaking of the ninth century had espoused the principle that God Incarnate, Christ the Lord, could not be represented in time and place, a theme taken up by the Edwardians, who called holy images and roods idols and burned them.
But I suspect that their hatred of the images of Christ and the saints ran deeper. The Incarnation, when it is more than a romantic doctrine of God’s presence in everything, is troubling and intrusive. Catholics bring God too near. He is here on the altar, Body and Blood, the Christ Himself. He is here in the confessional helping me to become holy. The insistence of the Reformed that men must have immediate access to God becomes, paradoxically, a means of pushing God out of life, keeping Him at arm’s length, so that the more Calvinists emphasized the majestic otherness of the Lord, the less the Lord has to do with the day-to-day decisions that make up the moral life of the soul. For centuries the saints have been all around us, one great company. They pray for us because to be a saint is to be full of love, and we reverence them, one family. In the sixteenth century it became important that man face God alone, without the intercession of the saints, without our prayers for the departed, and without the prayers of the saints for us. Thus the saints of Houghton St. Giles must be faceless.
Alas, in the village of Walsingham there is another kind of iconoclasm, for the diocese has built a new church hard by the pilgrimage center. The old church had been at best ordinary. It invited the thought that perhaps it had originally been a war-time temporary building, but over the years decent statues had been collected and the little church was hallowed by prayer. Its design, such as it was, was traditional, laid out along an axis defining a path to God’s altar, a place of prayer. The new church is a theater in the round with that characteristic feature of modernity, a design that is intended to establish an affective relation between the priest and his congregation while saying little or nothing of the Majesty on high. In a subtle way the new church in Walsingham village distorts the path to God as surely as does the desecrated chancel screen at St. Giles.
The meaning of architecture, the texture of affirmations established by design, is more subtle than that of any other art. It is easy to see that the subject of poetry is life; the subject of painting is the visible world. Susanne Langer calls the subject of architecture ethical domain, a pattern of activity, it being the purpose of architecture to image this pattern in three dimensional spaces. What the old Walsingham church said was “God is here.” What the new church says is “We are here,” an iconoclasm more subtle but no less damaging than the erasing of the saints’ faces at Houghton St. Giles.
Churchill famously wrote that we first shape our buildings, then they shape us. The quality of the liturgy offered to God in the Roman Catholic churches is not everywhere the same, but too often the ethical domain thus defined is characterized by a heart-breaking ordinariness that borders on the vulgar. One can sympathize with the sentiment Evelyn Waugh expressed in a letter he wrote just days before his sudden death on 10 April 1966: “I now cling to the faith doggedly without joy. Church going is a pure duty parade. I shall not live to see it restored.” Or only in few places and with much heroic effort.