Monday, November 16, 2009

Why Catholic churches are like shabby department stores


By Damian Thompson

Here’s an article I’ve written in the latest Catholic Herald, about the Church’s desperate need to move away from a culture of mediocrity and “making do”:

Recently I attended a Catholic service in a church, and a diocese, which shall remain nameless. This is not because there is anything scandalous to report, but because I’m about to compare it to a 1970s department store and I don’t want the priest to cancel The Catholic Herald.

The church was (I would guess) Victorian Romanesque, or maybe neo-Gothic – the truth is that it was so nondescript that it didn’t leave much impression. It was very much the sort of church thrown up in large numbers at the end of the 19th century, and I imagine that in its heyday it was bustling, happy and sentimental.

Then, after Vatican II, its interior was modernised. But we’re not talking savage reordering here: just the usual wall-to-wall carpeting of the sanctuary, removal of the altar rails and – unforgivably, not least because it makes a nonsense of the high altar – the removal of the tabernacle to… somewhere. I didn’t even notice; just that it was missing from its place of honour, installing an emptiness at the centre of things.

Sometimes you walk into a modern Catholic church and think: this is really just a community centre with icons. But the sacred purpose of this particular church was still plainly obvious; it was just that neglect and botched repair jobs had somehow sucked the sacredness out of it.

The analogy that came to mind was with a family-owned department store, perhaps in a seaside town, that had been a byword for character, twinkling service and low prices for decades. But then, in the 1970s, younger customers deserted it for chain stores, so someone gave the shop a makeover in brown and cream formica panelling complete with snazzy logo. And the regular customers said: “Ooh, it’s a bit trendy for my tastes, not the same, I can’t get used to it” – but they did get used to it, because the staff were the same and nowhere else sold that colour of stockings that Mum liked.

And now the shop is really struggling, because Mum passed away years ago, and the old faces have long gone and they still haven’t got round to replacing the brown and cream formica and they never will because everyone knows that when the last family member retires it will be House of Fraser or whatever.

You get the idea. This parish church was modernised so long ago that (I’m guessing) very few parishioners can remember the priest who oversaw the changes. Many of them are probably unaware that the tabernacle has been moved – and that includes members of the team of “eucharistic ministers” (as they’re not supposed to be called any more) who, judging by the rota pinned on the noticeboard, make up an extraordinarily high proportion of the active congregation.

It was the same story in the sacristy. The priest was wearing a double-breasted polyester alb whose top half resembled a chef’s outfit. I didn’t know such a thing existed. The door of the wardrobe was open, revealing a jumble of highly coloured cheap chasubles (also polyester) that could have been mistaken for the women’s clothing rack in an Oxfam shop.

Now, I know this sounds like sneering, and missing the point: the Apostles did not worry about the cut of their fisherman’s clothes, and the Gospel is not about externals: there are churches, especially in the Anglo-Catholic wing of the C of E, where fussing about the embroidery of a chasuble or the choreography of censing the acolytes takes precedence over visiting the sick. (Though, to be fair, some of the most ritualistic parishes are also the most pastorally diligent.)

I’m not saying that the alternative to the shabbiness of this church is to turn it into a mini-Oratory. Nor do I want to suggest that the priest and ministers of Holy Communion in this community are not faithful Catholics, any more than I would accuse the staff of the department store of shirking their responsibilities.

But what the parish priest and his bishop need to understand is that these things matter: from the collage of outdated posters at the west end of the church to the badly repainted apse at the east, every single item of church art or furniture gives the impression of “making do”. The message: this is just another church.

Visitors to Catholic churches before the Second Vatican Council used to comment on how strange they found the experience. Their reactions weren’t necessarily positive and one can understand why the late 20th-century Church wanted to stop creeping people out, as the Americans say. But at least Protestants knew they were entering the sacred space of a religion with the self-confidence to welcome visitors on its own terms, to confront them with a culture nourished by the blood of martyrs and ambitious in the demands it made on the faithful. To experience that feeling now, you would have to visit a mosque. (Incidentally, it seems that Catholic schoolchildren do have to visit mosques these days – but that’s another story.) In contrast, a bored visitor sticking his head into this church wouldn’t instantly know that it was Catholic, so afraid is it of giving offence. That’s pretty shaming; for, however rudimentary the chapels in which our forefathers worshipped, one thing was never in doubt, and that was their communion with Rome.

The culture of mediocrity, of making do, that has pervaded the Catholic Church in England and Wales extends beyond what happens in the sanctuary. Therefore putting things right is a wider project than the more solemn celebration of Mass, which the coming English translation will help to effect, along with the increasing conservatism of new priests. We need to move back to what the Church used to offer – and, significantly, the commercial world is increasingly able to provide to meet rising consumer expectations: a total experience drawing on the highest standards of professionalism in art, architecture and music.

Perfectionism; attention to small details; impatience with the second-rate – these are what we must demand of our pastors and what, in a Church run by Archbishop Nichols and soon-to-be Archbishop Longley, there is now a faint chance of achieving, particularly with a papal visit in the offing. That means no more excuses, no more amiable making do – and definitely no more polyester.

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