Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sunday Morning Scene: Churches of the West: Stop! Don't change that Church!

From our companion blog, Churches of the West:
Churches of the West: Stop! Don't change that Church!:
Now, normally this is just a photo entry, linking in one of the pasts posts, and generally going from the oldest slowly towards the newest, from that blog.  But here we're doing something different. For one thing, we're linking in a new post, which is very unusual. Secondly, we're posting a commentary post from that blog, and those are unusual.  And thirdly, as this is a commentary post, it's not actually in the category of a comforting Sunday morning post so much as one that might be upsetting to some people, and depending upon who actually reads it (which will not be that many people, after all) definitely will be upsetting. 

So here we go, the text of the linked in blog post:
A theme, if not always an obvious one, of this blog is architecture.

And  nothing does more violence to traditional, serviceable, and beautiful architecture, than "updating" it for any reason.

Just don't.

A case in point.

The photograph above, unfortunately not entirely in focus and in black and white, dates from November 1958.  It depicts St. Anthony's of Padua Church in Casper Wyoming on the occasion of my parents wedding.

Now, St. Anthony's remains a beautiful church today, but if we had a picture of the interior (which I don't from this angle) and if we had this picture in sharper focus (which it isn't) and in color (which it is not), we'd notice some changes right away.

And they aren't good ones.

The altarpiece and the altar are all still there.  The cross painted on the wall behind the altarpiece is also still there.  But many other things have changed.

Most obvious, the beautiful marble altar rail in this photograph, a gift of the Schulte family when the church was built, is gone.  I was told that a part of it can be found now in a local restaurant, which I hope is not true.  If it is true, I've never seen it, so it must be some place I don't go to.  It's not clear here, but the gate for the altar rail was marble with heavy brass hinges.  A true work of art in every sense.

The heavy brass lanterns hanging from the ceiling are also gone.

What appears to be a marble ambo is gone as well, replaced by a very nice wooden (walnut?) one.

The statute of St. Patrick moved across town to St. Patrick's, which sort of makes sense. The funds to build St. Patrick's came from St. Anthony's donors, many of whom were Irish, to that we'd ultimately send the statute of the Patron Saint of Ireland over there, which we did only fairly recently, does square with the general them there.. The statute of St. Anthony has been moved to a different spot, but it looks good where it is.

I'm not certain what sort of floor covering we're looking at here, probably carpet, and of course we have new carpet.  But what would strike anyone looking at this photo about what is next to the carpet, the pews, is that the pews are now cantered to face towards the center of the alter.

Okay, what's up with all of that, and was it an improvement?

Well, I suppose that's in the eye of the beholder, as all such things are, but in my view, the answer is a very distinct "no".

It's funny how these things work.  I can remember all of the features depicted here, including the altar rail, even though I was very young when at least that feature came out.  But, at the time, I don't think I thought much about it, if I thought about it all.  I don't remember the Mass being in Latin at all, although when I was very, very young, it must have been.  Anyhow, while these things didn't bother me at the time, or the one change that I recall from when I was a bit older, the cantering of the pews, didn't bother me much, now they do.

That may be because I now have a greater appreciation for history and tradition than I did when I was just a boy, although I had a sense of that at the time.

The cocked angle of the pews, remnants of a decision made by a Priest in the 1970s or perhaps early 80s,  has been something I've never liked, even if I understand the intent behind it.  Not visible in this
photograph, a row of pews that were in the middle of the church were taken out to facilitate twice as many Communion servers.  It's awkward and always has been and should not have been done.  Indeed, as this was the only Catholic Church in town with it was built, it was probably jam packed nearly every Mass and they seemed to manage to get by just fine. For that matter, I've been in plenty of packed Catholic churches where everyone came up to the front of the church and it always worked just fine as well.  Having said that, changing the angle of the pews didn't do a great disservice to the church even if it didn't really help it any.

Another matter, however, is the altar rail.

Now altar rails turn out to be a surprisingly hot button item to people not familiar with them.

All Latin Rite Catholic Churches and Anglican Churches had altar rails. Chances are very high that other churches close in form to the Catholic Church also had them, I just don't know. Their purposes was to provide a place for communicants to kneel when receiving communion.  Prior to Vatican II (1962 to 1965) all Latin Catholic in modern times received communion on the tongue.  Communicants would kneel at the altar rail and receive communion.

You'd think that finding a public domain photograph of communicants receiving communion at an altar rail would b easy, but it isn't.  This almost illustrates it in a better fashion, however.  British solders lined up, as if there is an altar rail, and receiving communion in the field in North Africa.  Off hand, I suspect that this is an Anglican service.

Now, before we get too far down this road it should be noted that people can get really up in arms about this in all sorts of ways and some traditionalist will insist that communion can only properly be received kneeling and on the tongue.  This doesn't seem to be true and certainly wasn't universally the case.  Indeed, originally, the very first Christians, received communion in the hand and you can find very early writings that effect.  However, traditionalist will hotly dispute what those writings and the other evidence actually means. Given as I'm not getting into that debate, I'm not going there and that isn't the point of this entry.

What is the point is that altar rails were an integral part of the design of churches for an extremely long time. Take anything out of a well designed building and you risk subtracting from its design. That's exactly what I think occurred here.

Which isn't to say that I feel that St. Anthony's is a bad looking Church now, far from it. It's still a beautiful church. But it was more beautiful before the marble altar rail was taken out.

Indeed, the problem with making alterations to these well designed structures is that any time that this is done it risks giving into a temporary view in favor of a more traditional element that was integral in the design of the structure while doing damage to its appearance.  All Catholic churches up until the id 1960s were designed to have altar rails.  Taking them out may have served what was, and perhaps is, the view of the day in regards to worship, but it also means that a major feature of the interior of the building, to which careful consideration had been given, was now missing.

And it turns out that, contrary to widely held belief, they did not have to be removed.

Most people believe that the altar rails were taken out as it was somehow required post Vatican II.  It wasn't.  Rather, for whatever reason changes in the Mass now allowed them to be.  They didn't have to be.  Theoretically it was apparently up to individual Pastors on whether they thought an altar rail should be removed, but given as in Wyoming they are nearly all missing, it might have been the case that the decision to remove them was made at the Diocesan level.  The motivating thought here was that the altar rail served to act as a sort of barrier to connection between the people and the Offering of the Mass, and those who supported altar rail removal often felt fairly strongly about that (as we'll see below).  This was, I think, part of an overall change in the Mass at that time, when it went from Latin to the local vernacular, as the Celebrant had faced Ad Oreintum while offering the Mass.  That is, the Priest faced his altar, as a rule, with his back to the Congregation.  

Now all of this gets into some fairly complicated symbolic matters.  There's some truth to the view held by those who argued for the new position and removing the altar rails, in at he "we're all one together sense". There a counter point, however, that maybe the Ad Oreintum orientation actually served that better, as the Priest was facing the same direction for significant portions of the Mass that the parishioners were.   That is, by way of a poor example, if somebody faced you in a large group they're more likely to have some elevated authority over you than if somebody has their back to you, in which case they can be argued to be working with you.  Interestingly in recent years there's been a slow return in some areas to the Ad Oreintum orientation, particularly following Cardinal Sarah's suggestion that this was a better form. The Cardinal occupies a high position at the Vatican and therefore his views cannot be easily discounted.  As has been noted in regards to this there's actually never been an official position on which orientation is better, and in some ancient and modern churches the Ad Orientum position is actually impossible.

In any event, what that did was in part to remove an item that was closely connected to the church and hence the parish and the parishioners.  In this case, the altar rail itself had been a gift from a family early in the parish's history.  In Catholic parishes the pastor is usually there for about seven years and bishops can be in office for long or short periods. However, as the parishioners are often there for decades, that means the traditional in which they participated was removed by individuals who were there on a more temporary basis.  It was certainly "legal", if you will, but it might not have been well advised.

The same is true of most, but not all, of the interior changes to the church. A person can debate the aesthetics of the heavy brass lighting, but the church was built with it in mind and the features that once decorated where it attached to the building remain there to this day.  The removal of one confessional, the relocation, in an awkward fashion, of a place for "music ministers" to stand that resulted, and all of that, were done in a heartfelt fashion, but often to the ascetic detriment of the church which was not built with remodels in mind.

This touches, moreover, on the larger topic of church architecture itself, which as been addressed in another one of our rare commentary threads here.  These older churches are better looking as the architecture and design that came in during the 1970s was not as good as earlier architecture, and according to some focused more on the congregation than on the Divine.  This blog was at one time going to avoid all such churches in general, but as time has gone on its put up posts of quite a few.  Many of these churches are just not good looking. By the same token, many alterations to older churches are not good looking either.

As I noted when I started off, a lot of this stuff did not bother me when I was a child and experiencing it, but it does now.  Indeed, the removal of the altar rail in this church frankly makes me mad when I think of it.  I wish it could go back in.  It won't, of course, but the whole thing upsets me.  I'm not alone, I think, on this sort of thinking and I think it reflects a generational befuddlement with the generations immediately preceding us which seems to have had, in many instances, low respect for tradition in general.  In civil society, in terms of structures, this is probably why we now see all sorts of effort to restore the appearance of old buildings whose owners in the 50s, 60s, and 70s didn't give a second thought about making them ugly through renovation. A prime example of that is the Wyoming National Bank building in Casper Wyoming which was made to look hideous by the additional of a weird steel grating in the 1950s to its exterior which was supposed to make it look modern.  It mostly served to house pigeons and was removed in the 2000s when the building was redone and converted to apartments.

Now, not every one feels this way, I should note.  Particularly in regards to churches.  When I posted this same photograph on Facebook, a friend of mine with a few years on me posted this reply (I hadn't commented on the altar rails in my original post):
So happy that the railings have come down and the hats came off! The church is still so beautiful.
I agree that the church remains beautiful, and I agree that the women wearing head coverings is a tradition that I don't miss, but I don't feel that way about the altar rail at all.

I suspect my friends comment goes to a "spirit of Vatican II" feeling that she's old enough to have experienced and which I not only am not, but which I don't really share enthusiasm for.  It's important to note that Vatican II and "the spirit of Vatican II" are not the same thing.  "The spirit" thing was a zeitgeist of the times which took a decidedly more liberal and less traditional view of things, no doubt an "open the windows and doors and let some fresh air in". Some of that was likely needed but as is often the case with people who are in a "let in the fresh air" movement the realization that cold winds high winds can come in through the same windows and doors and do damage is rarely appreciated. 

And its all too easy when traditions which are simply traditions are tossed to begin to toss out with them things that are more than tradition.  I'm not saying that occurred here with altar rails but I will be frankly that the 1970s saw a lot of innovations, some of them very local poorly thought out that were, in some cases, quite problematic. The generation that thought removing the altar rails was a good idea proved willing to entertain a lot of things in this area that turned out to be big problems for everyone else.

Part of that is because traditions are anchors in a way; moorings to the the past.  People of a "fresh air" bent will claim that a person shouldn't be bound by the past. That's true, but tradition is also in some cases the vote, or the expression of experience, of the dead and should not be lightly discounted.  Not only does casting out traditions tend to sever anchors, but all too often the severing simply puts people adrift in seas that they're not well prepared to handle. At its worst, the severing of traditions is a rejection of the long and carefully thought out in favor of the temporarily current and the poorly thought out.

Which is why, for many people of the post Vatican II generation the "Spirit of Vatican II" generation, when moored in their own changes, can seem now old fashioned.  Ironically younger generations have been busy for some time "reforming the reform", which means in the mainstream keeping the reforms that proved worthwhile and reversing those that did not.  Tradition has, in some instances, come back in the opened door after having been swept out it, but with a younger generation.

All of which is well off point on what this thread started out being about.  And I'm not going to start a "restore the altar rail" movement, locally or on the internet.  But I feel it was a shame that it was taken out, and to the extent that alterations that should not have taken place for ascetic reasons in regards to older structures can be repaired, they ought to be.
Okay, you may be thinking, this is all interesting or boring enough, but it's limited really to Catholics and the peculiar battles that go on between "progressives" (increasingly an older demographic in the church), "conservatives" (increasingly a younger demographic in the church), traditionalist and "rad trads".

Well. . .  yes. . . but it's more than that.

The post itself went into a bit of this, but what this post does, more than anything else, is to complain (yes, its a complaint) about ignoring tradition and architecture.  More particular than that, it's about ignoring tradition in architecture, which has given us, since the 1970s, a host of ugly and sometimes dysfunctional buildings.

St. Matthew's Catholic Church in Gillette, Wyoming.  In my original caption I stated the following:  "This is St. Matthews Roman Catholic Church in Gillette Wyoming. It's unusual contemporary design, unlike most of the churches featured here. It's quite hard to photograph, due to the large trees at the front of the church"  Let's be frank in this post here.  It's ugly from the exterior.  I have no idea what it looks like inside the church, but from the outside, it is not an attractive looking church.

First Lutheran Church in Watford City, North Dakota.  Watford City has never been a large town.  Notice the contrast with the church immediately above?

Now, in this post here, I don't want people to get the wrong idea.  Even if this is a Sunday morning post, I'm not limiting my comments to church architecture by any means.  Courthouses, another category of building that have long been subject to very traditional architecture, ceased to be so subject starting with the Boomer influenced everything of the 1970s.  As a result, there are now some powerfully ugly courthouses around.

 Laramie County government complex in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  I don't feel that this courthouse is ugly, but it's blah, in my view.  My original caption stated:   "This is the Laramie County government complex, which houses the District and Circuit courts of the 1st Judicial District. This fairly new building is quite modern in design and appearance."  That was being polite, it's nice enough but it doesn't have the feeling of a courthouse so much as an excessively sterile government structure.  But wait, it could be worse.The Federal District Court of Cheyenne is so blah I haven't even posted a photo of it on that site, or at least I can't easily find it.  It's just a big office building.

Natrona County, Wyoming, Hall of Justice, which formerly housed the county court (it no longer does) and which still houses the city court.  Not a horrible looking building, but it doesn't look much like a court.

Indeed, if anything, courthouses may have been more subject to this trend than churches.  There's a lot of courthouses around that look more like the headquarters for Innertrobe than courthouses.  It's as if every architect post 1970s felt that he positively, absolutely, had to make everything look "modern" by making it look like an ugly office building, including office buildings.  

In recent years part of what has sort of oddly driven this is the feeling that all courthouses must have technological updates.  This has, unfortunately, begun to afflict churches as well. This has been a very unfortunate trend in the law (and in churches) and a very misunderstood one, combined with a failure to incorporate technology into the practice of law that would actually be useful.

Lawrence County Courthouse, Speerfish South Dakota.  There's no doubt what purpose this building serves.

This sounds like something stated by a Luddite, I'm quite aware, but frankly a lot of "let's update this old structure with new technology stuff" is fairly detrimental in some circumstances and indeed, the "let's build a new building with the latest nifty technology" can be as well.

In the law, for some time the trend has been to incorporate computer and visual technology in an apparent effort to distract and bore jurors.  Jurors actually expect a trial in the courtroom, but lawyers have gotten to the point where they apparently wish to present a giant intensely dull video game. Every lawyer who wins a case using technology is now convinced that the technology won it, which drives the possibly erroneous unsupported belief that it does.

This is in part because trials are battles and like armies in battle the commanders of those armies believe that they absolutely must have the latest weapon or they will loose, and if they win, they'll attribute it to that.  Its the same reason that we hear so much about tanks in regards to the Second World War but don't hear much about cavalry, which was used in it. Or that we hear about helicopters in regards to the Vietnam War but not all that much about artillery.  As another odd example, the French while fighting in Algeria actually found the war to be embarrassing as the equipment that proved to be best suited for it was regarded as obsolete while the latest military technology was pretty useless. The French, for example, resorted to using surplus American World War Two light bombers in the war as the latest Mirage jets didn't cut it for the war they were fighting, which didn't keep them from wanting them.  Anyhow, a person who wins at trial is going to believe that the technology did it.

This is aided by the fact that anyone who has every used an audiovisual aid imagines in their own mind that it looks like the best one every done, which it hardly ever does.  In the mind of the presenter they come on looking like a movie star and present a stunning cinematic presentation that carries the day.  More often than not, however, the presenter spends five minutes trying to get the technology to work in the first place, then stumbles on to their files of cat gifs and shows the jury fluffy sleeping upside down on his head, before stumbling through little league photos and on to something about the trial. The jury, in the meantime, is pondering lunch.

Not that technology should be ignored. But when a nifty new courtroom is built and equipped with tiny counsel tables, or the old counsel tables in an old courtroom are shoved aside in favor of a giant screen, things are going wrong.

That's true as well for churches but if anything the presentations of this sort of technology are much worse.  I've been to Masses where the pastor thought, for some reason, that a gospel that was originally designed to be a letter read to a congregation by a Priest is accompanied by an illustration or set of illustrations put up on a screen that look like they were drawn for children's books in the 1950s.  Not good.  If the original audience, which no doubt included the illiterate, was able to grasp what are sometimes extremely deep theological points by having the letter read to them, a modern audience with nearly 100% literacy sure can.  Diverting attention with bad illustrations, or photographs of sunrises, isn't going to serve to get the message across. The projection screen, however, will serve to detract from the appearance of the church.

Indeed, if a person really wanted to have illustrations that were tired to the message of the Gospels it would like cause a lot of people in the pews to gasp, which is why it won't be done.  Consider, for example, St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians:
Do you not realise that people who do evil will never inherit the kingdom of God? Make no mistake -- the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, the self-indulgent, sodomites,
thieves, misers, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers, none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.*
This could in fact be effectively illustrated, and it wouldn't have to be with pastel cartoon like prints recalling the 50s.  It'd be easy to do it with modern photographs or even snippets from popular televisions shows, and really drive a point home.  Followed, quite soon, with by protests. Shoot, you could illustrate this just through slides of Friends, The Big Bang Theory, Sex In The City, Vanderpump Rules or Below Deck.  Pretty much any modern popular media, or even snippets of the trendy in the news, would do.

Now, having said this, it should not be taken to mean that every church or courthouse or older building of any type must remain exactly the way it was.  Far from it.  For one thing, heating and cooling have enormously improved and, given that I work in an old office building (vintage 1917) and I can attest that old heating, in particular, is bad.  Updating heating is good.  The same is true, I'd note, for cooling.  Modern appliances, wiring for the internet, etc., are all well worth doing and indeed  are modern necessities.  Modern windows are so far superior to old ones it isn't funny.

But things that impact the architecture itself?

Well, proceed with caution.


*Not surprisingly there are various translations of St. Pauls letter to the Corinthians, all of which are upsetting to various modern people.  This is so much the case that one local Univeralist minister dismisses St. Paul's letters as just his opinions, which pretty much dismisses the concept of divinely inspired text entirely in favor of . . .well whatever you like.

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