Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Why old is good - lessons for modern-style churches

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Old is good - what our society needs is to keep contact with the past through the old; not to be 'relevant' and modern.

Religions too. All Christian denominations that have been strong and 'worked' seem to have maintained a link with the past via the old.

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Old buildings - a church which meets in an old church building has a built-in advantage - since the setting intrinsically links the present with the past.

(That this advantage can be overcome is easily seen by the destructive, anti-traditional, past-rejecting Liberal Christianity which has emanated from the beautiful old buildings of Oxford and Cambridge universities. But still, old architecture has to be overcome - the Liberalizers will not really be happy until they can operate in a newly-built glass and concrete box without any visible reminders of the slave-trading, patriarchal, war-mongering, excluding bad-old-days.)

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Old formality.

Robes and rituals are good, especially if they are old or backward-looking. Modernizers always want to introduce casual dress, causal manners, causal language, promiscuous chumminess with first names all around.

This is so as to be friendly, and welcoming, and not to exclude people, and not to be off-putting. But it is another break with the past, makes church the same as everywhere else, nothing special.

Every break with the past increases the influence of the present; and when the present is profoundly anti-Christian, every break with the past is an obstacle to Christianity.

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Old music.

In church, old music (and styles and instruments) tend to evoke a deep continuity with the past - modern music doesn't. It may have other virtues, but modern music is of the modern world.

This goes beyond enjoyability. It is about a mind-set that either recognizes continuity, or forgets it.



Old words - old language.

This is very important - perhaps the most important thing of all.

Things can be said in old language which cannot be said in modern language.

So when the Authorized Version of the Bible is discarded and an easy to understand modern translation is substituted, we find that the modern language simply does not allow Christians to say some of the things they need to say.

Because modern language has been created - in part - precisely to exclude the basis and also the substance of Christianity.

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Tolkien knew this for a fact and knew it deeply - and he used archaic forms of language, he had to use archaic forms of language, as well as modern forms - in order to express things that were embedded in archaic worlds. The fact of the great and enduring success of his work shows that people responded.

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It could be rejoined that a real Christian does not, should not, need old buildings, old formality and rituals, old music, old words; a real Christian only needs Jesus...

Well, yes, but...

To live the life of a Christian in an increasingly anti-Christian modern world, it is certainly very helpful to link-up with the past - in fact, without the links to the past, there aren't very many modern Christians to link-up with!

The context of Christian life and worship can help maintain alive and psychologically-active these links with Christians of the past.

This can strengthen and deepen and insulate modern Christianity, in a pervasively hostile environment. 

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If church is almost indistinguishable from the rest of the world - if church takes place in an aggressively modern building; with people wearing their normal clothes and shambling around in their usual daily manner; chatting casually using first names to friend, stranger and Pastor alike; singing recently-written songs accompanied by modern instruments; hearing Scriptures that are either in the style of modern bureaucratic memos or the style of pop music radio announcers - and hearing them expounded in the style of a jolly, jokey TV documentary ...

well, the least that can be said is that everything about such a church is working-against Christianity;

because Christianity is saying things for which modern culture has (deliberately) no place.

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If, therefore, churches try to be completely modern, then they will find that they cannot expound Christianity.

At best, at most, fully modern churches can only tell-people-about Christianity - in hope they will at some time go and find it for themselves - but people will never experience Christianity in the church itself.

Such a wholly-modernized church operates rather as if they were telling-people-about the beauty of Shakespeare's poetry - but never actually quoting it. 

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7 comments:

  1. It's much the same as Lewis' defense of old books.

    If you never take in anything outside your culture and your times, you can never expect to transcend them. And Christianity to be Christianity must include that transcendent element.

    Modernized, hip Christianity is in danger of being the God in the Mirror writ large.

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  2. @AG - It's interesting to go through various denominations using an 'old' checklist.

    The church I attend has an old building, robed priests, and a formal structure for services - but is modern in terms of language, music, dress of the congregation, manners, teaching style in sermons...

    From what I have seen online Mormon Ward sacrament meetings have formal but modern dress, modern buildings but with traditional architectural features, informal manners, some ritual elements but (most important) the (Old) Authorized Version of the Bible plus Mormon scriptures in similarly traditional language. The music seems mostly Victorian in style.

    The Anglo Catholic church I used to attend had a beautiful medieval church, traditional langauge for the liturgy, but modern bureaucratic Bible translations for the readings, robed priests, considerable ritual such as frequently making the sign of the cross and sometimes genuflecting - kneeling for prayers and communion, and the Priest was called Father.

    Without doubt this combination of many old things led to the most powerful spiritual feelings during the actual service (which was called Low Mass) that I have ever experienced - even more so than in highly traditional Cathedral Evensong at somewhere like Durham - which was perhaps too much verging on 'a performance' (plus I knew that the participants in the services were almost all radical Liberal pseudo-Christians!).

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  3. The Anglo-Catholic parish I attend has a thirty something year old building but with an older “country church” style and the sanctuary is quite traditional in the Catholic sense. We use the 1928 BCP and the hymns are traditional. Some of the women have recently started covering their heads but I don’t hear anyone talking about why so maybe it’s just an attempt to create a traditional and/or Catholic image. I don’t know if these women would affirm, for example, the Biblical principle that they should submit themselves to their husband’s authority which would make them actually traditional/orthodox and not just traditional in appearance.
    However, our Bishop is a liberal man who says various things to various people in order to appease them.

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  4. Old buildings - a church which meets in an old church building has a built-in advantage - since the setting intrinsically links the present with the past.

    I have a hard time with this. It sounds like it should be true, and yet empirically, the exact opposite is true in almost 100% of cases.

    So when the Authorized Version of the Bible is discarded and an easy to understand modern translation is substituted, we find that the modern language simply does not allow Christians to say some of the things they need to say.

    Can you give any examples? I'm still trying to wrestle with your position on this issue.

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  5. @SJ - On Bible translations actually in wide use you could look at this

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/8887946/The-king-of-the-bibles.html

    When you say the opposite is true - opposite to the setting linking present with past - do you mean that *you* feel a greater sense of continuity with the past in a shopping mall, than in (say) Durham Cathedral?

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  6. When you say the opposite is true - opposite to the setting linking present with past - do you mean that *you* feel a greater sense of continuity with the past in a shopping mall, than in (say) Durham Cathedral?

    Hold on... this serves me right, I guess, for leaving drive-by comments directly before bed. I meant it as a reply to your general idea; I meant to say that while worshiping in old buildings, full of "history", seems to be a good idea, in practice the congregations that meet in old buildings are almost always dying. I would like to believe that this is not necessarily true, always and everywhere, but it is true in the modern West.

    I'm not thrilled with the "shopping mall" experience, but I can't say it leaves me feeling any *less* connected to the past than anything else. "Old", "historic" churches I've been in generally leave me feeling as though I'm intruding into the shadowy grave of a dead religion - as if I might as well be walking the grounds of an Aztec pyramid. I don't know how you personally can feel otherwise especially now that you are the one endorsing a religious viewpoint barely 150 years old!

    All of this may simply be a geographical artifact. By and large in the New World we don't *have* churches older than like 100 years. Maybe if I ever get to come visit you, you can take me to a service in Durham cathedral and I can see for myself...

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  7. @SJ - You know what? All the advantages are not all on one side! That's life. And this is particularly obvious in the Church of England.

    Old buildings help, but old language is more important if you can't have both.

    But there are strange combinations, Last year I was at the last Anglican monastery Mirfield where the Fathers wear sort-of medieval revival robes, sing plain chant - but have had their (originally Art Deco) chapel redone in ultra modern style, and the sing the liturgy psalms using the excruciating new language version.

    A seriously weird combination to hear robed monastics singing in medieval style, but using PC-compatible bureaucratic boilerplate prose...

    In oral societies, the maximum limit of oldness is about 150 years - the span over which an old person now alive can remember when they were young talking to an old person about their earliest years. Anything more than 150 years is 'forever'...

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