Friday, June 01, 2018

Calling London's Secular Bluff

There are (at least!) two temptations that beset a group of Midwestern Christian college students who spend a month in London. The first might be to fear the secular city, tip-toeing around it but mostly keeping to ourselves. The opposite (and more common) temptation comes from allowing ourselves to be bedazzled by diverse, stimulating, enrapturing London, and then looking back with predictable disdain on the narrowly Christian American suburbs we left happily behind.

But as our intensive Arts in London course over four weeks in London and Wales began, we attended "Choral Pilgrimage 2018: Sacred and Profane," by legendary choral group The Sixteen at the Royal Naval College. There we read this in our program from Robert Hawkins, which effectively neutralized those twin temptations: 
Today we might hear the terms 'sacred' and 'secular' as opposing poles, as if there were a clear separation between religious matters and worldly affairs. To think in this way is rather 'secular' in itself, and very particular to modernity...  The word 'secular' comes from the Latin saeculum (generation, age): It is used in Christian Latin to mean 'the world'. This isn't to say 'secular' had nothing to do with 'the Church'; it merely distinguished between monks, who were called to 'renounce the world', and priests, who interpreted their vocation as a need to get stuck into the affairs of the world, and to do God's work there.... For a modern viewer, particularly one without religious conviction, the all-encompassing nature of this sacral worldview can be hard to imagine. Part of the significance of beginning to see with believing eyes is the realisation that the extraordinary is to be found in the ordinary, the sacred in the profane (11).
We took this article as the Magna Carta of our trip, and set out - like those secular priests - to pursue the sacred, in a robustly Christian way, in the ostensibly "secular" space of London. (It certainly helps that all museums are free.) Like the snake the St. Paul handled in the massive fresco in the Royal Naval Chapel, we trusted that presumably secular culture would not poison us.
Taking the motto of our parish church in Highbury Islington, "roots down, branches out," we refused to be scandalized or seduced by the city. We weren't afraid of London; but nor did we despise the Midwestern evangelical tradition that has reared us, and which taught (and teaches!) us how to inhabit a cosmopolis without losing our Christological nerve. The result was we found God everywhere. And not a generic God either, but Father, Son and Holy Spirit. After all, as Columbanus put it in the sixth century, "Ineffable, Incomprehensible, he fills all things and transcends all things;" or as R.S. Thomas put the same insight in the twentieth, "you [God] terrify me as much by your proximity as by your being light years away."

God was so present in fact, that over a reflective dinner in Wales, our class came up with a list (embellished and/or warped a good bit by me) of the ways the sacred/secular boundary was breached during our pilgrimage. The list is far from exhaustive, and here it is:

The Sacred in "Secular" London (& Oxford & Wales):
  1. First comes the flag of London itself, with the sword that beheaded saint Paul displayed as prominently as St. Paul's dome is on the city's skyline. The message of grace that he preached is therefore only missed if we choose to ignore it (which we all do!). To help us not to, the city's official motto, Domine, dirige nos (Lord, direct us), became our prayer.

  2. In our first visit to the National Gallery, we enjoyed Joachim Beucklaer's Four Elements, where worldly goods for their own sake are ostentatiously displayed in a festival of materialism. Or so most think. Biblical scenes are in fact concealed in the distance of each painting, if one knows where to look. As we learned from T.J. Gorringe's brilliant book-length commentary on these works, “The turn to the secular may not be a sign of Christianity losing its grip, but, on the contrary, of realizing its true implications.”
  3. Eric Gill's motto of sorts, beautifully displayed in his Gill Sans font at the Tate Britain, expressed the truth we kept encountering on our trip. The Latin phrase from Aquinas' commentary on Pseudo-Dionysius translates, "The beauty of God is the cause of the being of all that is." Or as one student put it more directly, "The artists we're encountering are for Jesus even if they don't know it."
  4. As we headed to the Hay-on-Wye HowTheLightGetsIn philosophy festival, we expected something akin to a neo-pagan British Burning Man. Instead, one of our own found a gloriously tiny prayer-book dedicated to her own name in this sea of books, and Rowan Williams (a speaker this year) was ubiquitous, happily jockeying with whatever else is on offer for twenty-first century hearts and minds. 
  5. In a lecture we enjoyed on Celtic Spirituality, St. Patrick's phrase, "Christ in every eye that sees me" seemed to apply to all eyes that met ours in London, Oxford and Wales, or even from the past in the National Portrait Gallery. Student after student pointed out how they felt Christ refracted in the wildly diverse population that surrounded us, from the residents erecting a memorial in our neighborhood after a tragedy, to the Catholic nuns who lived right next door.
  6. Ours was a Wesley-haunted trip. We encountered memorials to him everywhere, and not just in churches. There he was in the massive Aldersgate flame ("my sins, even mine") at the entrance to the Museum of London, filled with material evidence of London's Christian history. Wesley - whose message sprung from the churches he was kicked out of into the very streets - kept reminding us of the message of justification by faith which he preached, and which remains freshly offensive and invigorating in every age.
  7. It was not only Stanley Spencer's The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27) that overwhelmed us at the Tate Britain, with the entire population rising from the dead, but also his depiction of "Swan Upping at Cookham" (1915-19). Spencer description of his inspiration sounded this sacred-in-the-secular theme yet again: "The village seemed as much a part of the atmosphere prevalent in the church as the most holy part of the church."
  8. We were led through galleries in Burmondsey (London's chief gallery district) by artist Alastair Gordon. An active artist and a no-nonsense believer, Ally went so far as to ask us to pray that God would keep a Christian art subculture from developing in London so that Christians would keep working in the wider world of art. 
  9. One student pointed out how the architecture of St. Bride's has imprinted itself on every wedding cake (notice the famous resemblance), Christian or not. Even the German bomb that destroyed the nave only served to reveal the layers of history that were sealed up inside, now to be enjoyed.
  10. Andrew Cusack explained that the architectural nucleus of Pugin's Gothic Houses of Parliament remains the royal chapel of St. Stephen. And even the structures of opposing parties today goes back to the recitation of the antiphonal Psalter from two sides of the choir.
  11. Seeing Darwin enthroned at the Museum of Natural History ruffled our faith about as much as does the law of gravitation (to quote former Princeton President James McCosh). Instead, the massive leviathan suspended above Darwin seemed to have the last word, reminding us of Job 41, "Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear. He beholdeth all high things: he is a king over all the children of pride." As a result, on entering Darwin's hometown of Shrewsbury, we gave the statues to him a polite nod, and went on to admire the churches. For the cosmic Christ is cruciform, and is our caterpillar, after all.
  12. In the shows we watched for our Musical Theater class, gospel themes covertly prevailed. These included the, "He lives in you, He lives in me," hymn in The Lion King, the notes of redemption in the conclusion of Matilda and Odette's please for the prince's attention in Swan Lake. Above all, the stolen candlesticks testifying to forgiven sin became a virtual altar in a superb production of Les Mis. As group member Martin Johnson put it, "Known about this show since 1983: finally saw it. Says it all. Unmerited, unconditional one-way love: Better than any sermon I have ever preached: or heard."
  13. Speaking of sermons, nestled near the heart of our trip was the royal wedding sermon, which was broadcast in every pub, restaurant, shop and so-called "secular" space in London. Ubi Caritas, the hymn quoted by Bishop Curry, "Where charity and love are, God is there," encapsulated our venture, and propelled it onward.
  14. In Wales, our Eucharistic celebrant had DNA helixes on her vestments, testifying to the goodness of God in all creation. Like the ancient fossils deliberately built into the baptistry and altar of All Saints Margaret Street, they were a reminder - for our bio majors especially - that there is no division between serious science and genuine faith.
  15. The martyrdom of the Carthusians under Henry VIII was a tragedy. Full stop. That said, there was a marked contrast between the cloistered Carthusians, who were - and remain where their order endures - completely silent, and the wonderfully eloquent Christian witness of our cheerful tour guide at the Charterhouse who is one of the contemporary brothers of a more recent order. The same dynamic is at work in the continuation of the Knights Hospitaller (revived by Queen Victoria and surviving in the Saint John Ambulance), or in Anglican celebrations of once-suppressed Our Lady of Walsingham today.
  16. As beautiful as the large memorial to the Oxford martyrs remains, we were instead taken aback by the actual place of the martyrdom of Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer, which stands in the midst of a busy Oxford road, where we almost got ran over to take this photo.
  17. That said, an equally moving experience was our visit to the recently dedicated tomb of Thomas More at St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London (no photos allowed). These martyrdoms together testified that there are no easy answers to the divisions on the sixteenth-century. But that More's tomb was recently dedicated in the Queen's royal chapel seemed to qualify it for our sacred-in-the-secular list.
  18. On the literary end, though Romanticism is often seen as a gateway to the secular, we learned in Wales that the first Romantic poet may very well have been the hymn writer William Williams
  19. And Williams' mantel was passed on to Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, who penned agonizing, doubt-infused tirades against his maker, but whose faith was too rooted to fail. "The Cross is always avant-garde," he realized. And his poem, The Moor, illustrated our theme: "It was like a church to me. / I entered it on soft foot, / Breath held like a cap in the hand...  / There were no prayers said, / But stillness of the heart's passions - that was praise / Enough..."

  20. One student pointed out that just as the sheep left marks of wool wherever they had been on our hikes, so all of London seemed flecked with traces of sheep-wool, showing signs of God's emissaries in all quarters of cultural production.
  21. Our time of silence in the Elam Valley enabled the quiet of the landscape to speak. It confirmed for us what we read and learned about Celtic spirituality, which boasts "an interpenetration of religion and landscape in a way that surpasses anything we might find in the late classical world (6-7)." The same truth was well-expressed in the Latin root of chasuble, that emblem of high church fashion. Originally though, it was the just Latin word (chasula) for the simple poncho the rain invited us all to wear.
  22. One would think that during a visit to the Courtauld, the "sacred" conversations would cease after the first floor of medieval art, and certainly wouldn't continue into the nineteenth century galleries. But Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was as powerful as the ground floor of Courtauld in revealing the dignity of all who are overlooked. This painting just did not let our group go.
  23. To the surprise of many of us, St Mary le Strand was packed with students from Kings College London, offering a vibrant, orthodox sermon on a standard weekday at noon. Just like John Stott's famously evangelical All Souls Langham Place, St Mary Le Strand remains architecturally in the thick of it all, and has not yet given up the [Holy] ghost.
  24. As the rain poured down during our trek to the dueling Cathedrals of St. Paul's and the Tate Modern, one of us cited Matthew 5:45, "he sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust," with the caveat that sometimes the just are in the world and the unjust in the church. As Augustine once put it, "there are many sheep within, and many wolves without."
  25. "I believe God is in the bowels of the Tate," remarked our guide Jonathan Anderson with a smile as he began his tour. He gave confident readings of multiple works in this secular church, extending the argument he made so persuasively in Modern Art and the Life of a Culture. There is quite a difference, we learned, between the nihilistic and the apophatic; between nothingness and no-thing-ness; between "God is not there," and "God is not there." Antony Gormley's Untitled (for Francis) from 1985 even seemed an illustration of Charles Taylor's view of the modern, "buffered self," the artist's body cast is solid lead. And yet, this body was pierced with the stigmata, open again to Christ, who surely hovered nearby. But concealed, as Bellini understood, by seraphim.

  26. Perhaps the reason we found these connections so easy to make because we were not seeking "Britishness," but a wider empire, the Kingdom of God. Our indefatigable guide, Geoff Weaver, cited John Ellerton's famous hymn - daringly written at the high tide of the British Empire - to prove this point: "The voice of prayer is never silent / Nor dies the strain of praise away.... So be it, Lord; thy throne shall never / Like earth's proud empires, pass away." Lily, a student in our class who spent much of her youth in China, found it fitting that this was the hymn sung when Britain turned over control of Hong Kong.
  27. We might even go so far as to say that the presumed line between the sacred and secular seemed as softened as the Offa's Dyke path that we walked. That original division between England and Wales was once a bloody border, but is now just a pleasant place to walk.
  28. None of this is to rule out the specificity of Christian proclamation, or to say that churches are unnecessary in the name of some kind of religionless Christianity. Not in the least. This was made clear by the fulcrum of our visit, Pentecost worship at All Saints Margaret Street. The love of God in Christ of course beams down on everyone in London - but only with the smoke of incense in Christian worship are these beams revealed.
  29. And in true Anglo-Catholic fashion, the worship of All Saints Margaret Street is not divorced from service. The homeless are welcomed into this glorious church to sleep in its pews every night (guidelines are clearly posted), with silver candlesticks staying right where they are, as if to prompt a remake of Les Mis.
  30.  Indeed, our whole trip was summarized by the fact that the revelatory smoke of incense offered by this church does not dutifully stay put. On Corpus Christi, just as we left, the All Saints thuribles took Oxford Circus by storm, declaring revealing God's beams of love for anyone who had eyes to see (photo, which I wish I had taken, courtesy of All Saints' site).
So then, what hath London to do with Jerusalem? The Passover red of the Rothko room gave us an answer: Everything. And if there is any mission for a Christian liberal arts college in the twenty-first century (and there is), it is to help students (and professors) realize that the same answer applies to Istanbul, New York, Berlin, Marrakesh, Chicago, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Singapore or Jakarta.
Though we might well admit that sometimes it seems London includes all these cities at once.