Wednesday, September 01, 2004

London recalling, etc...

As I mentioned previously, I recently spent a spell of time in England. Passing through London I was able to re-acquaint myself with a couple of old favourites by a visit to Westminster Cathedral and the London Oratory at Brompton. I also went for the first time to the Farm Street Jesuit Church, which is situated near Berkley Square and was the site of reception for many well-off and influential converts to Catholicism. It’s interesting too to contrast the architecture of these three prominent London churches, which were built in more or less the same era. Westminster is charmingly Byzantine and must have made a surprising departure from Pugin’s legacy of neo-Gothic architecture. As befits a major cathedral, its construction time will be measured in centuries and decades – the mosaics within are still incomplete, but encouragingly work is ongoing in the side-chapels. Conceivably they could have cut corners and completed the decoration of the cathedral in a more ‘economic’ manner, but I for one like being able to look up at the exposed brickwork of the galleries and know that some day they will shine with gold tiles and be worthily decorated for the glory of God.
Brompton, in contrast, reflecting the temperament of Faber and companions, is exceedingly Italianite. But for the mixture of English and Irish surnames behind the pieta-cum-war memorial, and a few altars dedicated to English saints, one would think oneself in the Baroque duomo of a fair-sized Italian city. Despite Brompton’s prestige, however, there is an air of cost-cutting and insubstantiality about the Oratory. In contrast to Westminster slow and careful progress towards being a great church, Brompton seems to have tried to acquire all the Italian impedimenta (incuding a bejewelled and bevestmented Madonna atop a side-altar) without due discretion and discernment. One, for example, needs to keep one’s head up in Brompton – the wooden (rather than marble or tiled) floor spoils the Italian illusion.
Farm Street is much more modest in terms of size, but the neo-Gothic interior is well-decorated. There are a number of attractive side-altars, a Pugin reredos, a fine pulpit and the stained glass lacking in Brompton and Westminster.
On a wholly unconnected note, I have of late been keenly aware that even our smallest acts can be more important than we realise. A small act of kindness can mean a lot to someone else and be long remembered after we have forgotten. Along that line, I was therefore stuck by the following passage from Owen Chadwick’s 1973-73 Gifford Lectures ‘The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century’:
The evidence of religious attitudes (in France) varies greatly according to province or department or even suburb. […I]nvestigations point to differences, reaching back into the past, between one region and another. There have been suggestions that a difference in religious practice can be discerned, for example, between those on the right bank of a river and those on the left, though both banks were in the same diocese and the same kind of parishes. If this were so, old historical reasons, long vanished from the realities of the present, ought to be working – a war, a bishop, an old frontier; the influence or non-influence of a group of parish priests – we can guess at a variety of reasons or we can guess at mere chance. The deeds of men in te past live extraordinarily into the present; for sometimes in nineteenth century France the division between better and worse practice of religion ran along an old and no longer existing frontier between one-time dioceses. Someone must have done good, or someone must have neglected, someone was beloved or someone despised, back into the eighteenth century or even into the age of religious wars. (pp 120-121)

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