Thursday, July 26, 2012

800 Words: The Very Reverend Evan Tucker

(To the tune of “God Bless America”)

I am an Anglican,
I am CE,*
Not a High Church,
Not a Low Chuch,
But Apostolic, Catholic and Free.
Not a Lutheran,
Not a Presby,
Not a Baptist,
White with Foam.
I am an Anglican,
One step from Rome.
I am an Anglican,
One step from Rome.

If I could have one honor in my lifetime, it would be to be called ‘The Very Reverend Evan Tucker’ as a title - I would even take that over wearing a terrible toupee that everybody’s too polite to ever point out.  Of all the absurdities in the English language, there can’t be many as absurd as allowing bishops and deans to hold the title ‘The Very Reverend.’ Calling someone “Reverend” is bad enough, it’s a subtle way of claiming a priest as ‘revered’, but uses a form of English grammar so antiquated that it probably went out of use by Shakespeare’s time. Obviously they know this, but to refer to your priest as ‘Revered’ is generally a lie. But by compounding it by calling a clergyman ‘The Very Reverend’ they compound its absurdity and its pomposity by an exponential figure  - nobody even remembers that ‘reverend’ is supposed to be an adjective, not a noun. Imagine a congregation where the clergy is called ‘The Very Rabbi’ or ‘The Very Imam.’

This was, of course, the thought which occurred to me yesterday afternoon as the Very Reverend such-and-such intoned a greeting to me over the Westminster Abbey Audio Guide. I say ‘of course’ because this thought occurs to me at least once every few months - usually more often. And once the sing-song voice of the clergy stopped (is ‘sing-song intonation’ a course requirement at divinity school?), it was replaced by the unmistakable rasp of Jeremy Irons as my tourguide. As far as tourguides go, it was not as good as the creepily bug-eyed rector with black hair and an albino face I had eight years ago, but having Jeremy Irons as a tourguide ensures that the Church of England still knows how to keep it creepy. 

Months ago, when I was booking this trip, I thought to myself that I did not want to have one of those inevitable American trips to Europe in which we cattleprod ourselves into reverend awe over the fact that such beauties can exist as one finds in the great European historical sites. Big vacations are too precious to waste on nothing but ‘great art.’ Beauty is amazing, but is fun on a vacation too much to ask? Would it be too much to ask that we Americans actually enjoy ourselves in Europe rather than merely claiming to? 

So like an alzheimer’s patient I’ve visited Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral in my first two days. Better to get religion out of the way first I suppose. And as I re-toured the many stunning chapels and tombs at Westminster, I could not help the fact that the most striking thing about it was the IKEA lamp box I saw peeking out from underneath the tomb of an 18th century soldier (of course, the name already escapes me...). We don’t live in a reverential (reverendial?) age, and after a certain point, one reaches a diabetes like numbness in the face of so much beauty. 

I understand why Westminster Abbey is a truly stunning building, but like all the churches I will soon see in France, it is a relic from a completely different age of humanity. The French churches hail from the anonymous age of the Gothic Cathedrals when anonymous architects and stone carvers made churches so large and ornate that they gave their worshippers a foretaste of eternal life (more on that in France...). But Westminster Abbey was begun in 1245, the Gothic Age was already half-finished. Unlike Notre Dame de Paris, the purpose of Westminster Abbey has always changed throughout the centuries. It is not a pristine Gothic monument to God, it is a monument to the English State. After 1550, it was no longer even a cathedral. God has so many cathedrals, surely the English Kings can have a church of their own... Rather than glorify God, Westminster Abbey exists to glorify England. And so it has the tombs of monarch after monarch, poet after poet, military leader upon leader, musician, artist, tax-collector, patent lawyer...

England has Westminster Abbey, God has St. Paul’s Cathedral. Kings and Queens marry and are crowned at Westminster, but their funerals are at St. Paul’s. Westminster is Gothic with a captial G, St. Paul’s is neoclassical. Christopher Wren designed the Cathedral with a challenge to Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s in Rome with its Parthenon-like columns and proportions clearly in view. Having been to both, I couldn’t see much contest at first. When I went to St. Pauls eight years ago, it was under heavy scaffolding, dirty, and much of it sectioned off from view. ‘What a dump’ was my first thought. It has since finished its cleaning - itself a ten year project! - and it has a kind of pristine glory that today’s Westminster (clearly in a bit of disrepair itself) lacks. Westminster Abbey reflects the infinite Gothic aspirations of Medieval times, whereas St. Paul’s is presided over by a Renaissance god who wants even religion to be at harmony with its surroundings. The building itself is every bit as friggin’ huge as any self-respecting cathedral should be, but somehow I wasn’t surprised that the original St. Paul’s was still larger by a third. And yet even in this miniature version of St. Pauls, and even after the cleaning, the cathedral is still too big. Parts of it already look dirty again, and one wonders if even after ten years they couldn’t get to cleaning all of it. Nobody should wear white. 

But the biggest shock came when I went to Choral Evensong at St. Paul’s. The Choir of St. Paul’s was unfortunately on holiday, so instead we got a local parish choir. Anyone who’s been to a local (white) church service in America would utterly roll their eyes at this prospect - an out of tune mishmash of unmusical kids whose parents make them sing and too-loud-singing adults who still think a singing career is still an option. But even the parish churches of England apparently have incredible choirs with perfect blend and diction, and the perfect ‘straight tone’ (no vibrato) English sound. It would be nice though if English choirs sang better music than the cheap 20th century Anglican knockoffs which pale as much in comparison to the great composers of the English Choral Tradition as America’s Episcopal choirs compare to their Anglican equivalents. 

I did not find any part of this spiritually inspiring, not even remotely. In our day, we needn’t take things nearly so seriously. Why is Westminster Abbey such a miracle when wikipedia can give us a virtual tour of it? We neither understand nor need the high seriousness of a Choral Evensong. But I can understand why someone else would.

It was before but a blink of an eye in the world’s history that reverential awe was the step forward. In an era that knew barely anything of instant gratification, great workmanship was a state to which all humankind had to aspire. Three hundred years ago, all citizens of Christendom could look from the floors to the walls to the windows to the ceilings of the great cathedrals and see a glimpse of infinity: infinite space and time, infinite soul, infinite beauty, infinite justice, infinite compassion, infinite workmanship, infinite patience, and infinite effort. In an age when all work was done with hands, the cathedral was the sum total of man’s achievement. When a family of stonemasons or woodcarvers went to Westminster Abbey, they could see for themselves what could be done with their hands, and we should never doubt for a second that the reverential awe they felt at such sites was as ecstatically real as ours is forced.

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