I’ve always liked wandering around churches. Whether simple country church or great cathedral, a visit will leave me with a blend of happy-sad melancholy evoked by the memorials to the dead mixed with gratitude for the moment of rest from the crazy world outside.
I’m not a practising Christian, and find the faith’s main tenets hard to get my head around. I’m probably in the ‘pious agnostic’ category, though leaning very definitely towards an abstract spirituality. The intellectual sticking points, such as the Virgin Birth, are one thing: but the other real problem for me is that the average British church does little to foster my spirituality and even less to help me experience anything profound.
A sense of mystery is integral to Christianity. To stir a man’s sense of mystery is to open up the path that leads him to a more spiritual life. It’s in this respect that I find Anglicanism wanting. The Church of England’s buildings and services may move me, but they only move me in an earthly fashion. They have little in the way of other-worldliness to conjure up something greater in my soul.
I don’t spend time in Orthodox churches, but it could well be that the Byzantine icons associated with them would have an altogether more powerful effect on me than anything Anglican. As the writer Vesna Goldsworthy suggested on Radio 3’s Private Passions earlier this year, these icons may be ‘flat’ in the sense that they don’t take advantage of the rules of perspective, but their pattern-following, stylized quality encourages the viewer to surrender to the mystery of the divine. They are not really painted to be scrutinised by us, the viewer on the outside. They exist for God; in Vesna Goldsworthy’s words, ‘your individuality doesn’t’ matter’. For them to do their spiritual work on us, we first need to remove our individuality.
At a very different place on the Christian spectrum, I am surprised to be drawn to the slightly kitschy effigies of Christ found in, for example, Mexican cathedrals. I am quite sure that if I attended a service in a suitably prepared state of mind, with the right music to help me along, ornamentation like this could do for me what Protestant churches cannot. That is, provide the visual stimulus necessary to suspend my worldliness and lift my soul to a higher plane.