Mystical Aestheticism

I come to a subject that is quite related to some other posts I have written on Romanticism and “neo-medievalism” in the nineteenth century and up to the outbreak of World War I. This term is coined by Embryo Parson in his criticism of my posting on the Anglican Catholic.

I have looked into this movement as a wider phenomenon in western culture, especially in England. The world before the 1914-18 “Great” War was more optimistic and more human, reposing on a notion that the lower could be brought higher, transfigured by grace. It opposed another notion of Christianity, not unlike certain aspects of Gnosticism, according to which the elect could rightfully gloat over the fate of the common masses of humanity born for damnation.

After all, the Renaissance emerged from the Middle Ages, attaching great importance to values like the Transcendentals of Plato, a Hellenic notion of Christianity to offset the austerity of the more Judaic vision of Christianity.

I have seen something of what some fear in Anglo-Catholicism as it was in late nineteenth-century England – homosexuality and a lack of asceticism and depth in one’s Christian commitment. Indeed, the Gospel is one of self-denial and suffering accepted in union with Christ’s Passion. It is also one of joy in the Resurrection and our transfiguration through grace bringing hope to every soul that ever came into this world.

Aesthetics is an important part of philosophy and medieval theology. Thomas Aquinas attached great importance to beauty. Beauty is found both in nature and human creation, and it is through this creativity that man participates in the creative work of God as a kind of “icon”.

It is quite strange how the word mystical is associated with aestheticism. The association is not mine. The one who makes this association affirms that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the apostolic and Catholic faith. Really? Many people are attracted to the Church through beauty and art, and then discover the complete picture which also involves asceticism, tears and penance. There is Eastertide and Christmas, but there is also Lent and the meditation on our mortality. How tedious it must be to be in a church and find a perpetual Good Friday, as it would also be if one did not, in the words of Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited – “beware of the Anglo-Catholics who are sodomites with unpleasant accents“.

It would appear that a certain kind of sub-culture grew in the fin de siècle era around the personality of Oscar Wilde and others. There were various branches of this aesthetic movement, beautifully satirised by Evelyn Waugh as he painted his portrait of life in England among the well-to-do in the period between the two world wars. Some of this aestheticism was merely affectation and shallowness, and I can understand this being found to be symptomatic of moral weakness and lack of virtue.

I have never seen anything of this kind in the ACC or any of the other Continuing Anglican Churches. On the other hand, I am concerned about the development of a philistine spirit with a tendency to despise anything that represents the finer and more “feminine” traits. American fundamentalists talk of “muscular Christianity”, which seems something of a euphemism of the Übermensch of Nietzsche and the New Soviet Man of another ideology.

Neither the Church I belong to nor I aspire to any particularly “masculine” or “feminine” dimension of Christianity, but a balance between aestheticism and asceticism. There need to be both, as love is both ἀγάπη and ἔρως, love for the sake of the other and the relationship motivated by pleasure experienced by the spirit and body.

Embryo Parson defines “mystical aestheticism” as my suggesting that the Church should, in my words –

appeal to a more subtle level through art and culture, through beauty and philosophy (love of wisdom), through what some people find attractive about traditional liturgies.

and that my suggestion is –

– in keeping with the perennial Romanticist underpinnings of Anglo-Catholicism,  is pitching the case for Christianity-as-aestheticism, reminiscent of the unhappy medieval legacy of the Mass as “spectacle.”

So, what we are talking seems not to be people like Oscar Wilde and characters out of Evelyn Waugh novels, but the “medieval legacy of the Mass“. That is what is really tickling our friend – the abomination of the Popish Mass, which I celebrate each day in my chapel with a clear conscience according to the Use of Sarum. It isn’t the homosexuality or “camp” affection of some men living in cities and leading a dilettante life, but what the Puritans and earlier Reformers sought to stamp out. We are no longer dealing with Romanticism or the Pre-Raphaelite or Arts & Crafts, but the polemics about getting rid of the priesthood and the Sacraments – quite a quantum leap!

And then, more words are put into my mouth, saying that –

– one finds salvation principally (if not only) by incorporation the Church and receipt of her sacraments, and the apostolic soteriological emphasis on Word, power and Spirit be damned.

Those are not my words, even by implication. Where do I deny the need for the word of Scripture? He uses two other words – power and spirit, which I will not comment on, because the meanings of those words are likely to be different for him and me. Probably, he means the power of God over man for whom grace is either irresistible or inaccessible, and spirit as some kind of boost in the emotions of the believer. He will probably write another posting on that subject.

I know many who are alienated by “muscular” Christianity and seek Christ in beauty. The replacement of Benedict XVI by Pope Francis in the Roman Catholic Church is highly symbolic, as was the nomination of Archbishop Welby to the See of Canterbury. The cracks in the Christian edifice are there between traditionalism, liberalism and the possible return of a rigorist and anti-humanist version of Christianity corresponding with ideologies very close to the extreme right-wing of the early twentieth century. This would not so much be in the official Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, but certainly in groups of radical traditionalists and fundamentalist Protestants. (Here I use the word fundamentalist as a synonym of the French word intégriste).

I suppose we can say all we like, and the fact remains that the sacramental / liturgical vision remains non-negotiable on one side as do the tenets of the English and Continental Reformation on the other.

I suspect that the real objective of Embryo Parson was to use my so-called “quasi-official” blog to embarrass the Anglican Catholic Church and push it into a corner. Either the ACC is hypocritical in calling itself Anglican or has no control over its priests usurping positions of authority – if that really is his thought in the matter. I don’t think our Archbishop and Bishops will be impressed, and the same amount of diversity that has existed until now will continue to exist. The ACC has become very unified and stable after the bad experience it has suffered in the past with cantankerous bishops, and on this solid basis can afford to allow a certain amount of diversity between the neo-Arminianism of some and the full English-style Anglo-Catholicism on the other.

It should also be remembered that Embryo Parson is no longer a member of the Anglican Catholic Church.

* * *

Update: The Amazing Predictive Powers of Father Anthony Chadwick

I only publish this back-and-forth from a point of view of its provoking reflection and thought. Unfortunately, the new article brings little in the way of intellectual value and merely shows that he is simply using my writings to accuse the ACC of some kind of anti-Protestant “pogrom”. Supposedly, I would be a spokesman for this kind of policy in the ACC in its conspiracy against “true Christians”! Truth to be told, I am simply not interested in any such thing and I belong to a Diocese where these questions are just not an issue.

I am not interested in continuing with this argument, but I would be interested if American readers could tell me how “mainstream” this kind of thinking is in the already marginal Continuing Anglican world.

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