High Church is One Thing, but Trashing the Nautilus is a Mistake

It would make sense that a Reformed person such as Steven Wedgeworth would pan an article on the revival of “high church”.  After all, who else to trash “high church” but the people who pitched the liturgy to start with?

It would move the debate forward if a definition of “high church” would be agreed on by everyone.  Conscientious sticking with a liturgical form of worship is one thing; the Anglo-Catholic ideal of “smells and bells” in expensive Gothic facilities like this one is another.  And yet both could be called “high church” especially when compared what passes for “low church” (in more ways than one) these days.

Wedgeworth invokes Roman Catholic Walker Percy (a sure sign of desperation for any Reformed writer) to the effect that Roman Catholics can celebrate their liturgy in more informal ways because of the substance of the sacrament.  He’s right about that; it’s something I picked up on during my Tiber swimming four decades ago:

Bethesda wasn’t quite an Anglo-Catholic church then, but the undertow was there: very formal liturgy (and trained acolytes to help with it,) paid youth and adult choirs to make sure they got it right, and very long (~1 hr 30 min) Holy Communions with all of Cramner’s antique prose topped off by the 1928 Prayer Book’s prayer for the dead.  And everyone dressed up for the occasion.

St. Edward’s was a whole different story: modern liturgy (the Novus Ordo Missae had only been official for two years,) no music at many Masses, no intonations of “Gawd” from the altar like the Episcopalians did.  Without music and with the right celebrant, thirty-five minutes and the sacred mysteries were done, at which point all of the men stampeded out in their golf shirts, presumably having made a tee time at the Everglades Club or the Breakers.  (Catholics’ way of dressing down for Mass was way ahead of its time.)

Anglo-Catholicism always liked a “frillier” form of Christianity, presumably because it looked and felt good and because it helped to drive home the sacredness of what they were doing.  Roman Catholicism can certainly do the ceremonial when the occasion calls for it, but the efficacy of the sacraments is driven by the nature of the church, not because of how elaborately the sacred mysteries are celebrated.

Then Percy informs us of this:

The Catholic is content to practice his faith in a dumpy church in York, while the tourists gape at the great nacreous pile of the York minster, an artifact of a former Catholic culture, as beautiful as the shell of a chambered nautilus and as empty.

Having featured the York Minister on my 1662 Book of Common Prayer cover, this is hard to take.  And trashing the poor nautilus not only makes matters worse, but ultimately does Percy no credit.  The nautilus, more than York Minster, is a testament to the genius of its Creator and his long-term governance of the creation.

The nautilus (right) is a living creature, not very pretty when living, but having changed little in the half billion years or so it has been swimming in the seas.  It’s biological configuration isn’t very complicated but it has survived tumultuous swings in the earth’s environment.  This is because its design is simple and durable, having outlasted many more “sophisticated” counterparts both on land, in the seas and in the air.

But like all creatures it dies, and when it does the chambers Percy refers to can be seen.  The nautilus’ shell geometry is what is called a logarithmic spiral, and that appears in nature over and over again.  We see it in the shape of galaxies, the arms from tropical disturbances such as hurricanes, and the failure surface of shallow foundations.  Without going into the math, the basic “shape” of the spiral is unaltered as it progresses away from the centre.

What Christianity–and just about everything else–needs is neither gratuitous simplicity or complexity, but like the nautilus simplicity that embodies the ability to survive in its complex and changing environment.  My guess is that our Creator is more pleased with the way the nautilus is doing its job than the Church.

Look at the wild birds–they neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns; and yet your heavenly Father feeds them! And are not you more precious than they? But which of you, by being anxious, can prolong his life a single moment? And why be anxious about clothing? Study the wild lilies, and how they grow. They neither toil nor spin; Yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his splendor was not robed like one of these. If God so clothes even the grass of the field, which is living to-day and to-morrow will be thrown into the oven, will not he much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Do not then ask anxiously ‘What can we get to eat?’ or ‘What can we get to drink?’ or ‘What can we get to wear?’ All these are the things for which the nations are seeking, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But first seek his Kingdom and the righteousness that he requires, and then all these things shall be added for you.  (Matthew 6:26-33)

One thought on “High Church is One Thing, but Trashing the Nautilus is a Mistake”

  1. Great article, Don! Even tho’ I’ve gone LCMS(can’t swim the Tiber, unfortunately), I still miss the utter beauty of good liturgy, done well.

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