Fr. Barton Gingerich
One of the most obvious challenges a church faces, if it wants to incorporate art better into its congregational life, is where to draw the line when it comes to the quality of the art.
When people think of “bad art” in a church context, they may have different things in mind. Some may be thinking of experiences of painfully wrought offertories and anthems. Others may have in mind ugly megachurch warehouses. Still others may be considering sentimentalized visual art (if any at all) within the spaces of Christian corporate life. And that is only touching upon bad sacred art that happens within the church’s walls. Some may even say aesthetics belong strictly to the area of subjective opinion. But when we discuss the quality of art, we’re actually working to apply an objective standard that presupposes such a thing as good, beautiful art —and such a thing as bad art. Good art possesses fittingness, appropriateness, the capacity to draw a soul inward and upward, excellence in execution, and so forth. Beauty can be shared.
But how can we share good art? There are both good and bad ways of inviting and safeguarding the beauty of the Church. As a priest, I must often show compassion toward those who are willing and even insistent on sharing their artistic gifts and talents within the Church. The pastoral-liturgical “no” is always a tricky one, especially when parish politics come into play. How does one turn away bad art kindly, in a way that doesn’t stifle the desires and affections of those willing to help worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness? No one is going to achieve perfection, and small congregations in particular may have a rather small talent pool to draw from as it is.
One response relates to stewarding artistic gifts within the parish. For example, someone may be in the early stages of his amateur musical career (think of a piano or voice student in grade school). I want to invite such members to share their talents in the liturgical context, to participate early on and make ministry in music a lifelong pursuit and habit. Another artist might have more developed talents, but need pastoral and theological guidance in their artistic engagements, particularly within the walls of the Church herself. Even though the untalented or untrained can produce sloppy, haphazard art, the gifted and trained can also produce art that is inappropriate and unfitting for the purposes of corporate life and worship.
So how does one build and improve the artistic excellence of a congregation? How does one welcome the artistically-gifted, while guiding them to properly worshipful ends yet also warding off bad art?
I believe this issue particularly relevant for pastors. It is typically our job to maintain and improve the liturgical health of the flock. And, as is usual for parish ministry, it can be a long, haphazard slog to achieve that. I confess that I am often far too impatient in these matters. I desire a strong artistic richness in the twinkling of an eye. Nevertheless, there are resources and guidance to be found in Scripture and in the wisdom of the church’s historical mind.
The Old Testament is filled with literary, visual, and performative arts. It is obvious that God desires to be worshipped in beauty. Beauty honors Him and is instrumental in the transformative liturgical practices of His people, which all glorify Him. We can look at the intricate, exorbitant Tabernacle and Temple. Notice how much of the biblical text is taken up in describing the design and construction of these spaces (see Exodus, 1 Kings, and 1 Chronicles), which reflect a heavenly reality (mysteriously revealed in such books as Ezekiel and Revelation). Similarly, King David and other authors of the Psalms commended excellence in musical composition and performance. As Psalm 33:3 implores, “Sing unto him a new song; play skillfully with a loud noise.” It is obvious that God cares about beauty, and this should be impetus for pastors to build up an aesthetical backbone—to seek to inculcate and safeguard the beauty of Christ’s Church.
Building up this backbone will take some precious time and energy. But it need not be laborious or expensive. In fact, it can be quite enjoyable and involve the inculcation of healthy lifelong habits. Two kinds of art are arguably the most useful to learn about for a pastor of any sized church: music and architecture. A pastor doesn’t need to be the next Bach or Palladio. He just needs a working-man’s knowledge of things to navigate artistic conversations and to improve his taste. Learning how to read music would be an excellent place to start. Another would be to learn how to listen to music intelligently. In addition, a pastor can start listening to better music by gaining familiarity and engendering affection for the classics.
For architecture, the approach is similar. Read some books or articles on the basics of architectural design. Like music, there can be strange, new terminology, but it’s a helpful grammar to have on hand. And in terms of practice, look at beautiful buildings. In particular, familiarize yourself with beautiful churches, of all sorts and sizes. Find out the sorts of things that make such buildings lovely to behold and dwell in. Even better, see if you cannot witness or participate in sacred musical performances in such spaces. Then research how churches are built if your congregation wants to construct, improve, or add to its own worship space. Finally, be willing to oppose ugliness if it is proposed. Hopefully you will have built up a vocabulary and an excellence of taste to make persuasive arguments for beauty. Champions of bad art within your congregation may still remain unconvinced and perhaps upset, but at least you won’t responding to them out of uninformed preferences and unstructured biases. “It doesn’t feel right” isn’t as persuasive as “Here are some principles and reasons for why this ought to be a certain way.” Again, this is not a subjective “ought.” It’s an “ought” rooted in truth and objective standards of beauty.
Obviously, the pastor is not the sole builder or performer (chanting aside). Instead, he is often the one guiding the congregation’s patronage of various artists and craftsmen. Moses didn’t build the Tabernacle; Bezalel and Aholiab did. If a pastor has some working knowledge of arts, he can point the more gifted lay member to past precedents and practitioners he deems more fitting for whatever current needs may be. It can pull the artist more deeply into the bosom of the Church and into the mysteries of Christ. Obviously, more exact and explicit requirements and standards can be necessary for various projects, but pointing to the Church’s tradition can help prevent tyrannical micro-managing on the part of the pastor. A pastor must be humble toward one more gifted than himself, all while knowing when a line is crossed.
Granting artists the responsibility for such service can be quite a balancing act, but a pastor must trust this theological maxim: to that which God calls, He equips. Given the canon of the church’s music and in her magnificent structures, it should be clear that beauty is possible for congregations today, particularly when the artistically-gifted are equipped and inspired to praise the Lord with their skills. In this, pastors should be able to echo the words of T. S. Eliot: “There is work together / A Church for all / And a job for each / Every man to his work.”
For further reading, Barton recommends The House of God: Church Architecture, Style and History by Edward Norman and How to Read Churches: A Crash Course in Ecclesiastical Architecture by Denis McNamara.
Fr. Barton Gingerich is an assistant priest at St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Richmond, VA. He is a poor cellist and tenor, but he learned to read music around the same age he started phonics.