Anglican Aesthetics

According to Bartlett, beauty is not a luxury.


Source: Robin Dawes at

In the sixth chapter of A Passionate Balance, “The ‘Beauty of Holiness’: Worship as the Heart of Anglicanism,” Alan Bartlett makes this announcement:

In this chapter, we have reached the heart of Anglicanism, which is worship; the purpose of Anglicanism, which is to foster Christlike holiness, individually and socially; and the essence of Anglicanism, which is that the two cannot be separated (170).

To be frank, this seems more like Anglicanism to me than all that talk of orthodoxy, ecclesiology, and reason. “It is rightly said,” Bartlett continues, “that if you want to know what makes an Anglican tick, don’t ask her about her doctrine, worship with her” (ibid). Maybe I am being overly autobiographical in my assessment, but it was liturgy that attracted me to the Anglican Church of Canada in the first place (though moral and practical matters are keeping me here). Elsewhere Bartlett notes that Cranmer’s gift as a liturgist, not as a theologian, means that “Anglicans do not define themselves in relationship to a particular body of theological writing but in relationship to the living use of liturgical texts” (171). There’s a reason I chose an image of the Book of Common Prayer to accompany my post on Anglican orthodoxy.

If some churches focus on theology and, therefore, have high standards of exegetical or scholastic correctness, one might expect a worship-focused church to have high standards for liturgy:

As the presence of God is honoured in worship, so excellence – ‘beauty’ – becomes a dominant value. Partly because of the legacy of Cranmer and the Authorised Version, with their self-consciously exquisite English, as well as the flourishing tradition of choral music preserved by Elizabeth I, there is a long-standing ethos of aesthetic excellence in Anglican worship (174).

But a focus on “aesthetic excellence” is more than just historical accident, according to Bartlett (for whom historical accidents contributing to ecclesial evolution is, after all, a theme). There is theology behind that ethos. The second aspect of that theology reminds me very much of the discussion about reason and embodiment that I posted last week:

Second, if God is to be encountered in ‘beauty’ then this takes our relationship with God far beyond simple intellectual assent into a more holistic account of human spirituality. All our senses will be involved, and our imagination, and our affections (174).

It seems to me that Bartlett’s first aspect actually derives from his second aspect:

First, if many of the Anglican poets are right and ‘putting God into words’ is an art rather than a science, then beauty is essential. It is not a luxury. (There is an unexplored area here of an ‘Anglican aesthetic’: do Anglicans believe God is ‘beautiful’ and therefore that God is best communicated in beauty?) (ibid)

In other words, if reason is embodied and liturgy is thus part of Anglican reasoning, then you need to make sure that your liturgy meets certain standards in the same way that a philosopher would try to adhere to certain logical disciplines. Beauty is such a standard.

Reading this chapter, I have to wonder what an “Anglican aesthetic” is. Bartlett does offer many textual examples in the writing of Thomas Traherne and the poetry of George Herbert,1 but these don’t seem to quite correspond with my own experiences of Anglican forms of beauty. Nor does the quote Bartlett offers at the beginning of this chapter:

If we were to ask a representative group of English Anglicans what is meant by ‘the beauty of holiness’, I guess that we would hear replies which stressed order, good taste and restraint; bare stone walls and chanted psalms! (170)

For the rest of this post I will try and suss out my intuitions, in a very preliminary way, on Anglican aesthetics.

I used to think that Anglican aesthetics were mostly a pastiche of things stolen from other denominations. Perhaps you can forgive me for this: Anglican churches I’ve attended have had architectural ranging from stone cathedrals to bright white chapels to dark modernist wedges; have ranged from red-robed choirs singing traditional hymns to sandal- (and vestment-) clad priests strumming contemporary praise songs on acoustic guitars; have had icons on the walls, or stained-glass windows, or just bare stone; have had pews or stacking chairs. Some offered classes in the rosary; others had lay monasteries attached. In many cases I could point to clear extra-Anglican sources for these features among the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Pentacostal movement, the evangelical movement. In other cases, these Anglicans shared services with Lutheran congregations.

There are of course similarities between the Anglican churches I’ve attended in the wooden draped altars, the albs and cinctures, the Books of Alternative Services or Common Prayer. But it is hard to see a clear through-line beyond the colours of the liturgical seasons and the words all Anglicans share in the Collect for Purity, the responses to the Gospel, and so on.


Source: Melanie Heywood at

But then, there is a history of patchwork beauty in religion. It is important to distinguish beauty as a standard of truth in theology from beauty as a standard of truth in mathematics. The idea of parsimony, or elegance, plays a critical role in the latter sense of beauty, where the simple but complete Euler’s identity (e + 1 = 0) is considered the epitome of mathematical beauty. As the strained writing of John Donne, however, or the pied writing of Gerard Manley Hopkins, or indeed the strange phrasings of Thomas Cranmer make clear, the art of God-speak isn’t always enhanced by parsimony. Thinking especially of Donne’s analogies and Hopkin’s “Pied Beauty,”2 but also of inculturation and the vernacular, perhaps pastiche has a central place in Anglican aesthetics for good theological reasons.

At St. Faith’s Anglican Church in Vancouver, where I worshiped for nearly five years, there is a cross in the back of the sanctuary made of many pieces of metal, of all different proportions and impressed with various patterns and images. The church nave and sanctuary are, in my opinion, beautiful in the spare style of a certain place and era, but this cross is easily the most remarkable and identifiable element. It is backed by strips of white cloth embroidered with leaves, flames, birds, cereals, and flowers of several colours, all radiating out from the cross. There is a chaos and jumble to it. There is also, overall, emerging from that jumble, sense and coherence.

Anglicanism has, for quite some time, been collecting into itself various elements, which it deploys and arranges in various ways. Perhaps this is, itself, a central principle of Anglicanism: it is a scavenger-church, a magpie-church, a denominational caddisfly. But what are its organizational principles? What determines the shape it makes out of those pieces?

I would appreciate thoughts on the matter, for I still do not know.

  1. Bartlett quotes Traherne’s meditation on “The Fly”:

    Had but one of those curious and High stomachd Flies, been created whose Burnisht, & Resplendent Bodies are like Orient Gold, or Polisht Steel; whose Wings are so strong, & whose Head so crowned with an Imperial Tuff, which we often see Enthroned upon a Leaf, having a pavement of living Emerauld beneath its feet, there contemplating all the World, That very flie being made alone the spectator & enjoyer of the Universe had been a little, but sensible, King of Heaven & Earth. Had some Angel or pure intelligence, been created to consider him, doubtless he would hav been amazed at the Height of his estate. For all the labours of the Heavens terminate in him…

    And he also quotes Herbert’s poem “Love III”:

    Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
    guiltie of dust and sinne.
    but quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
    from my first entrance in,
    Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
    if I lack’d anything.

    A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
    Love said, You shall be he.
    I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
    I cannot look on thee.
    Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
    who made the eyes but I?

    Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
    go where it doth deserve.
    And know you not sayes Loves, who bore the blame?
    My deare, then I will serve.
    You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat.
    So I did sit and eat.

  2. Hopkins was Roman Catholic, alas, but I think the point stands that patchworks can make for good God-talk. Here is Hopkin’s “Pied Beauty,” in case you are not familiar with the reference:

    Glory be to God for dappled things –
    For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
    Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
    Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and ploug;
    And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

    All things counter, original, spare, strange;
    Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
    He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
    Praise him.

Previous post about A Passionate Balance
Index for the Widespread Hunger series

One thought on “Anglican Aesthetics

  1. Pingback: A Widespread Hunger: Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series Index | Accidental Shelf-Browsing

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