Beauty is vital to the human soul. As creatures made in the image of a beautiful God, we find that our natures respond to beauty profoundly. Beauty feeds our spirits by granting us a glimpse of the eternal through the temporal. It teaches us to love what is good and true by shaping our senses after divine order. In turn, it teaches us to love God Himself more fully as we learn to recognize and delight in what is truly lovely. For nearly all her history, the Church has recognized the importance of beauty and her duty to love, safeguard, and express it. In recent decades, however, the prevalent strain of modern evangelical Christianity has largely abandoned this pursuit. Several generations of Christians have emerged who have little concept of beauty’s value in the Church, myself once included. When however I finally recognized the Church’s crucial role in creating and defending beauty, both the Church and my own identity within her became clearer. I saw how the saints before me had preserved this beauty in church architecture, liturgy, vestments, and art. Through their faithful efforts, my faith found renewed strength and purpose. As I reflect on my journey into the folds of the historic Church, I see how beauty ultimately drew me to her threshold. In time, beauty’s gracious insistence would compel me step through and embrace the catholic faith as preserved in Anglican tradition.
I grew up in the nondenominational, evangelical movement. By and large, I found these congregations to be faithful and neighborly but with little emphasis placed on beauty. Mission outreach and evangelism trumped any concentrated effort on that score. Indeed, many evangelicals would see an emphasis on beauty as a distraction from what is most important—that is, the winning of souls for heaven. With their fixation on the world to come, these Christians tend to slight the beauty of the present world. They fail to see it properly as a foretaste of God’s own beauty. What results is a grave incongruity: these Christians imagine faith, hope, and love to issue from a fundamentally impoverished soul. There is perpetual outreach to make coverts and bring them to love God but all while neglecting the beauty which fosters a full and proper love. Though undeniably well-intentioned, the evangelical movement undercuts itself in the end.
This neglect of beauty does ultimately feed an aesthetic, however—the utilitarian “aesthetic of conversion.” These evangelical congregations are content to operate out of windowless, cinderblock buildings so long as the gospel is being taught; church leaders are comfortable preaching in flip flops; the order of service is casually composed. Indeed, if the highest goal of the church is to make converts for the next world, there is little cause for beautiful architecture to create a place of belonging here in the present world. If the climax of the service is the sermon, there is little cause for beautiful vestments which celebrate the miracle of the Eucharist. Moreover, if the elements of the Eucharist are nothing but symbols, there is little cause for a beautiful liturgy which prepares the saints to receive the elements. With its utilitarian purposes, modern evangelicalism easily dispenses beauty as superfluous. At best, it affixes beauty as an ornament to the service to make its aims more palatable to the masses.
My first encounter of beauty in the Church would shake this outlook decisively. In the spring of 2010, I embarked on a singing tour of Europe with my college chorale, performing in numerous cathedrals throughout Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, and Venice. Amid the spires and stonework of these ancient houses of worship, I first recognized the Church as a thing of grace, order, and dignity. She was indeed beautiful. The architecture, liturgy, and vestments were interwoven with a precision and intention that transported the soul beyond the actual space into the eternal. Our chorale had the privilege of singing as part of the Mass on multiple occasions, so I found myself joining in this expression of beauty even as one experiencing it for the first time. The flood of beauty was overwhelming, and I was forced to reconsider the liturgical tradition. My evangelical upbringing had led me to assume that ritual equaled lifelessness and that a liturgical church was necessarily a dead church. In these cathedrals, however, the force of beauty—beauty not in spite of ritual, but through ritual— was so vivacious that I had to reconsider.
It was several months after returning from Europe that I first attended an Anglican church (Church of Our Savior at Oatlands, Virginia). Once again, I saw the grace of beauty at work. Here was not the majesty of a European cathedral, but the simple beauty of a faithful parish housed in an old, redbrick building, rich in history, nestled in the Virginian countryside. I attended these services for some time but merely as an observer. As the months progressed, however, I came to see that I could no longer seek Anglicanism merely as an aesthetic experience. To do so was to slip into the trap of spiritual consumerism—the very utilitarianism I was trying to shake. Participation in the Anglican liturgy (specifically the 1928 Book of Common Prayer) demanded more than a passive speaking of words, and I could not explicate the beauty of the Anglican service from Anglicanism itself. Here in this tradition of English worship was the catholic faith both preserved and bequeathed, and out of this good and true heritage sprung forth its beauty. The Book of Common Prayer was not a collection of prayers and services that people had “beautified” to make more appealing. There was no utilitarian motive present at all; beauty itself was the reason. The dignity and grace of Anglican architecture and liturgy was the natural outgrowth of Anglican doctrine, seen especially in its sacramentalism. In time, I would come to understand Anglicanism not simply as another flavor of Christianity but as an authoritative heritage of faith. It was not a boneless fiber I could bend to fancy or an aesthetic experience merely to consume. It was a defined method of being, a deliberate life of love to both God and neighbor, a specific way of gratitude, a special manifestation of grace—and it was good, right, and proper that I should enter into it.
In the end, I was won over by this simple revelation: Anglicanism was beautiful and strove to convey beauty because its doctrine compelled it naturally. The grace of God was seeping through the seams of Creation, and the historic Church was celebrating, reinforcing, and illuminating this through its expressions of beauty. Thus, I began a long study of the Prayer Book and historical Anglicanism. After much contemplation and discussion with friends (to whom I am much indebted), I gratefully stepped into the Anglican heritage, ultimately to be confirmed last autumn.
It was beauty that beckoned me deeper into the faith, exposing the deficiencies of modern evangelical Christianity and pushing me to seek out historic Christianity as preserved in Anglicanism. Though there was no point in which I relinquished my childhood faith, Anglican doctrine both illuminated and strengthened this gift of faith. Anglicanism gave me a proper understanding of the sacraments and the sacramental nature of the world—that is, how heavenly grace is being continually conferred through the physical substance of creation. In this, Anglicanism opened my eyes to the inscrutable love of God. I never doubted His love as such, but it was not something I fully recognized until coming under the historic faith. The workings of divine love are so much more distinct to me as I participate in the Eucharistic feast every Sunday, and my eyes now recognize the sacramental nature of the world even as I live day to day. This continues to be the chief blessing of Anglicanism, and the culmination of beauty’s gracious pull upon me.
What is more, I find that even as I respond daily to this divine beauty working in and through the Church, I myself am being made beautiful day by day as one of her members. Christ is building up His saints as “living stones” into a beautiful, everlasting temple with Himself as the cornerstone (1 Peter 2:5). Thus in a mystery, our tangible church architecture becomes a foreshadowing of our very selves—a graceful edifice fashioned in love, stone upon stone, into something wondrous and beautiful. “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our sight” (Psalm 8:23).
Erik Landstrom is a music and drama teacher at Ad Fontes Academy in Centreville, VA.