21 Nov 2012

'Tis a gift to be simple

On Friday I was chatting with a local friend about our beautiful State Library of Victoria in Melbourne. Despite this exquisite building often being a contender in most beautiful library in the world lists, my well educated and broadly travelled friend had surprisingly never heard of it. "You never sight-see in your own city," she lamented. Well, she doesn't, I thought, feeling somewhat smug as I mentally listed of some of our regular ports of call in Melbourne, our State's capital. The State Library, the museums, zoos, art galleries, aquarium, our city's major monuments and National Trust properties, our family visits them all. Some like the library are old friends. We don't visit them on 'field trips' either, whatever one of those looks like; we visit them because ours is a learning family, and that is how we learn, by continually seeing and experiencing new things and new places.

While we regularly visit new places of interest, we do have one omission, and that's churches, temples, and other places of worship. Even on our recent trip to the great historic cities of London, Edinburgh, Paris and Krakow, the number of churches we visited (excepting those we visited for Sunday worship) can be listed on one hand, and only includes one cathedral ( and that was only to take a photo of the Chopin memorial for Leslie).

As conservative Reformed Christians, our family worships in a plain simple church. We have no stained glass, no statues, no elaborate furnishings, and no images - not even a cross. We have no vestments, no music, no hymns even. Our worship style verges on the austere. We think it is beautiful. The rich liturgical decoration in many churches, both Catholic and Protestant, not to mention the traditions of other faiths, makes us feel frankly uncomfortable. Our attention is drawn by the statues, the images of God, the deification of Mary, the crucifixes, icons, and elaborate ritualism,and the colours, symbols and smells make us feel awkward and out of place. Mostly we prefer to stay away.

On Saturday we were passing the door of St Paul's Cathedral when it started to rain. Having never visited with Jemimah, we decided to drop in (along with many others) for a quick touristic stickybeak. Not surprisingly, we all felt uncomfortable. Despite being Anglican, St Paul's is very high church, and we all found it a struggle to prevent ourselves feeling superiorly pious and 'holier than thou'. Still, there were things to see and learn, in this historic old building. Things to admire, and things to contemplate.  (Sorry about the blurry photos.  They're taken on my iPhone.  I still haven't been able to replace my camera after it was stolen in Provence.)

We practised our Latin and admired the detail in the mosaics.  We chatted a little about angels - yes, we believe in them, no we don't worship them.

We giggled over the little men using this  perfect little door.

We were astonished by the intricacy of the patterning in the Victorian tessellated tiles covering the floor. Triangle upon triangle upon triangle. Just beautiful.

While we were there we learned about the building's history, and about the magnificent organ.

And finally we discussed the decoration, the decor that was so different from our church. The gold, the paintings, the altar, the stained glass, the symbolism,  the candles, the choir, the statues and the icons.  It was beautiful, true, but it was also so overwhelming, so unnecessary, so expensive, so materialistic.  We wondered what this vanity was all meant to prove.  Certainly it was beautiful, but so wasteful and so superfluous! We wondered what the many non-Christian visitors sheltering from the rain with us thought of the expensive materials and lavish display. 

We wondered whether we would be able to quietly and reverently worship God in such surroundings, to worship him and glorify him and enjoy him.  We decided in the negative.  We remembered the words to the old Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts - ''Tis a gift to be simple' - and we agreed with these thoughts.  In our simple and plain little church building there is nothing to distract us from the one whom we gather to serve, to worship and praise.  We like it like that. It is cheerful and bright and welcoming and friendly, but it is also dignified and noble and pure and simple.  In our church the most attractive ornament is the words of the man who stands in the pulpit as he expounds the good news of the one we are there to worship.  In St Paul's Cathedral is was difficult to imagine that voice being heard at all.

We left the church into brilliant sunshine of a changeable Melbourne spring day.  We felt glad we'd visited.  We had learned lots, and we had a renewed appreciation for our own little church.  We could appreciate the beauty and the opulence and the skill of man, but as we looked into the brilliant blue sky, we realised that the Heavens declare the glory of God far more than even the most beautiful man built church can ever hope to do.


  1. lol, you secret Quaker, you! ☺ We don't even have clergy as such because we are all priests after the order of Melchizedek, let alone any sort of icon. Even the island church & Rhema have nothing to distract unless you count the people ~ which sadly is enough for me.

    As a medievalist I would have thought you'd be well acquainted with the thinking that the ostentatious displays were to the glory of God & to turn man's thoughts heavenward. Mind you I lost the plot over gargoyles, sheila~na~Gighs & other things I'd hardly call Christian,even in the broadest sense, decorating the Continent's churches & the huge cross in Brissie's St Stephen's is just a horror.

    Once you shut your eyes to pray the surroundings don't matter much, do they? ☺

  2. It thought about the fact that some people believe it adds to their worship of God and others believe it detracts. I actually try hard not to be critical of other Christian denominations, since I believe that we need to be a united church wherever possible rather than pulling each other apart. That's why mostly we chose to stay away. It was a good visit, though. We had great discussions about what we believed afterwards.

  3. When we lived in Canberra we worshipped with a church that met in a lecture hall at the ANU. On the wall there was large portrati of Manning Clark. Now THAT is distracting. But seriously, I grew up in a Lutheran church with stained glass windows. It was certainly not as elaborate as an Anglican Cathedral, but very beautiful. I don't find myself less distracted by the simplicity of our current church than I was surrounded by coloured glass and so forth...but maybe I'm just highly distracted :) There is a certain beauty in simplicity though, yes.

  4. Love that typo...portrati...yeah.

  5. Don't be cross at me Erin. The Cathedral is Protestant anyhow! Love you, my friend.

  6. Jeanne, not cross at all, the hug was to symbolise despite our differences, we are still Sisters in Christ and of the heart{{}}

  7. Holding similar views, it was such a pleasure when we worshipped with you TWO YEARS ago :-) I know that when I attended a church with all the above externals I did feel some sort of "spirituality". I was not until I truly knew Christ and adored Him from the heart that I understood true spirituality. Oh, the awesomeness of the voices of the saints raised in Psalms to the Lord and the Word preached in spirit and in truth.

  8. We go to a Lutheran church now that is all stone and stained glass and oak. It's not as over-the-top as the one you visited, but by Midwestern American standards it is quite fancy. Most of my life, however, I went to very simple churches. I find that while I can enjoy a service just as much in a plain church as I can in a fancy one, I look forward to going to church much more if there is beauty in my surroundings when I get there. It is much more inspiring to me.
    But, potato/po-tah-to. Tastes vary, I suppose, and I'm hard pressed to say that one is actually superior than the other. What keeps me going back is the fellowship with other believers and hearing the Word read. I do enjoy a nice stained glass window, though.

  9. I have never experienced such simplicity. Having attended Presbyterian and Methodist Churches as a child there were always beautiful old stained glass windows, often locally created carved crosses and communion tables, etc. Pastors always preached in academic robes, but not colorful priestly vestaments
    Today I worship in a Non Denominational Christian Church, one of those somewhat "organized" within the North American Christian Convention. All but the current one have contemporary pole barn buildings or large brick churches--generally avoiding the stained glass debate by not having windows in the worship center!

    I would truly miss the beautiful, inspiring music of the old hymns AND the modern praise music--most of which have some inspiration from scripture.

    If I am able though, I would like to find an opportunity to experience your style of worship!

  10. I've only been to one church where you could say icabod I think that if there is someone at the church who is whorshiping god with their heart then he is there outward things don't matter be careful not to be the pharisee looking down on the publican

  11. Too true, Anonymous ( I wish you had left your name. :)). It is very easy to be 'holier than thou' in situations like this. That's why we tend not to visit churches very often. I was really trying to put how I felt into words here. I'm sorry if you thought I was being judgemental.

  12. Hah! You live in the heartland of Reformed Presbyterianism, Lisa. Let me know when you're going to be in Indiana one weekend and I'll introduce you!

  13. Yes, Anon, I didn't intend to sound superior either. I was just remembering that wonderful moment of realisation in my life!

  14. I made my holy communion at St Pauls. I was 11 or 12 so never took much notice of the surroundings as I was far too nervous and mindful of the reason for my being there. All dressed in my lovley satin white communal dress and veil (remade from my mums wedding dress, which I still have!), it was such a special night for me. I also must confess to having a soft spot for beautiful churches. It's not that I think they need to be, as I do believe worship can be taken anywhere, but I simply adore the old architecture and love stained glasses windows.

  15. Jeanne, i enjoyed reading this post of yours as it gave me a glimpse into your thoughts about other churches:) our church meets in a commercial building! :) for me personally, the external doesn't really matter as long as I can focus on God. I was once a catholic so stained glass was a big part of my life for a while back then. Nowadays I just like to appreciate the beauty of the architecture and craftsmanship that has gone into these buildings, they are truly amazing!


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