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.