Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Homily: Ralph Adams Cram, Richard Upjohn, and John LaFarge [December 16, 2009]

You haven’t lived until you’ve sat and listened to a string of oral book reports delivered to you with breathless enthusiasm by teenagers who have just discovered Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel, The Fountainhead. Though Ayn Rand’s crazy ideas about individual rights [gathered into a sort of philosophy she called “Objectivism”] have never appealed to me, they are almost always a big hit with high school students, especially those who still nourish the illusion that the entire world is about themselves. Rand defined Objectivism this way: "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." [Atlas Shrugged] A life creed for teenagers who don’t know who they are yet, perhaps, but hardly words for followers of Jesus to live by.
The hero of The Fountainhead is an architect named Howard Roark who chooses to destroy his own creation rather than see it compromised. In many ways Howard Roark has served as the popular image of the visionary architect in American culture, and even though Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry, and Richard Meier are no doubt much nicer people and more socially conscious than Rand’s hero, we nevertheless tend to expect the designers of our major public buildings to be the Romantic individualists emblematized by Howard Roark. You may laugh at these swooping titanium roofs today, but one day they’ll be celebrated as the greatest monuments of the early 21st century.
At the same time in my life—the early 1990s—when I was listening to these Objectivist teenage book reports, I was also working with a real architect named Brenda Levin, a woman who designed the Math and Science building at Oakwood School where I was serving as the principal. As part of the team helping to make that building a reality, I had the opportunity to watch a real architect in operation. And what surprised me the most about working with Brenda and her colleagues was the way in which she demonstrated how a successful architect actually works. Though the start of the process may be a visionary ideal conception, getting a building built requires enormous collaborative and community relations skill. Only a novelist would think of an architect as a loner. A better image might be a filmmaker: the architect needs to begin with a vision and then work with flesh and blood people with their disparate interests, values, and ideas to achieve a shared consensus on what the building will actually become. Not only that: the architect has to take building codes, utility lines, neighborhood interests, and the pedagogical uses of the structure into account. Designing and bringing a building into being is more like conducting an orchestra than like being a soloist.
Today we give thanks for the lives of two architects—Ralph Adams Cram, Richard Upjohn, and one artist, John LaFarge. All three were instrumental in the late 19th and early 20th century Gothic revival in church art and architecture that produced, among other things, these buildings here at Seabury. Cram designed two of my favorite spaces, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, and Holy Cross Monastery, the main house of the monastic order of which I am an associate, in West. Park, New York. Upjohn designed a prodigious number of church buildings, including Trinity Church, Wall Street and one church I know well from my early days as a priest, St. Thomas Church in Taunton, Massachusetts. LaFarge was both a painter and a stained glass artist, and crafted among other things four prominent stained glass windows at Trinity Church, Boston. And Cram’s partner, Bertram Goodhue, designed Christ Church Cranbrook, the parish where I will become rector in January. Two other parishes where I’ve worked—All Saints, Pasadena, and Church of the Redeemer, were designed by Gothic revival architects in the same movement: Reginald Johnson and Charles Burns respectively. Though I run as far and as fast as I can, I can’t seem to get away from these flying buttresses!
Those of you who have been in the Anglican Ethos class this fall know that the rediscovery of Gothic architecture was more than an aesthetic fad. The neo-Gothic architects were themselves influenced by the Oxford Movement, and the ritual and liturgical affirmations of 19th century Anglo Catholicism involved a lot more than a taste for stone and stained glass. The Tractarians became a movement because they opposed the Erastian, Whiggish ideas of the church as the religious arm of the state. To Newman, Keble, Pusey, and Froude, the church was in fact the literal body of Christ. Or as Charles Gore later put it, “The Visible Church is the Son of God Himself.” The Gothic revivalists were attracted to Medieval vesture and architecture because these things represented the last period in Western history when the church had lived out of a unitive vision of its ministry and mission. So the Gothic buildings and liturgical arts designed by Cram, Upjohn, LaFarge, and others came to stand for an aspiration that the church might live up to the high ecclesiology of the Oxford Movement.
It always surprises people who don’t know me very well that I share this vision of the church, that my ecclesiology is a sort of ironic postmodern Tractarian Anglo-Catholicism. It is this understanding of the Gospel which has resulted in the strongest and most vibrant strain of social action in the church’s recent history. And it is only this kind of theological vision of the church—one that sees it as something more than a well-intentioned non-profit institution—that has the power to transform both lives and society.
Today’s Gospel—rather predictably, I’m afraid—is Matthew’s version of Jesus’s words about the wise person who built a house upon the rock. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.” [Matthew 7.24-25] As we think about those words in the context of our celebration of Cram, Upjohn, and LaFarge, two things come to mind.
First: it is precisely this serious vision of the church, and only this vision of the church, which is worth giving your life to. “The Visible Church is the Son of God Himself.” God is doing something in the world of which the church is the sacramental sign. And though we do all kinds of stupid, painful, oppressive, even sinful things in the church, nevertheless it is only in the life and witness of a community of finite people, brought together in Baptism and sustained in the Eucharist, that any kind of sense can be made of the world at all. The ultimate, final creative source of the universe is alive and work in the flesh and blood likes of you and me. That is the vision to which these artists and their buildings testify, and that is the vision that sustains a body of people seeking to discern God’s will for them and the world in the midst of all kinds of suffering and despair. We are part of the thing we proclaim. And the hope we announce is not only ours but belongs to the One who in Advent comes toward us. As Cormac McCarthy puts it in The Road, we are “carriers of the flame.”
Second: building your house on the rock does not mean being either recalcitrant a “traditionalist” or a self-centered jerk. Nor does it mean being a narcissistic visionary artist who will have no truck with compromise. It means being an architect in the sense that real architects do their work. As lay and clergy leaders, we are charged to be the visionary conveners of a conversation, trusting that God is and will be incarnate in the body over which we preside. “The Visible Church is the Son of God Himself.” We don’t need any more reactionaries or egomaniacs. What we do need is women and men who take the Gospel and the community which carries it seriously, people who feel both the pain of the world and the calling to address that pain in ministry, action, and prayer.
Cram, Upjohn, and LaFarge were that kind of people, and so, I hope, are all of us. And it is for the visible company of all us finite and fragile and faithful people that we proceed in the Eucharist to give thanks. Amen.


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