Jonathan Meades

Concrete cuckoo

Brutalism, however, turned worshippers into non-worshippers – and in its ecclesiastical form it became a concrete cuckoo, usurping the faith it was meant to serve

The Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council provides a salutary example of a tiny ‘elite’ foisting ‘anti-elitist’ practices on the ‘non-elite’ — and coming a cropper. Vatican II’s dates are important. The Council was convened in 1962 and concluded in December 1965. These were the high years of the most uncompromising architectural modernism and, just as pertinently, of the craze for theatre-in-the-round, whose champions considered the proscenium arch to be an authoritarian (very possibly ‘fascist’) instrument inimical to ‘participation’.

Rome’s neophilia left much of the clerisy bewildered. It was admitting temporal fashions to a spiritual domain. Maynooth’s head was spinning. The Council’s bias was towards the Liturgical Movement’s long-hatched plans for modernisation. Hence ecumenicism, the vernacular and often prosey mass, herding the flock close to the host in an act of naif literalism and turning the matey, guitar-strumming priest to face that congregation.

Then there was the matter of iconoclasm, which proved to be a further form of self-harm. Extant churches were ‘cleansed’, stripped of altars, stained glass, paintings and dubious bondieuserie. The result was occasionally akin to the marvellously frigid post-Reformation ecclesiastical interiors of Pieter Saenredam. More often, it was doctrinally sanctioned vandalism, with added carpets.

Vatican II, in its eagerness to embrace the spiritual analogues of Harold Wilson’s white heat, dispensed with what Clement Attlee had dismissed as religion’s ‘mumbo jumbo’: but this was the very stuff that appealed to the gullible, which constituted the Church’s USP: dodgy theatricality, pious ritual, high formality, po-faced earnestness, tonic joylessness, subjugation by the invocation of a mighty force. The essence of the sacred, the unknown and the unseen, was, apparently, to be found in these properties that defined the entire apparatus of mystery.

St Bernardette of Lourdes in squeaky rubber or plastic; 3-D Christs with multiple halos; Virgin Mary alarm clocks; toilet-roll holders that play ‘Ave Maria’; fun-fur Last Suppers; the Stations of the Cross in artisan-tooled low-relief caramel Naugahyde….The

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