Thursday, November 09, 2006

Vestments (huh) - what are they good for?

I was not the only one who looked askance at Mrs. Schori’s vestments at the National Cathedral last Saturday. Not only hers, of course – I was almost equally scornful of the garb of her assistants – but hers was the starring role, so naturally she got the most attention. As the Episcopal News Service wrote, “Jefferts Schori's vestments were designed and made by Victor Challenor and the Rev. Paul Woodrum of Challwood Studio in Brooklyn, New York. The design, meant to represent dawn over the earth, is rendered in shade of blue and green with orange and yellow.” This reminds me of the story of Benjamin Franklin, at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787:

On the final day, as the last delegates were signing the document, Franklin pointed toward the sun on the back of the Convention president's chair. Observing that painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising sun from a setting sun, he went on to say: "I have often ... in the course of the session ... looked at that sun behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know it is a rising and not a setting sun."
Franklin, observing the birth of a new country and a new experiment in governing, had reason for his optimism. When I looked at Schori’s vestments I saw a setting sun.

But I don’t intend to quibble over the correct interpretation. What I’ve started thinking about is what is the point of vestments in general, and these in particular. Since it was discussed openly on Fr. Jake’s blog, obviously it’s no secret that Woodrum and Challenor are a gay couple. Now, the ‘gay priest living with a partner” train left the station a long time ago, so I’m not surprised by that. What I find remarkable is that THIS is who Schori chose to make her vestments, and I’m sure it was deliberately done. She must have had to work pretty hard to find someone who could successfully combine so many “progressive” policy points. I suspect that Challwood Studio could have designed ANYTHING and Schori would have worn it, since the point is WHO not WHAT.

Of course, one can play dumb and claim that there is no “message” beyond what anyone can see by looking at the vestments themselves. The designers were the best for the job, Schori loves their work, etc., and I’m just being paranoid. I just don’t buy that argument.

To me, hiring the designer of this is a message all on its own.

If Pope Benedict XVI had worn at his installation the vestments of Pope Pius X plus the Triple Tiara, nobody would have believed the Vatican if they’d declared, with big innocent eyes, that they only chose them because the colours were so pretty. People who think about symbolism notice these things, and nothing Schori has said or done convinces me that this was not a little under-the-radar wave to her true constituency. And a subtle giving of the finger to those not “in the know’ enough to notice it.

As to the vestments themselves, I’m not surprised, as so many were, that there were no Christian symbols on them. They’re not about Christianity – a look at this collection, which contains other Challwood designs, shows that an absence of Christian symbolism is pretty much the norm among modern designers. Some of these designs are rather pretty, but they’re attractive in a purely “wall art” kind of way.

In a discussion of liturgical dance, a poster on MCJ wrote “If you take a liturgical dance out of context and perform it next to a secular dance -- say something choreographed by Martha Graham (whom lots of liturgical dancers love to emulate) -- can you tell which piece is which?” By that standard, applied to textile art, nearly all the pieces on this page fail. The abstract bands of colour, the butterflies, they’re nice, but there’s no reason on earth to strap them on a priest’s back.

By comparison, look at this site of art quilts (I picked that because it’s the textile art I know most about) and ask yourself why any of them couldn’t just as easily be found among the liturgical hangings in the ECVA exhibit.

So what now is the point of liturgical vestments, in a church that no longer has anything to say about God? Modernists like Schori are too proud to just take over what was there before – it requires humility to accept what the ages have given us, and submit ourselves to the same customs that have shaped those who came before. A true modernist will want to demonstrate that he is not just the new caretaker, but the undisputed master. So what is old is cast out, to make sure that there is no bridge back from the Brave New World. And maybe there’s also that dark pleasure in deforming what has been valued by others that I’ve sensed before. As Belloq said to Indiana Jones, “Dr. Jones. Again you see there is nothing you can possess that I cannot take away.”


Blogger Mark Windsor said...

She's giving "ghastly" a whole new meaning.

11:33 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

And I'm currently ploughing through Book 3 of 'His Dark Materials', so that just conjures up images of "cliffghasts".

7:57 am  
Blogger xavier said...

Dr Mabuse:
Christopher now calls her Purple haze.
I like it. Like a smoke grendae of the same colour. Very vivid but easily dissipated


5:59 pm  
Blogger Nasty, Brutish & Short said...

I also thinked she missed an opportunity. Pander to her base, and irritate the right. How pedestrian. If I were she, I would have insisted on the most ancient vestments available. Something very "muscular church." That would have said a lot more, in my opinion.

Given her gall, I'm surprised she didn't ring up the Vatican and ask to borrow a tiara.

While we're on the subject, did you see the news story from a few weeks ago about how the producers of "The Bachelor: Rome" tried to get the Pope to appear on the show? I thought that would have been right up your blogospheric alley. They thought it would be neat to have the Pope praying with the Bachelor "before he made his final decision." I kid you not. I think it was in one of the New York papers.

6:53 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

xavier: Purple Haze is absolute genius! Somehow, it makes me think of "Smoke on the water, Fire in the sky"

NBS: No way! They thought they'd get the Pope on the show? I never heard of that - the gall, eh? I wonder if Gerald Augustinus at 'The Cafeteria is Closed' has heard about this?

Yeah, very ancient and venerable vestments WOULD have made a big statement at the investiture. But it would take an agile mind to think of that, and "pedestrian" is the prevailing fashion among the high revisionists.

10:42 pm  
Blogger Ellie M said...

Interesting. The Pooh-bah was apparently making a statement to a small elite circle who were "in the know." But she didn't reckon with your detective skills, Dr Mabuse!

10:37 am  
Blogger Kasia said...

I can't believe they thought they'd get the Pope. Now, Cardinal Mahoney...that's another story...

11:45 am  
Blogger xavier said...

Dr Mabuse:
Yup I vaguely remembered the song lyrics when I first read it as Chris' blog. Unfortunately, I can't remember who sang it (Black Sabbath??)


10:55 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Deep Purple - and right there must be the explanation for why "Purple Haze" triggered a memory of those lyrics. I had to look it up - I knew the name of the group when I wrote the post, but then I forgot, and all I could think of was Velvet Underground, and I knew that couldn't be right.

1:15 pm  
Blogger Nicholodeon said...

What have you people done to Sancta mater ecclesia anglicana? I swam across the Volga 22 years ago but every now and then something anglican catches my eye.

Like the Challwood vestments. I watched the video of Ms Shorey's installment and the only bright spot for me were glimpses of the Challwood vestments.

C'mon, girls...lighten up...the rising sun is a Christian symbol, in Jesus, Sun of Righteousness. And the moon appears with Mary in a number of western depictions.

But what really grabbed my attention was the black, female sumo wrestler that was bouncing around the chancel singing about Queen Victoria. Where ever did they get her? As opening act in the three ring circus, she was great.

Then, the throng of creaking clerics trickling the length of the cathedral. Didn't they look splendid in their best of barber shop red and white? But how many clowns can get out of one car?

The Kraalspace is popped up in my google for something else, and I find it excellent.

Well, say "good night" Gracie.
Good night, Gracie.

3:25 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I like most is the level of maturity and Christian charity in the blog post and the comments. It warms my heart.

12:38 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Addendum to the previous. Actually, it is the reason so many of my friends refuse to consider Christianity. They know it doesn't really make any difference in how a person acts. When push comes to shove, Christians are just as spiteful and snippy and triumphalistic and everybody else. I inform them that it is just not true. Christians know to reserve their snippiness and spitefulness for the truly important things.

12:42 am  

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