'Open your eyes': A poetic celebration of Old High, New Low (i)

... I stay

Awhile within this church: its simple

Furnishings, and storied windows say

More to me of heaven than the pale

Abstractions of theology. A day

Spent in an empty church has been as full

Of goodness as an age elsewhere. I feel

Its peace refresh me like a holy well.

Reading Malcom Guite's 'responsive poem' on Psalm 84 led me to think of how examples of his poetry could be considered as a poetic celebration of what laudable Practice has previously described as the Old High, New Low tradition: how the reserve and modesty of the Old High Church tradition can now appear to be 'Low'.  Guite himself echoes something of this when he says that this particular poem gives expression to "my love of the simple, ancient English parish church".  This simplicity has deep roots, as indicated in the account of the parish church given in the Homily for Repairing and Keeping Clean of Churches:

God's house, the church, is well adorned with places convenient to sit in, with the pulpit for the preacher, with the Lord's table for the ministration of his Holy Supper, with the font to Christen in, and also is kept clean, comely, and sweetly.

The 'simple furnishings' of the classically Anglican parish church - described by Roger Scruton as "noble but bare and quiet" - are celebrated in more than one of Guite's poems.  In 'The Lectern', he captures both a sense of Anglicanism "sturdily incarnated in land, parish and work" (John Milbank), and the centrality of the reading of Scripture in the vernacular in the Anglican offices, of which Hooker famously declared, a "kind of preaching is the reading of holy writ" (LEP V.19.1):

Some rise on eagles wings, this one is plain,

Plain English workmanship in solid oak:

Age gracefully it says, go with the grain.

You walk towards an always open book,

Open as every life to every light,

Open to shade and shadow, day and night.

In 'The Table' the symbols of Prayer Book piety - Table, wood, white cloth, elements - are placed alongside the caution and modesty of Prayer Book Eucharistic doctrine, at once absence and presence:

The centuries have settled on this table

Deepened the grain beneath a clean white cloth

Which bears afresh our changing elements.

Year after year of prayer, in hope and trouble,

Were poured out here and blessed and broken, both

In aching absence and in absent presence.

Guite points to something close to the heart of the Old High, New Low understanding: that in this age when, as Andrew Sullivan has said, many of us are overcome by "visual noise", "the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction".  And so the quietness of the parish church, the dignified simplicity of its furnishings and its liturgy, all this can be culturally resonant, offering a sane, meaningful alternative to constant distraction, re-ordering body and soul, heart and mind, to attend to wisdom, peace, grace, love.

Related to this is the significance of the plain, ordinary nature of the parish church, of the wood of lectern and Table, of the elements for the Communion.  There is no attempt to overwhelm the senses, already inured to overwhelming distraction. Rather, the senses are invited to dwell upon simplicity and ordinariness, and there discover the goodness of the created, the ordinary, the everyday, caught up in grace.  It is what the Latitudinarian Simon Patrick called "virtuous mediocrity".

In 'Hatley St George', Guite wonderfully combines these themes, celebrating the sanctity of the ordinary as it is embodied and revealed in the dignified simplicity of Old High, New Low:

Stand here a while and drink the silence in.

Where clear glass lets in living light to touch

And bless your eyes. A beech tree’s tender green

Shimmers beyond the window’s lucid arch.

You look across an absent sanctuary;

No walls or roof, just holy, open space,

Leading your gaze out to the fresh-leaved beech

God planted here before you first drew breath.

Stand here awhile and drink the silence in.

You cannot stand as long and still as these;

This ancient beech and still more ancient church.

So let them stand, as they have stood, for you.

Let them disclose their gifts of time and place,

A secret kept for you through all these years.

Open your eyes. This empty church is full,

Thronging with life and light your eyes have missed.


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