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A unity around beauty

The difficulty in forging any sort of unifying consensus among North American Anglicans is not that the “two parties” hold different values. It is, rather, that they hold different meta-values.

What is a meta-value? Philosophy in the Western world has been defined as the search for what is real, true, and beautiful. The study of the real is metaphysics, the study of truth and knowledge is epistemology, and the study of the beautiful is aesthetics. These three branches cover most of what is classically known as philosophy. A fourth can be added: Ethics is the study of right action.

Traditionally, all philosophical disagreement takes place inside these categories: that is, we can argue among each other as to what is real, true, beautiful, and morally right. One may think the physical world is real, another argues that it exists only in the human mind; one may argue that the Bible is true, another says it is merely myth and moralism; etc. What we value within those categories changes, but usually we do not argue whether there ought to be something real, true, beautiful, and right. Philosophers have generally agreed ahead of time that reality, truth, beauty, and right action are inherently valuable and worth the effort to discover. They are meta-values, and they animate the very search for themselves.

But the radically new philosophies of postmodernism have called into question even these meta-values. Postmodern metaphysics is practically an oxymoron, as explicit metaphysical claims and interrogations have largely been abandoned in contemporary thought. Postcolonial studies and liberation theology have led us to question our traditional Western epistemology: what’s universally true from the privileged side of society often appears very different from the oppressed underside. And postmodern ethics seems caught in the prisons of individualism, micro-cultures, and the desire for personal liberty: what’s right for me may or may not be right for you. There are no more ethical universals. No one can tell you what you can or can’t do.

All these meta-value disagreements pose problems between progressive and conservative Anglicans in North America. Conservative Anglicans often hold on to traditional Western meta-values. They want to know what is real, true, and right. Progressive Anglicans frequently agree with postmodern and postcolonial thought: all such assertions of universal reality, truth, and morality are themselves oppressive structures, inseparably keyed to Western imperialism or social oppression. We have a conflict of meta-values.

But one meta-value tends to stand out among the rest, and even to act as a sort of rally point for those who hope for unity, and it is the meta-value of beauty.

Our sense of beauty in the human form is culturally conditioned, to be sure, and definitions of beauty can be subjective. But a common appreciation for the aesthetic of the traditional Anglican liturgy seems to be the one commonality that progressives and conservatives share in North American Anglicanism. Whatever our thoughts on same-sex marriage, most of us want the English boys’ choir to come and sing at our parish. Whatever our drive toward social activism, there’s a certain decorum that must be maintained on Sunday morning. We might change the words of the Creeds and the content of the Book of Common Prayer, but the idea of the Book of Common Prayer remains something around which North American Anglicans want to rally. And that idea is not based on uniformity of worship — few of us want a dogged insistence on rubrics and conformity. But we do want the beauty of the liturgy; we want to continue to experience the aesthetic power of the Book of Common Prayer and the Episcopal Church’s liturgical heritage; even if we are unsure about our faith in the God named in the Prayer Book (“Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”), we don’t want to let go of the aesthetic.

Perhaps this means our Anglican aesthetic can be a center for unity. Or maybe that means the aesthetic is the final prize for which we are all contending. If aesthetics is to be made a foundation for any effectual unity, however, it needs to be approached theologically. What are the theological roots of our common aesthetic? Why do we love this liturgy, this music, this pageantry? What does it tell us about God and about ourselves? What has it always told the Church about God and about ourselves? How does our aesthetic sense connect to the Church’s historical proclamation of reality, truth, and morality?

But deeper still, how does our longing for beautiful worship point us to the desire of all human hearts to find relationship with God and experience divine beauty? How is Anglican worship, Prayer Book worship, itself a subcategory of that response to God detailed in the Psalms, where the trees of the field clap their hands and the mountains skip like lambs?

John Thorpe’s other posts may be found here. The featured image of the lighting of the Paschal Candle is by Flickr user Br. Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


  1. Postmodernism may have left truth, beauty, goodness lying scattered on the ground, but it was modernism that killed them by taking what was a living whole and dissecting them into the component pieces.

    Beauty *is* a great starting point in the cause of unity (just as it is a starting point in apologetics/evangelism in the modern world), but will be ultimately ineffective if it is not brought back into the living, breathing Creature that is Beauty, Truth, and Goodness.

  2. The phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” seems to have been around in some form since the 3rd Cent. B.C. Since we don’t find it in Scripture, its “truth” may be problematic, but it does seem to capture a repetitive human trait. Examples are legion, but my wife seeing at least a kind of beauty when she looked at me, instead of a more pleasing countenance from others makes the point.

    I wish I could believe in the rightness of your position, but it seems we cannot even come to agreement on a local basis about the non-beauty of someone else’s liturgy. King James vocabulary is the only medium which can truly convey the holiness of liturgy – so say some. How can a liturgy not understandable to the 21st century English-speaker even approach beauty say others. And are we going to unify around English, Spanish, Chinese or the many African tongues?

    Ah, but the universal language – music. So did beauty in music only occur in the 18th and 19th centuries? The past 20 years seems to have quadrupled the genres of music euphonic to everyone’s ears.

    Surely there are some progressives and conservatives that together find common beauty in our liturgy. But did anyone notice the “I can shout louder than you” fistfight over the proper response to the Lord being with us? In the blue corner was “and with thy Spirit.” In the green corner, “and also with you.”


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