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From seeing to hearing: a different kind of knowing

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 18 June 2007

During the last year at St Andrew’s Subiaco we have turned the church around in order to accommodate a new organ that now sits in the old chancel arch. This means that the congregation is now oriented towards the West instead of the East and faces a new, and quite lovely, stained glass window which bathes the communion table in light.

One of the consequences of this reorientation is that the clergy now face a round window above the new organ that depicts the enthroned Christ surrounded by the symbols of the four gospels. It has become my habit to raise my eyes to this window during the Agnes Dei.

I find this moment in the Eucharist particularly affecting and in doing so join Christians in all ages and almost all denominations in the nexus between the eye and the ear, between the icon and the Word.


On a recent visit to Cambridge a scientific colleague drove us out to visit Ely Cathedral that towers above the flat fenland of Cambridgeshire. The Cathedral has a Lady Chapel a common pre-reformation addition dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was originally lit with stained glass and contained painted statues illustrating aspects of the Virgin’s life. Alas the stained glass and the statues were destroyed during the English Reformation, whether during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries or during Cromwell’s reign as Protector I cannot discover. But it is interesting that Ely was Cromwell’s home as you can see if you walk through the village. Cromwell closed the cathedral for 10 years and used it to house his horses.

The visit brought several things together for me. First, the scientific colleague had previously told me that it was impossible to be both a Christian and a scientist. While he was scornful of Christianity he was glad to see the cathedral in good repair. This is faith reduced to heritage. Let’s keep the old buildings but not what they represent.

Second, seeing the blank windows and the empty niches of the Lady Chapel and then walking through the town to see Cromwell’s house reminded me of a deep schism in the church between the inward and the external expression of faith.

The Puritans would have it that all outward expression was empty show and tempted idolatry - what counted was the religion of the heart. Inward here stands for the private and the personal but also for the cerebral.

The move between Medieval English Christianity and the Puritan expression of the reformation was a move from the instinctual involvement in processions, mystery plays, and often pagan festivals converted by the church, to the intentional and the cerebral. It was a transition from the visual to the printed and spoken word, from seeing to hearing and hence to a different kind of knowing.

Not that this was not a good thing, the reformed English church rediscovered the Bible but it also threw out much of the aesthetic apparatus of devotion that had been so important for the nurture of the faith.


Worship was rationalised. Anything that was seen to encourage superstition or the worship of idols was stripped from churches. The extreme of this movement is the bare preaching hall and the displacement or reduction of sacrament. The Puritan emphasis on the Bible displaced high culture. The only songs were to be settings of the psalms the only literature that of the Bible. Art, if there was any, was employed not to lighten the heart but to better it. The sensual was seen as temptation, a danger to the soul.

While admitting the many positive outcomes of the Reformation, its extreme form of Puritanism (Luther was certainly not one) is a truncation of the fullness of humanity and the Christian worship that it engenders is also. I find it an awkward moment when, after preaching, a parishioner thanks me for “my message”. If the faith was really a message then we could replace churches with theological colleges from which Christians could graduate as fully fledged members of the faith. The repetition of Sunday worship would be unnecessary once we had come to understanding, one might even say enlightenment.

But we know that this is not how it is. Christ calls us to be disciples, to be disciplined in the faith. We need to practice and to draw ever nearer. Being as we are forgetful, we need to be reminded not only intellectually, which we hope happens in preaching, but in Eucharist. We need to “taste and see that the Lord is good” we need to eat and drink of Him so that He is in us, literally.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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