Thursday, September 07, 2017

Appomattox in the Cathedral

So the word has come down that the Lee and Jackson windows are being removed, consigned to some undetermined fate. Those who have read my earlier responses here and here may anticipate, correctly, that I am not terribly happy about this, but the events in Charlottesville surely sealed their doom.

Mark Tooley's article in First Things is a bit of a mess, and the comments of course are mostly a cesspool of posturing, but he manages to convey some of the rather mixed message of the cathedral fabric. This report produced by the task force set up to advise the cathedral on the windows is not particularly illuminating in its own right and especially as to the motivations of anyone other than a UDC member (you knew the Daughters were going to figure in this), and her offering is a classic in Lost Cause thinking, but when it comes down to it either Bishop Freeman (who was an upper crust New Yorker from birth) was misrepresented in his stated desire for a Lee memorial, or there were a number of Yankees who helped push this thing along. My impression was that they found Lee and then Jackson, who was added fairly late in the development of the memorial, honorable and even admirable figures; they were also plainly having Westminster Abbey delusions, into which certain prominent southern figures dovetailed nicely. And at least it was Jackson, and not Leonidas Polk. But while the cathedral has managed to maintain its claim to national religious ceremony (as witnessed most recently by its dogged participation in the Trump inaugural in defiance of progressive pressure), its memorials are scattered and unsystematic. Nowhere is this more evident than in the windows, which, except for Rowan leCompte's clerestory series, vary widely in style and subject, with the only pattern dictated by age and taste, and, well, by donors.

Those images form part of a fabric that is at once anamnetic and forward-looking in hope. "A house of prayer for all people" was an objective from the start, and while one can of course feel a certain hubris in the Episcopal assumption that they were ordained to do the uniting, the cathedral as a building stands as a monument to the idea of a nation gathered together in prayer. But the Episcopal Church itself has abandoned any such vision. Our leadership still suffers from the notion that they, by virtue of their positions, ought to be heeded, but they in reality have come to speak for a narrowed position that is still caught in the old boomer progressive contradiction of being simultaneously rebellious against authorities and utterly captured by leftist academia's elitist notions.

The torch-bearing mob in Charlottesville tipped the balance, of course: with Lee and Jackson being shrouded and indeed any figure on the wrong side of modern judgement about the war being taken away in the night, it was inevitable that the windows would be secularized and taken away to ignominy. But with their removal comes another moment of national irreconciliation. The national battle is not between alt-right fascists and righteous leftists, for the vast bulk of the nation would have neither in control in the end, contrary to the alarmists who serve the major political interests. Too many people have defended taking down the statues by making anachronistic attacks on Lee's character; he was no saint, nor were any of the other generals on either side, but to reduce him to a mere traitor is to apply a judgement out of time and in denial of a genuine conflict of loyalty. This is rewriting history, and while I have laughed at the romanticism of the Southern cause ever since I was old enough to understand the antics of the North Carolinians who populate my father's family, the current angry certainty of the left trivializes the issues faced by southerners when the war began. And my sense is that we have still further into a national ethos where the constraining civic virtues-- honor, loyalty, duty, respect-- shrink further from public life and become merely weapons: increasingly ineffectual, as the last presidential election showed. It is often said on the left that these were always honored more in the breach than the observance, but I do not believe that; and at any rate, if we do not aspire to them, the alternative is, well, the increasing nastiness we have now instead.

I'm not writing nasty or sorrowful letters to the cathedral, if only because I do not believe they will value my opinion. I have to hope that Dean Hollerith and Bishop Budde, unlike their immediate predecessors, will be able to deal with the empty tracery with some sensitivity instead of a display of triumphalist self-righteousness. And I pray that they can find a way to include those outside the progressive circle in the future of our national cathedral.


underground pewster said...

How much do you want to bet they put in a window that depicts Gene Robinson under a rainbow?

C. Wingate said...

Unlikely, I think. Hollerith is not that kind of fellow.