A few years back there was talk of restoring the Parthenon. The talk immediately sparked a debate: to what point should the Parthenon be restored? In it's long history it has been a temple, a Spartan barracks, a church, a mosque and- just before it became a ruin- a gunpowder storehouse. To which should the Parthenon be restored.
I think about this sometimes when I see the restorations going on at my home church. (This is not a complaint, I love the restorations!) The church has been around for nigh unto ninety years. In that time it has been decorated several times over. This poses a problem: which set of decorations are the ones to be restored?
I recently got into a debate with someone over the Cathedral. It is currently undergoing a $50,000,000 restoration. The Cathedral, which was built to a fair extent by volunteers- often Irish famine refugees- has fallen onto some rough times. Now an effort is underway to restore the place, at huge cost. Everything in the building is quite expensive to repair. To give an example, it has several very large, very beautiful stained glass windows, all of which are in need of releading and other repairs. Each window costs $100,000 to fix.
The debate was between a few of us, one of whom just wanted to knock St Michael's down and build a new one. Can't say I was a fan of that idea. There have been a few nice new buildings raised in recent years, but they seem in the minority. Another one wanted it restored to the way it was when it was dedicated in 1848. He thought that would be a good point. That would be easy enough, said I. All we have to do is remove all the stained glass and replace it with clear glass, get rid of the organ, the stations of the cross, most of the statues, paint over the frescoes on the ceiling with blue paint and stars, and tear down the steeple. That wasn't completed until 1867. I'm not sure what kind of altar they had then. The high altar, which still exists though it was moved to one side, looks old- but not quite old enough. You get the idea.
So we are left with a problem: which time period should we chose? Which one was the best? There is no easy answer. I think part of our problem is that our thinking may be a little muddied from what is going on today. Today's churches are built already complete, as it were. All the altars, all the decorations, the organs, everything is intact from the start. The idea of time, of not having the whole nine yards from day one, is foreign to the modern mind, it seems to me. The idea of change, and adding on, building gradually and growing, is not something the modern mind really grasps.
Our older churches have a history that comes from additions and add ons. People from the past bought and dedicated statues and windows, and left them for those to come. Each generation left its mark and moved one, making way for the one to come. We recently had a generation that thought it best to sweep aside all those accretions in favour of only itself. The current trend of this generation seems to want to remove that generations work, and replace it with what has gone before. Our work, it seems, is not to put ourselves on the wall, but to reopen a window to those who came before once again. We get the opportunity to sift through history, and choose what seems best from each era. But it seems we also want to have our preferred version fixed and permanent. We chose the past we want, and we try and hold it so the future will have no choice but ours.
Or so it sometimes seems to me.