• Vested Interest

The Value of Beauty

Mary Davenport Davis
October 15, 2015

More than 580 acolytes, from dozens of churches from Florida to California, were in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. last weekend for the National Acolyte Festival This is so obvious that it seems a little silly, but the first thing to strike me about the National Cathedral was how big it was. As you know if you’ve been there, it is very, very big. Numbers—such as the height of its tower (301 feet) or the distance from the narthex to the apse (almost one-tenth of a mile)—aren’t particularly helpful. It is just astonishingly massive; even with nearly 600 acolytes, their parents, mentors, clergy, and other supporters filling the nave, it still feels uncluttered.


            We made five of those acolytes in that grand space. We came, a band of pilgrims spanning three generations in age, to dedicate ourselves anew to our ministry in God’s temples. Representing Trinity Church Boston (and, as it turned out, the sole representatives of Massachusetts), we came with open hearts and without any clear idea of what would happen. We came seeking inspiration, education, friendship. And we found all of these, and more besides. What I found above all was beauty.


            There was an incredible amount of liturgical bling on display. Acolytes bore torches, banners representing their home churches, processional crosses of dizzying variety. They wore albs, cassocks, surplices square-necked or round, lace-paneled or plain. We saw festive streamers dancing grandly through the vaulted ceiling of the nave, gold, red, white, purple. Thurifers swung their gleaming brass thuribles solemnly or with eye-popping flair. Bells rang, swinging from processional crosses—Good Friday and Easter Sunday in a single multisensory symbol. Above it all, light shining through the stained glass windows set the pale stone of the sanctuary aflame with rosy gold and green and blue.


            We sang “Siyahamba” and “All Creatures of Our God and King,” and the cathedral choir sang Parry’s “I Was Glad” (a perennial favorite with the Trinity choir), and all 580+ acolytes, vergers, and clergy processed down that very, very long nave. We were seven-year-olds and seventy-year-olds, the confident and the nervous and the bored, white and black and brown, men and women, bishops and deacons and priests and laypeople, walking or strutting or sitting in wheelchairs. Shining in our finest and sparkling in the light, we were beautiful.


            What is the value of beauty in God’s service? There’s been back-and-forth tension over this question throughout Christian history, between those who believe that material beauty distracts from the pure worship of God and those who find that beauty in the world beckons them deeper into the unutterable beauty of God. At Trinity, we tend toward the latter theology—a theology expressed less in doctrine than in the ecstatic outpouring of our selves into beautiful music, beautiful words, beautiful movements, and of course the beautiful sanctuary that houses it all. For me this striving for beauty is essential to liturgy. The solemnity and grace of our bodies moving through the patterns of worship, the strength and warmth of our singing, the glorious words of our prayerbook—to me they are all part of a celebration of our embodiment. We are in the world, and we are beautiful. And through recognizing and celebrating this physical beauty, we come to know better the beauty of God who became embodied in Jesus. We revel in our world, and so we revel in our world’s creator.


At "Vested Interest," church nerd Mary Davenport Davis explores all things liturgy and music at Trinity and beyond. Chime in with comments and questions!