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Angela Tilby: Notre-Dame and the secular state

26 April 2019


ON THE night of the Notre-Dame fire, Parisians wept for their cathedral (News, 18 April). It seemed to me that they wept not just for the building — after all, the technology and expertise exists to produce a near-perfect replica. The emotion seemed to be about something more visceral and less tangible. Notre-Dame is as much a personification of French endurance as a physical structure. It stood through the turmoil of French history, the Revolution, the birth of the secular state, the Second World War.

While France is one of the most secular countries in Europe, the state owns church buildings, and is responsible for their upkeep. This has consequences that may not at first be obvious.

We might assume that state control frees the clergy for their ministry by removing the burden of the care of buildings. There is some truth in this, al­­though, when I have visited French churches, it has seemed to me that clergy some­times act more like guests than hosts. We might also suspect that state control means that restoration projects are not liturgically or theologically sensitive. Some of the suggestions for the restoration of Notre-Dame are, indeed, hair-raising.

But, when church restoration is well done in France, the effect can be astonishing. I have long been an admirer of Saint-Malo Cathedral, in Brittany. Built in the 12th century, it was badly bombed in the war when the steeple collapsed into its Sacred Heart chapel, destroying the organ. It took 28 years to restore.

Today, a great bronze high altar dominates the nave. The altar rests on massive carvings of the four Gospel beasts; the lion, the bull, the angel, and the eagle. Around the altar are the presidential throne and the sedilia, and a massive carved stoup and candlestick, all in the same greened bronze. This subliminally reminds the visitor that a cathedral is, in a sense, a sacred grove, which imitates and celebrates organic life, raising it to God.

Saint-Malo is impressive not only for its aesthetic unity, but also for its theological integrity. The Gospel beasts point to the universality of the faith through time and history. There is none of the clutter that one so often finds in English cathedrals: stacks of movable chairs, self-conscious displays about the cathedral’s work. Saint-Malo Cathedral manages to be at the same time a sacred building for the faithful and a fitting container for the pride and grief of the past.

All this was achieved under the auspices of a secular state that is not always at ease with the Church. I hope that Notre-Dame is restored in such a way that it brings tears of resurrection to those who mourned it in Holy Week.

Read more on the story in Andrew Brown’s press column, and in Poet’s Corner

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