Only religion could have inspired the beauties of Venice

A gondolier sails under a bridge in Venice (Getty)

Beauty and Christianity are intertwined - as the Bruderhof, and Roger Scruton, appreciate

I have recently been engaged in reading back numbers of Plough Quarterly. This magazine is the inspired production of the Bruderhof movement, an international community of 23 settlements, comprising families and single people, who “seek to follow Jesus in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount”. Following the first church in Jerusalem described in Acts, they renounce all private property and share everything in lives of nonviolence and Christian service. One might describe them as radical evangelical Christians.

Historically known as Anabaptists and persecuted in the 16th century, the modern Bruderhof movement was founded in the early 20th century under the guidance of Eberhard Arnold (1883-1935), a German theologian who rejected both Marxist socialism and the nationalistic individualism of western societies.

Plough Quarterly is part of the Bruderhof’s outreach. It is a superb mixture of articles, poetry, stories, reviews and artwork: paintings, drawings, woodcuts photography – indeed, whatever is seen as reflecting the transcendent beauty, truth and goodness of God. I have always found the magazine truly ecumenical: not diluting its own Christian witness into expressions of polite mutual goodwill, but receptive to contributions from other faiths, notably including Catholics.

In the past members of the Bruderhof community in Robertsbridge, East Sussex, have travelled to Scotland to meet monks from the Benedictine community at Pluscarden Abbey. In 2015 Cardinal Gerhard Müller, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addressed students at the Mount Academy, a high school in New York founded by the Bruderhof, where he spoke movingly on “Educating for the Kingdom”. George Weigel, biographer of St John Paul II, has written for the magazine. The Sisters of Life, found by the late Cardinal John O’Connor, have been featured in its pages, as has Dorothy Day who co-founded her own radical Catholic Worker community.

Indeed, Cardinal Dolan of New York once commented that the late Fr Benedict Groeschel, founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, whispered to him that the Bruderhof “are better Catholics than I am!”

A recent issue, published in autumn 2018, dedicated to the theme of “The Art of Community” has caught my eye because it includes an article by writer and philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, author of more than 50 books on aesthetics, politics and philosophy, which is entitled “The Beauty of Belonging”.

Scruton has been in the news of late because. After he was chosen to chair a new public body to champion beautiful buildings as an adviser to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, he was attacked in some Left-liberal quarters for allegedly “Islamophobic”, “homophobic” and “anti-Semitic” remarks. Scruton has responded by saying that these remarks have been taken out of context and that in general, the word “phobia” is used “to create a wholly imaginary enemy”.

His article is a delight to read. As well as being a clear thinker, Scruton is a beautiful prose stylist, reminding one of the pleasures of good writing. Beginning with a discussion of a painting of The Annunciation by Joos van Cleve (1485-1540), he points out that the artist shows Mary as having “arranged the room with beauty in mind, so as to be a fit welcome for an angel.” From here he moves to a consideration of the place of beauty in everyday life and in ordinary things. Then the reader is invited to “Consider Venice.”

Having revisited the city last month I wholly agree with Scruton’s statement that, more than the great basilicas or the Doge’s Palace, one is moved by “the ordinary doorways on the backwater canals, the marble-lipped bridges across them, the shrines and niches that punctuate the walls, the sense all about you of a meticulous but effortless aesthetic order, in which all the residents have willingly collaborated over centuries, so as to make their city, planted against the odds in the swamps of the Adriatic, the greatest shared space that has ever been made.”

He concludes by asking, “Who can doubt, on visiting Venice, that this abundant flower of aesthetic endeavour was rooted in faith and watered by penitential tears? Surely, if we want to build settlements today we should heed the lesson of Venice. We should begin with an act of consecration, since we thereby put down the real roots of a community.”

An adviser to the Ministry of Housing who writes about religion in this way and who uses words like “penitential” and “consecration” is bound to make enemies within the Left-wing liberal establishment. Good for Plough Quarterly for giving space to one of our country’s most articulate and intelligent thinkers.