Cathedrals are as important now as ever in Christian witness

First Saint Johns Evangelical Lutheran Church in downtown York, Pa. It is an historic and majestic glory to God. Christmas church sanctuaryAnytime I get the chance to show someone the sanctuary, the instant they walk out from under the balcony they inevitably let out a low reverential “wow” and rightly so. OK, I wouldn’t call FSJs (First Saint Johns) a “cathedral” but for a small city like York, Pa., it’s as close as you will get. Keith Anderson in his book “The Digital Cathedral” writes: “…according to Oldenberg’s criteria, cathedrals tend to function as more of a classic third place. Their doors are typically open throughout the day to visitors and pilgrims. People come and go as they wish, remaining anonymous if they choose. They are welcome to admire the architecture, art, or music; participate in worship; or just sit and be present in the space. The experience is not prescribed and there are lower expectations regarding participation and affiliation. As Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, writes, ‘There is clearly something about a cathedral … which breathes an unconditional welcome, allowing people to use its sacred space as they wish.'” (p 136) Well of course use it within reason. But the point is sill the same. FSJs sends an unconditional message of being a Christian church and rightly so. Me and Timothy in worshipI would love for FSJs to be such a cathedral where people could come and go. Add to that our minister of music or our emeritus musician playing the organ on a regular basis would create a magnificent environment of glorifying Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Certainly I would see that as an opportunity to witness to Christ. The building itself is certainly a witness to what the Christian faith community can do to send a very visible witness and message to the community, but when it’s locked up the vast majority of any week, that witness does tend to send a message of isolation and exclusivity. That’s not the message that should be sent.

Having said that, there is the reality that it is in a part of the city that is a little problematic. There have been items that have, well let’s just say grown legs. That would be minimized if we could have regular supervision, but providing that supervision at least 40 hours a week would also be problematic. It certainly would be a tremendous faith statement to leave those doors open without supervision and I’d like to try, but needless to say that’s going to be a tough sell.

I think that you can tell from the pictures (and they frankly don’t do justice) that this is an impressive space and was made that way for a reason, to show that the builders took the church of Jesus Christ very seriously and would sacrifice time, treasure and talent in order to properly celebrate that. Too often such magnificent testimonials are kept locked away. I try to take advantage of every opportunity to at least hold worship, leaving the church open to all who want to attend. All are welcome to worship. OK, if we have the Lord’s Supper you do need to be a Lutheran. There’s a good reason for that and for anyone who wants an explanation I will be glad to provide it. However, worship is important and if you are willing to be flexible, not so dogmatic in terms of feeling you should be able to do whatever you want, you will get a lot out of worship.

“A cathedral is an immersive experience of faith formation, with the images, architecture, people, music and ritual all serving to form those who enter that space.” (Ibid p 166) Yes, faithfulness to those who were motivated by God to build this tribute and the accompanying unique ritual will affect people. We are serious about worship at FSJs, you will get a genuine worship experience in Christ here. We are not about the world, we are about true Christian worship and everything in that sanctuary is a tribute to that. Not just the history, but the faithfulness of today. What too much contemporary worship lacks is any real connection to the rest of the church. It is connection to the rest of the church, all over the world, as well as to the historical church, all down through Christian history that demonstrates true faithfulness. We are here to be a faithful part of the entire church, vertically and horizontally. Someone from the Lutheran Church in Africa (which is growing explosively, there are more Lutherans in Africa than in North America) could come to worship at FSJs and understand what is going on. They may not get the language or small provincial tweeks, but overall they would feel welcome and part of the worship. The same for a Lutheran from 400 years ago. That’s a good thing, not to be denigrated, the church is all about relationship and true worship. Not entertainment and playing to the crowd. “Part of the genius of cathedrals is the way they affect and shape us simply be being inside them. Even as you trace a particular stone carving with your finger, stare up at a certain stained glass window, walk by a labyrinth… the environment itself is shaping you. As Marshall McLuhan reminds us, ‘Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible.’ The space we inhabit (just as the media we use) affect us in ways we don’t always notice.”(Ibid p 166)

The cathedral is always intended to remind us of the ubiquitousness of God, His infinite power and glory and that He focuses all on the individual believer. It’s built to give us the tiniest hint of the glory of God and eternal life in Jesus in the resurrection. Too much of today’s church architecture is made to make people comfortable, a pleasant environment. That’s not what it’s about, it’s about challenging you, wowing you, giving you just the slightest glimpse of the presence of almighty God, Creator, Sustainer, Savior. “That kind of reaction is just what the architects intended… the overall feeling she had was one of weightlessness, as if being lifting heavenward.” (Ibid p 167)

While too many try to emphasize taking over abandoned retail stores for worship, and sure that has its place, too many are also trying to minimize the great monuments to God that can still be maintained and stand as a tribute to the Triune God, to Christ whose church this is, He built the church and as much as possible we should build churches to truly honor Him. My hope and vision is that we can build the ministry of these churches, truly have a cathedral that will be open to any, available to those who want to have worship on Thursday nights at 5pm because they just can’t get to worship any other time. To be a place where people are free to inquire and search and I can be there to help them in that inquiry.

I get the point of Rev Anderson’s book, in this new age we should be a part of all the places where we can reach and connect with people. I have no problem with that and do that to the best of my ability. However, what better place to give people a genuine experience in Christ in a place that was built to honor and glorify Him and genuine discussion and inquiry can happen?

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