Cathedrals and Their Messages

"A Sea of Steps," Wells Cathedral, 1903, by Frederick H. Evans, Museum of Modern Art
"A Sea of Steps," Wells Cathedral, 1903, by Frederick H. Evans, Museum of Modern Art

My son Dylan and I are reading through David Macaulay’s fantastic series of books about buildings. We’ve read about the construction of castles, pyramids, and cities, and right now we’re reading Cathedral.

The timing is interesting, given that our church is in the middle of fund-raising for a new facility. The morality of such construction projects is increasingly questioned by those who cite the poverty of the developing world, and the massive needs around us here at home. I find myself reading Macaulay’s book and looking at his drawings through the lens of my own struggles with our project.

Why do some buildings strike me as self-indulgent and offensive, while others impress me with a message?

In the case of the medieval cathedrals, I can’t help reacting to the abuses that financed them, like the display of relics and the sale of indulgences. I also react to the throne-and-altar alliances that the cathedrals incarnated: the church sanctified the kings of this world and their wars. History rightly pours scorn on these aspects of cathedrals, and highlights the fact that on Sundays most of them are now empty.

As I’ve watched contemporary building programs both at a distance and up close, I notice that a project’s legacy is often soured by manipulative funding campaigns, or by designs that are patently self-serving. Such buildings become symbols of corruption rather than places for fostering godliness.

I recall a visit to the Crystal Cathedral in southern California years ago. Parts of the campus were beautiful. But the famous building itself was bizarre. Wherever I went around the exterior, I saw myself in a massive mirror. When I went inside, I found that all the seats faced straight ahead, not toward the pulpit, so that it was far more pleasing to watch the massive TV screens than to look at the actual preacher.

In fact, I was in a space built for cameras, for viewership rather than worship. In such places, I don’t begrudge the cost so much as the message.

Consider some ways in which the medieval cathedrals transcended their often vainglorious origins:

1. The cathedrals were direct expressions of the faith of common people.

Bishops didn’t build cathedrals; craftsmen did. Whole lifetimes would be spent cutting stones, carving ornaments, blowing glass, climbing scaffolding. The craftsmen remain anonymous, individual contributors to a vast conception meant to evoke the created order. That kind of devotion is worth something. It is not to be sneered at. The level of skill these laborers had is stunning even in the pages of a book for children.

2. The cathedrals united generations.

The people who dug the foundations were dead long before the cathedral was consecrated. In these projects there was a sense of continuity, of one generation receiving a charge from another, carrying on the work, and passing the charge on to their children.

This aspect of cathedral-building in a community’s life is no longer seen as valuable or even desirable, a fact that speaks of a deeper corruption in us than mere materialism. In a word, it indicates decadence.

3. The cathedrals have a present-day impact on a person’s soul.

They say something. They speak to even the most unlearned child. When you walk around the outside of a cathedral, it doesn’t flash back your own image, but a vision of another world. When you go inside, it doesn’t say, “Look at the jumbo-tron.” It says, “Look up!”

The aspersions cast on buildings can also be cast on all the arts. If it is a selfish luxury to make buildings with a message, then it is also selfish to make songs, paintings, photographs, poems, and novels. All of the arts require time, devotion, and money. But we miss the balm of God-given creativity when we lower all of life to the utilitarian bottom-line.

Our building in Orland will not rise above commercial-grade design and construction, which saddens me. But I also know that our design is flexible. We can humanize it by the arts we can afford, and we will. Above all, we will have worship space that encourages participation, not viewership. We’ll have large spaces for many purposes, but also very small spaces set aside for one-on-one counseling and prayer.

The cathedrals were only possible because a strong culture knew what it wanted to say and how to say it. While our building will never be an artistic marvel, it will be a clear message.

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One thought on “Cathedrals and Their Messages

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  1. This is a great post! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    And congratulations on your building project! It’s good to read a church leader giving such thought to the space being planned for ministry! Too many just put up walls …

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