There seemed to be as many cathedrals in Italy as there are Dunkin Donuts in New England. As my daughter, Emma, and I wandered through Venice and Florence last summer, we encountered many cathedrals. Some very famous, some less so. I spent an afternoon in one cathedral in Venice by myself and reflected on the grandeur of the architecture as well as our situation of having a church that meets in a high school. I spent some significant time in prayer as I pondered the differences. I don't have any clear answers, just some random thoughts, so if you can live with the ambiguity, I invite you to join me. Being a preacher at heart, I came up with three observations all which start with the letter "P". (I just can't help myself.)
I wondered first of all about purpose. What is the purpose of a building? Is it to give us a sense of awe and reverence for the magnificence of God or is it to give us a meeting place for worship and ministry? Ideally the answer is both. Some of the cathedrals I visited seemed more like monuments or museums with little evidence of active parish life.
The Community Chapel has met in Pomperaug High School for over 30 years. We have worked hard to convert a high school cafeteria into a place to worship the Almighty God. But there is no comparing a high school cafeteria to an inspiring cathedral with beautiful stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings. The cafeteria has served us well as a place for gathering and worship, but we all feel the deficiency and look forward to having a beautiful and soothing place for worship.
But the question of purpose lingers. Solomon was given the assignment of building the Temple in Jerusalem, and in preparation for that task he asked an important question in 1 Kings 8:27 - " But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!" While a cathedral can give us a sense of awe and reverence, I believe a beautiful sunset or star filled night or any other of creation's beauty can do the same.
But even more so, seeing the presence of God at work changing a human being to be like Christ - changing hatred to love, fear to hope, degradation to dignity brings glory to God. As Lehman Strauss said: The most sacred spot is no towering cathedral with stained glass windows, but the believer’s heart where God has come to dwell.
A second question had to do with procedure How were those buildings built? Our church is grappling with how to build a relatively simple yet functional building to serve as a place for worship and ministry. The struggle has to do with the cost of materials and labor.
The cathedrals I visited were much larger and architecturally more complicated than the building that we desire to build. I imagine that much of the labor and materials for these cathedrals was donated. Maybe people of those eras were less focused on their own kingdoms and more focused on God's Kingdom. Or maybe there was more to the story.
Throughout church history there also have been accounts of religious manipulation being used to motivate people to contribute to the building of cathedrals. The fear of hell being held over people's heads to get them to produce results. These tend to be speculative and are difficult to document. But it has been reported that when St. Peter’s Basilica was built in Rome, much of the funding came from the sale of indulgences. This may be true of other cathedrals in Europe as well.
The Biblical account of the building of the Temple reveals that when Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, he used conscripted labor with disastrous results. The Temple was built but the Kingdom was destroyed, and Israel was divided into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. (2 Chronicles 10)
So a question I pondered was if these less than ideal procedures were used, could God be pleased or glorified by a building that required manipulating people? Again I have no answers, only questions.
A final question is a question of process and product. We live in an age of instant gratification; we want results right away. Cathedrals took hundreds of years to build. Generations of builders worked and many died without seeing the finished product.
Os Guiness describes the cathedrals this way: "Built patiently over many generations rather than by a short, sharp bench-press of modern engineering, designed and adorned by countless anonymous craftsmen rather than raised by a firm of internationally renowned architects, the cathedrals are surely a symphony in stone to the glory of God rather than a humanist tract on "the will of man- made visible."
So we may want things right now or in six months max, but might there be a bigger lesson for us? Might the bigger lesson be about the process and not the product. Might the bigger issue be the life of faith that Paul speaks about in 2 Corinthians 5:7. Seeing how God who has led us in this process will continue to lead us and complete the task.
I am very much looking forward to the day when we meet for worship in our own space, but I am also happy that God has seen fit to lead us on a great journey of faith. Ultimately the church is not about us or a man made monument, but about the life changing, life giving presence of Jesus among us.