Do We Need Our Cathedrals?

I’m not so sure anymore. I used to be “Oh, it’s the new Jerusalem typified,” and all sorts of high language learned in seminary. But now I’m not so sure we need to have these fancy church buildings at all. Instead of being the welcoming halls of God, our churches are barred and shut and inaccessible.

I love cathedrals, but whether the church can afford them is uncertain. Big buildings are a big drain on resources. Old big buildings are a bigger drain – they require repairs and maintenance well beyond their net worth. Money shouldn’t be part of the reason for getting rid of them, though; there are other reasons I can think of.

The main one is their inaccessibility. Unless a cathedral is also a tourist attraction, they are shut up and locked during the hours not in use. This is so opposite to their purpose that it astounds me. Cathedrals, and churches in general, were meant to be public spaces. They were in use at all hours,with prayer, worship, eucharist, confession and people meeting casually. Markets grew up around the cathedrals, people were in and out of the building and the churchyard daily. Now they are big monuments to the past, more like museums that are opened for the public on occasion.

The Washington National Cathedral, the cathedral of my home diocese in the States, is focussing its mission more on drawing tourists than on outreach. Tourists bring dollars that support the infrastructure, poor people do not.

Do we need our church buildings? We need places to gather, but this barely used hulk in the middle of town doesn’t seem to have much purpose. Locked, cold, dark except for Sunday morning and the rare midweek service, it seems to be sitting there, not only eating its head off, but a recrimination to how we who call ourselves Christians have neglected the faith. Why isn’t that church open all day, every day, with people gathering for morning and evening prayer, Bible study, children’s activities? Because the faithful have left, or keep their faith for Sunday morning.

Even Sunday morning can feel cold and stark. When was the last time a stranger at church was invited to someone’s home for a meal? When did the whole church gather for a shared meal that was free to all, members and visitors, passersby and strangers? Well? When did your church last have an open meal for which they did not charge?

Churches have become fundraising institutions and not the Body of Christ.

Maybe every church that is costing its parishioners more than they give to the poor should be sold. Maybe renting the high school auditorium or meeting at the Lion’s Club would make more sense. And maybe the flock is small enough that they could meet in a living room. The Church is not the church. The building, especially if it is old, authentic, historic, newly built and full of gadgets, musty, dusty, haunted, expensive, state of the art, brass-plaqued to a faretheewell, or George Washington prayed there, is a monument to the past, perhaps a mystical future and certainly to the egos of its supporters.

I don’t mean just the ornate and ostentatious churches either. When I was a child, there was great debate in the Baptsist Church as to redecorating the sanctuary. Was the plain brass ‘resurrection’ cross a possible idol? Apparently not; it went up over the choir’s heads, seven feet tall, shining brass and backlit. The windows were ornamented with gold curtains, the pews covered with gold cushions. There was as much pride in that simple “not at all papist” church as in a forest of crucifixes, icons, and stations of the cross. It was superstitiously plain – we had debates over whether we could have pictures of Jesus.

So, is it time? Do we turn over our cathedrals and expensive empty churches to some non-profit historic society? Someone come up with an argument that is not pomp and circumstance, please, and tell me, how do we go back to the vibrant, open church? How do we unlock the doors?


9 thoughts on “Do We Need Our Cathedrals?

  1. Hi,

    You make some great points! My local cathedral (Minneapolis) is not used for the Daily Office or daily Eucharists, but it really puts on a great show on Sundays! My dad’s cathedral (Milwaukee), however, does a Eucharist, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer seven days a week, and their “high church” services are genuine and not at all a show. My dad walks to his cathedral every day. I can’t believe the differences between these two cathedrals that are a part of my life.


    • That sounds wonderful. I don’t have any sound preference for a certain liturgical style, as long as it is done in simplicity and humility. As I wrote it, I thought of my home cathedral in Fredericton, which while it doesn’t have daily offices now, is open to the public and is used frequently by the local and diocesan clergy for personal prayer. It’s not a big or fancy cathedral – a late 19th century Gothic church, really, not much bigger than a parish church in England. It is the sort of place where we could stop in for a chat with the verger or dean and the altar guild ladies in the sacristy would offer a cup of tea.

  2. Thankfully our church building, a 150 something year old stone structure at the center of the villiage, is open 24/7; its one of the facts that drew me here to serve when called as pastor. Sadly however, little goes on in that building…a weekly AA meetings, monthly fund raisers (dinners), the occasional concert and the sunday morning activities. Tourists like to take pictures of the unique bell tower, a ficture the church and community raised over $30,000 to refurbish a few years back.
    But regular spiritual disciplines, service, ministry, mission? Nope. Sunday morning worship and Bible study and the Board meetings to discuss the decaying dated building much in need of repairs and TLC, almost nothing of which ever seems to be done.
    The congregation already gave one decayed church property to the Town for $1 a year for 20 years so someone else could fix it and use it; I think they’ll hang on to this one…but to what end and for what purpose? maybe the truly important questions will be considered when the building crumbles just a bit more? I hope so…

    • To what end and what purpose? Yes, I’ve had to ask that question. My last parish had an old church building, once a chapel of ease – that is, it wasn’t meant to be used year round – that was open for the occasional service and funerals. It was crumbling at the foundation, needed major repairs, and was an attractive nuisance. The most valuable thing in it was the woodburning stove. We locked it because we hadn’t agreed on its disposal. I finally got the parish corporation and the parties personally involved to agree to tear it down. Then I left the parish before we deconsecrated it, and it took another five years befor anything got done. My regret was that I had plans to sell the building for its fixtures – beams, pews, bell, wideboard hardwood flooring – and the new rector was entirely clueless as to recycling a building. Of course, someone tried to start a “save our church” campaign, but since she didn’t live in the parish and hadn’t set foot in the building for more than six years, she didn’t have any credibility.

  3. Magdalena,

    All too often, here in Australia, too many churches are closed up during the week; when I was a girl, they all used to be open so that members of the community could stop in at any time for private prayer/contemplation, along with all the uses you’ve mentioned; bible study, meeting with the minister etc. Now, they’re shut up except for Sundays for the most part. there is something I find very special about being simply able to pray privately within the church space; it is a drawing away, a place set apart from the ratrace outside… the only church (Anglican) I know to be open during the week is St. James King Street (incidently, one of only three ‘high churches’ in the Sydney Diocese). Whenever I need to go for appts. with my prosthetic eye maker, I stop in to pray, and yes, on occasion the verger has come up and spoken to me. However, the local parish churches are all closed except for Sundays…they cite vandalism and theft as the key reason…convenient excuse, I think.

    Of interest, our city’s mosques are always open, still hold their fixed hour prayers for all to attend, act as meeting places for members of the community, act as facilitation points to see to the welfare of their attendees, act as point of contact for anybody who may come in enquiring from the general community, hold prayer gatherings outside of the fixed hour prayers and Friday services, Quranic classes for members and enquirers, will open up for the entirety of Ramadan and provide a free potluck etc. I have close friends who are Muslim whom I’ve known for years; been to many an Eid celebration with them… Now, these are not flush with funds; indeed, many of their members are doing it tough here in aus and their local ‘parishes’ for want of a better term are not establishment by any stretch of the imagination.

    Now; in the Anglican context, (and the other liturgical Church traditions), WE have our fixed hour prayers, our services, the tradition of meeting for prayer (be it ‘roseary’ prayer or otherwise, Bible study, private prayer etc… Why can we not at least during Lent and Advent offer a free communal meal? Oh, and if one is a traveller, on the road, even doing it tough, they can stay in the Mosque itself until they move on or until alternative acomodation can be arranged in the instance they’re staying in the area for a while…as long as they’ve put their bedding and personal effects away by morning prayer… Why have we allowed ourselves to become so time poor? why have we allowed ourselves to become so busy? Why have we let the cares of this life choke out the Gospel like the weeds around the sprouting seedlings in the parable of the sower? WE SHOULD BE DOING THIS IN THE CHURCHES!!! the Marounite Church down the road is doing this – every day – is more than Sunday worship for its paritioners, but a part of life and active focal point of the community, who also maintain it and look after it themselves – if electrical work is needed, for instance, and there are qualified electritions in the congregation, they volunteer their time. If plumbing is needed and plumbers are in the congregation, they volunteer their time etc. It works and works well. After my second attendance, (I had to head off quickly after my first), one of the parish priests had come up to me and introduced himself, engaged me in conversation and invited me back.


    In my LGA, 7% of the population identify as Anglican (only 10=15% of this would be regular attendees), whereas 12.5 are Muslim… Our Anglican churches in the LGA could do a MUCH BETTER JOB of outreach for outreach’s sake, opening their doors once again, actually holding evening and morning office, (on top of the other daily office prayer times), using the churches for their bible study, communal prayer, having the space open for personal prayer thorughout the day… I’ll grant them this; at least one does run a seniors meeting there fairly regularly, but its dying on the vine; the church, that is.

    Our Cathedral; St. Andrews, still, I think, holds morning and evening service, and has just undergone a major renovation exercise (but it is a very wealthy church, with a strong congregation who use it as their home church); but out in the burbs… hmm…

    I’m doing ‘the Church in History’ this semester; we studied Christ’s ministry, death and Ressurection, today, and looked at the apostolic (particularly Pauline) church; at this stage (from around 50-100AD), when it was (in the Pauline Experience) a homechurch movement, wherein the small local home groups would meet in the homes of their patrons and patronesses who had the room to fit them in when coming together communally for fellowship and worship between groups who would remain confined to their local ‘neighbourhood’ comunities.

    the Cathedral was a natural extension of this; these often had schools and universities attached to them from the mid Medieval era onwards. now, the Cathedral schooll, if it exists, is more often than not an elite private school.

    This is most definitely food for thought – and action – Church leaders who may be reading this blog and its comments.

    • I am puzzled as to why we went so far from the church as community center to church as business place. My answer to the problem of theft and vandalism is two-fold: first, don’t keep anything worth stealing in the church – no silver (which is hardly worth stealing), no electronics, no fancy stuff that could cause temptation; second, have a verger or sacristan, even if on a rotating voluntary basis, on hand. For churches that are open 24/7, don’t install yard lights or security lights. It just shows the way in. And if someone sleeps in the church a few nights, what harm? If they’ve caused a mess, then clean it up, have a verger there to greet them next time, and see what can be done. We can be superstitiously reverent of our churches, or so possessive we act as if any stranger in them is a potential enemy. It isn’t “your” church – it belongs to God.

  4. Magdalena,

    yes!! the church (Sydney Diocese is NO EXCEPTION), is run like a business. Now, the bean counters out there will squawk ‘how do you expect us to pay the electricity and heating bill if it isn’t??’ (Churches running at deficite due to poor offerings/tithes in financially depressed parishes etc., a few wealthy parishioners carrying the ecconomic load etc..). The Early Church gave an excellent model for us;; that of inter-church support, so those who were flush with funds could help their strugling fellows. One excellent (in my thinking) idea I take away from my former denomination, along with their regular free post-service luncheons (always more food than needed, even if the offerings seem slim pickings on the table) is that of each congregation depositing the weekly takings into the denomination’s equivalent of the diocese, to be re-issued out as ministerial pay, missions, development etc. If a church wishes to undertake a significant building project, it can raise its own capital; think finance is also available but not sure.

    It isn’t hard to do regular church luncheons; I’ve helped in plenty of them, both cooking anc cleaning up afterwards.

    First, establish a calendar of luncheons. ( first Sunday per month, say, to start with). Then get the word out there. Make it easy for the congregants to leave their dishes in the kitchen prior to service etc. Have a roster of kitchen hands who will be able to heat up what needs heating up etc, make up the beverages, put out the crockery and cutlery, glasswear etc. The crew can take care of the luncheon prep so it is 4/5 ready at the very least when service is finished. have nibblies out just in case there are a few delays. Ensure the roster is rotational so the same don’t get lumbered with the responsibilities. Same for cleanup (including wash up of dishes etc that people have brought in). I’ve done sink duty plenty of times 🙂 even down to laundering and pressing of teatowls, keeping the kitchen clean and stocked with dishwashing liquid, clean and serviceable brushes, sponges, cloths.

    This worked organically; we always had enough food, it was never a drama of ‘not enough time’ etc. this worked brilliantly across countless congregations and regions, states etc. Many churches in this denomination hold fellowhship lunches after services every week to which all are invited, especially visitors. and they are ALWAYS free.

    I loved cooking for these, providing savouries, salads and desserts. if there was a baptism, birthday, wedding anniversary etc, people would always make something extra special. I miss this in Anglicanism, where there is only a 5th sunday house lunch (not in the church) on the said Sundays throughout the year when we have the kitchen space to do church luncheon regularly; this would be excellent especially in parishes where there are two or three different service times and those who attend the 8am service may never even meet, let alone know, those who attend the 5pm service.

    I long to see churches become, once again, hubs of the local community, be it those who live in the area, those who work in the area, or a mixture of both.

    And this is only the beginning.

  5. LDS ward and branch buildings aren’t open all the time. Leaders like the Bishopric and Branch Presidency (Bishop/Branch President and their two counselors), Relief Society Presidency, Primary Presidency, Young Women’s Presidency . . . . all have keys to the building. Since we have no paid clergy, every one volunteers their time, it is not possible to have someone at the church at all times. Since I have had active persecution against me because I was Mormon, I imagine the purpose of our ward/branch buildings being kept locked unless someone is there is to avoid vandalism of the building.

    Our chapels (where Sunday service is held) have a two step raised area. The background is simple. There is a pulpit that can raise or lower to fit the size of the speaker be he/she a younger child or 6 feet plus. I spoke sitting in a chair since I can not stand up long enough. There is also a small built in table/counter where two members of the Priesthood prepare the Sacrament.

    There is simple sturdy and easy to clean carpeting through the buildings. We consider children to be blessings, so it is not uncommon to have large families. Although it is up to each family to determine their own family size. Little ones drop drinks, get sick, track dirt, etc. Our branch is not large enough for an activity hall so when we have potlucks (once a month) we put up tables in the Chapel and all share a meal there.

    The class rooms have chalk boards with clips to display any pictures the teacher may want to use for a particular lesson. Even the classroom that has the baptismal font is just a simple as every other room, it just has an extra set of locking folding doors in front of the font. In this case they lock so a child cannot fall in the empty font.

    The foyer has a couch and if there is room a comfortable living room type chair or two. In or near this area will be a bulletin board for news from missionaries from the ward/branch, sometimes pictures from the youth activities, info about Brigham Young University and its branches and info regarding church related websites. There is always a large picture of Jesus in the foyer. That is the only permanent picture or ornament that I can think of.

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