Colorful Past, Majestic Worship: The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City, Sunday after Ascension Day, 2009

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Colorful Past, Majestic Worship: The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City, Sunday after Ascension Day, 2009

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City has had a colorful past. One reason is that many of the bishops and deans who have been associated with it have been unusually interesting leaders, sometimes even celebrities. Another reason is that its mission, social service, and witness over many years have given it a particular public prominence, sometimes raising controversy. And it has attracted interest and attention because of its dramatic physical presence (it is one of the world's largest gothic churches) and its function as a central religious symbol in the country's largest city. But a visitor to a worship service on the Sunday morning after Ascension Day in 2009, on a fresh spring morning, is struck most of all by the beauty of its sacred space and liturgy. He will somehow feel connected with the millions of eucharistie celebrations that Christians have held through two thousand years, from the sandy desert of the Sudan, to the glory of a pontifical Mass in Rome.

Until the 1860s there were no cathedrals in the Episcopal Church. That decade saw a growing movement advocating a cathedral in each diocese, in order to represent the apostolic leadership of the bishop and to further the common missionary work and liturgical life of the diocese. Rivalry with the Roman Catholic Church also played its part, not least in New York City, where in the 1870s St. Patrick's Cathedral was being built very noticeably in mid-town Manhattan. In 1873 Horatio Potter (1802-1887), Episcopal bishop of New York, had the state legislature charter a cathedral corporation. The cathedral for the diocese of New York has thus always been wholly that; it is not a parish church with a canonical congregation, as is the case in most other North American dioceses. The National Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Washington, D. C, and Grace Cathedral in San Francisco are also constituted solely as cathedrals.

At first the preferred location for the cathedral for the Episcopal diocese of New York was across from the southern fringe of Central Park. Unfortunately, the cathedral trustees found it impossible to secure the necessary real estate there. In 1887 they turned their attention north of Central Park to an almost empty plateau called Morningside Heights. In 1889 they chose three city blocks bounded by 110th Street, Amsterdam Avenue, 113th Street, and Morningside Drive. They bought the property from an asylum for orphans. The cornerstone of the cathedral was laid in 1892.

At this point the trustees envisioned that the cathedral would serve as an ecumenical space for the mainstream Protestant churches: indeed, its motto remains "A house of prayer for all people." They therefore approached non-Episcopalians in their fund-raising campaigns, and looked for an architectural alternative to the gothic style, which functioned as the emblem of late Victorian Anglicanism. From a fierce architectural competition they chose a design for a largely Romanesque interior influenced by Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston. But progress in construction was slow and moods changed, and in 1911 Ralph Adams Cram, a high-profile advocate of gothic architecture with strategic connections, succeeded in replacing the original architects. Several nonEpiscopalians began to have suspicions about the diocese's ecumenical pretensions; the wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller withdrew his support for the cathedral, and instead gave eight million dollars to build the interdenominational Riverside Church a few blocks away.

By the end of 1941 the full 601-foot length of the cathedral had been built. The first worship services were held a week before the attack on Pearl Harbor. World War II interrupted construction and as a result of insufficient funds the full church building has never been completed. In 1967 Bishop Horace Donegan (1900-1991) announced that he would be reallocating funds that had been collected for the construction of the cathedral to housing projects in Harlem, a badly deteriorating section of the city east of Morningside Heights. …