Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Purpose of Cathedrals

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Purpose of Cathedrals

Article excerpt

I said, "The truth is, cathedrals don't mean anything special to me. Nothing. Cathedrals. They're something to look at on late-night TV. That's all they are."

-Raymond Carver, "Cathedral"1

What is the purpose of a cathedral? Is it just another big church, or does it have a particular vocation in the economy of Christian communities? In Raymond Carvers often-anthologized 1983 short story "Cathedral," two men-one of them blind-sit in a living room talking when a late-night documentary about cathedrals comes on television. The narrator tries to describe a cathedral to the blind man, but he gradually realizes that, try as he might, he cannot verbally depict the spatial reality of a medieval edifice:

I wasn't getting through to him, I could see that. But he waited for me to go on just the same. He nodded, like he was trying to encourage me. I tried to think what else to say. "They're really big," I said. "They're massive. They're built of stone. Marble, too, sometimes. In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God. In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone's life. You could tell this from their cathedral-building. I'm sorry," I said, "but it looks like that's the best I can do for you. I'm just no good at it."2

As the story progresses, the narrator and the blind man join hands and draw a cathedral together. The narrator puts in windows, arches, flying buttresses, and great doors. When they finish, the blind man runs his fingers across the drawing and appears to understand: "Sure. You got it, bub, I can tell. You didn't think you could. But you can, can't you? You're cooking with gas now."3

Carver's story has been widely distributed, in part because it represents the way one person touches another and so can suggest to him an ineffable physical reality. But what about a missional reality? What are cathedrals for? As the narrator says, "Cathedrals don't mean anything special to me." They're relegated to the "olden days" when "God was an important part of everyone's life."

What, in the twenty-first century, is the point of a cathedral? In a provocative 2013 ATR article Jane Shaw began a discussion of contemporary cathedral missional possibilities with an examination of the cultural and demographic trends driving a dramatic increase over the past several decades in cathedral attendance in the United Kingdom. Citing the beauty, anonymity, and civic engagement offered by cathedrals, Dean Shaw concluded with this observation:

The growth and influence of cathedrals in Britain and around the Anglican Communion over the last one hundred and fifty years, a time usually associated with the phenomenon of secularization, suggests that cathedrals by their very nature and reach, and by their capacity to appeal to so many different constituencies, have something very particular to offer the wider society and indeed the wider church.4

Cathedrals do have a potential for reaching constituencies not normally served by parish churches. Their spaces, their programs, their function as community gathering places can draw a range of people (devotees of the arts, skeptics, the spiritual but not religious, those who doubt the credibility of the institutional church, to name a few) who would never consider going to a local parish. Cathedrals are uniquely positioned to engage the world in a way no other church community can.

The conclusions of Dean Shaw's article suggest a logical next stage of the cathedral conversation. Now that we have ascertained their great potential, can we pose some initial, more foundational questions? Specifically: what are cathedrals for?

Raymond Carvers "Cathedral" frames two dilemmas for those of us seeking to understand cathedral ministry in the twenty-first century. The story begs the question of how to define a cathedral: it tacitly equates "cathedral" with "big Gothic church." Cathedrals can be big physically. In some cases they boast large membership and attendance. …

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