Monday, September 26, 2011

Lunching on the Cathedral Steps...

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine sits in a lovely neighborhood not far from Central Park. By happy accident on our way there we happened upon the famous Tom's Diner, known to the world as "Monk's," where Jerry and George often held court. Having heard my wife's plea not to plan our entire trip around eating, we found a wonderful Italian grocery, and got a roast beef sandwich to go.

We had the loveliest lunch resting on the capacious steps of St. John the Divine (hearafter SJD). SJD began its life as the world's largest vanity project --it remains the world's largest cathedral, unfinished and with no immediate plans to finish. I say it was a vanity project because New York's Episcopalians wanted a rival to Midtown's famous St. Patrick's. Now it stands there, in its awkward unfinished state, still massively impressive. Its North Transept was destroyed by fire, filling the rest of the sanctuary with soot and smoke. The main sanctuary was cleaned and reopened; the North transept was never re-built.

The Cathedral is impressive because of its tapestries, its landmark Aeolian-Skinner organ (the gold standard in church organs and one of two grand organs in New York I had the misfortune of not hearing played!), its art and its bizarre multi-culturalism. It is here that a woman performed an "Aids Mass" by drenching herself in cattle blood (where is PETA when you need them?). It is here that a female Christ figure is displayed, with jetliners crashing through her hands. The temporary exhibit was a circle of some sort of deer skulls from the West on poles. This is not something one would see in the average Presbyterian sanctuary.

New York is filled with grand edifices. I would have loved to see the famous Riverside Church, which John D. Rockefeller, liberal Christian philanthropist, built as a cathedral to progressivism, for his favorite pastor, Harry E. Fosdick, and where the famous organist Virgil Fox warred with a subsequent Mrs. Rockefeller for the right to play his magnificent Skinner at full volume for church preludes. The gospel is still heard in some of these grand edifices (Doug Webster, an evangelical PCUSA minister who now pastors Central Presbyterian in New York, was a guest at my church this last Sunday --his brother-in-law is my assistant). I doubt it is heard at SJD, at least not part of the regular diet.

I love beauty. I love cathedrals. Our current age finds them prohibitively expensive to build, and a misappropriation of resources that might be better directed at missions and mercy. I wonder, though, why so many massive, formerly faithful churches sit vacant or, alternately, those that remain don't tell men and women of the good news of the free grace of God abounding in Jesus Christ to the penitent sinner. I wonder why so many (or the few) go in for the poor substite of deer skulls or female Jesuses or cow's blood masses.

And then I rejoice that the gospel goes forth. Manhattan houses some fine church edifices, but it houses many fine churches that don't meet in those fine edifices --thou art within no walls confined, as an old hymn has it. I am glad the gospel is going forth in New York. I am glad it is finding stock brokers and homeless people. I am glad for Jim Cymbala in Brooklyn and the late David Wilkerson in Times Square and for Tim Keller and for a host of faithful others. God has his people in that great city and he doesn't need cathedrals, as beautiful as they are, to accomplish his work.


  1. I am always miffed when I watch The Bishop's Wife at Christmas that at the end God does not get his Cathedral.

  2. "We, on the contrary, maintain, both that the Church may exist without any apparent form, and, moreover, that the form is not ascertained by that external splendour which they foolishly admire, but by a very different mark, namely, by the pure preaching of the word of God, and the due administration of the sacraments." ~ John Calvin, Preface to the Institutes