Project Canterbury


A Present Day Cathedral


Sermon by the Bishop of New York,
David Hummell Greer,


Preached at the Consecration
of the
Choir and Memorial Chapels of
Saint Saviour and Saint Columba
of the
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine.



April 19, 1911.


Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2008


"Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king."--(1 Peter ii. 17.) These words define the relation, permanent and fixed, between three cardinal groups or spheres of human conduct, which, although assuming at different times and places and in different social conditions different outward forms, are nevertheless essentially the same--philanthropy, religion and patriotism. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king. It is of these three in their relation to one another that I purpose this morning to speak. My subject is, in other words, "A Present-day Cathedral."

This is a practical and utilitarian age, an age which concerns itself not chiefly with another world, but with the more engrossing and pressing affairs of this; not so much with temples as with temporalities. And yet it also is, in its appreciations and in its insistencies, an age of moralities, as practically shown in two appealing and comprehensive forms of ethical expression. One of them is philanthropy--love the brotherhood, serve, help, heal it, minister to its needs, whatever they may be or wheresoever found. This is so notably one of the fair features of our modern life. But where did it come from, this present-day philanthropy? What started it? How and when was it born? Historically at least the answer is close and near at hand, and he who runs may read it. The birth of philanthropy as a world-virtue coincides in fact with the birth of Jesus Christ. This is not my testimony; it is the unimpeachable testimony of history, from which we learn that while there were in the pagan world a few sporadic cases or examples of philanthropy, it did not become a rudimentary virtue in the world until the Christian religion came.


It was a Christian woman, so the historian tells us, who established the first public hospital in the world. It was a Christian bishop who caused to be erected the first asylum for lepers. It was a Christian monk who caused to be erected the first refuge for the blind. It was a Christian merchant who caused to be erected the first free dispensary. It was the Christian Council of Nicea that caused to be erected in every Christian city a public institution for the benefit of the poor.

Whatever may be thought of philanthropy such as this, how naturally, how logically, how inevitably did it come from the Incarnate Jesus Christ, taking thus our suffering human life upon Him. The love of the brotherhood from reverence for God; philanthropy from religion, shooting out as one of the lateral branches from it as from its parent stock. Some of us to-day may be so contentedly resting on the branch, and gathering for the people and giving to the people the fruitage of the branch at its remotest end, reaching out through all the centuries to us, that the intervening foliage may dim and hide the parent stock from which it has grown. But is it not a question practical and timely whether it would continue to flourish and to fruit, with its best and finest fruitage, if severed from the parent stock from which it issued forth? Philanthropy from religion; the love of the brotherhood from reverence for God? And the work of a cathedral, its present, practical work, is to keep alive in the souls of men to-day that reverence for God from which our practical philanthropy has come.


There is another practical form of ethical expression in our modern life, more definite and specific, more limited in its range, but equally appealing, and yet not incompatible, but congruous and consistent with philanthropy in general, the broader human love--I mean the love of country, the patriotic love. For while it is true that God has made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on the face of the earth, it is also true that He has determined their appointed times and the bounds of their habitations. And the people who dwell within those habitation bounds have their own local habitation laws, customs and traditions with which to help to work out in their distinct and separate and yet related spheres some divine purpose and destination concerning the human race.

Patriotism, therefore, or the love of country, its not merely a civic but a religious obligation; it rests upon and issues from a divine authorization. Duty to the State, to serve and obey it, goes beyond the State, and finds its source and sanction, its dignity, its nobleness, its redemptive cleansing, in reverence for God. And the sacrificial offerings, which from time to time are made upon the Nation's altar do thus become, or may become, offerings to God, yet not to the God of that one Nation only, but to the God of all, who has made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on the face of the earth.

This is the patriotism, with its staunch and loyal allegiance to one particular State, and yet with the common tie of a common kindred human blood to every other State, which the Christian religion taught, and which before it came the world did not perceive, did not even dream of; but when, as the author of "Ecce Homo" says, to do as much good as possible to one's own State and as much harm as possible to every other State, was the whole duty of man. "Shame on you," says Lucan, as Dr. Seeley quotes him, "for fighting one another when you might have been sacking Babylon!" But Jesus Christ taught reverence for a God who claimed to be the God of Rome and Babylon, of all the Romes and Babylons, and this, although the world has not learned it yet, it must learn if ever there is to be a universal peace among the nations of the earth. And the work of a cathedral itself, its present, practical work, is to keep alive in the souls of men to-day that reverence for God, the God of all the nations, the whole family of them, from which our best and purest patriotism comes.

Here, then, are the two practical forms of righteousness in our modern life--philanthropy and patriotism; ethics and civics; duty to our fellow-men and duty to our country, both of them proceeding from the religion of Jesus Christ. Love the brotherhood, honor the King, branching out on either side from that religious plant of reverence for God which was by Jesus Christ planted in the world.


But why a cathedral for this? Is it not enough to teach and enforce this reverence for God by some didactic process, homiletical or other, from the pulpit of a parish church or the platform of a lyceum; or by the quieter method of personal instruction, giving from time to time its counsels of perfection? Has not this produced some of the best and greatest of the world's benefactors, its philanthropists and patriots, men and women who in both of these capacities have rendered such notable service to mankind and whose memories and names are high on the honor-roll of the world's moral heroes, not to be forgotten? Unquestionably it has, and for such rare and gifted souls this didactic method is perhaps enough. And yet even for these something else and more is not without its value, and for human life in general it has not proved enough and is not now enough. Something more, indeed, the human soul requires than counsels of perfection, however finely phrased, with which to elicit and also to express her reverence for God. Some other quickening voice or quickening touch she needs, to reach and stir and move that deepest depth within her. Human speech does not suffice, and something more she needs; some other kind of utterance than the language of the lips, and something more she seeks. She summons all her choicest things, her best and greatest treasures of art and beauty and music and form, to help her to express what seems so inexpressible. As a rare and gifted spiritual thinker puts it: "She needs larger, grander, fairer instruments of expression than her own poor gifts supply. She cannot bear the defaced image of humanity which her broken mirror shows. She feels hurt by the disappointing tones of her common voice. She dilates to the scale of sublimer forms and fills the volume of the choral chant. She seizes on all height and depth and immensity to speak for her and demands room and rhythm to pass with measured reverence out to God! Am I reminded," he adds, "of what is called, the simplicity of the early Church, of the upper chamber in Jerusalem, of the unadorned proseucha, that sufficed for the apostolic disciples? Yes; but this at least was the best they had, and no more is asked from us; less than this no true devotion has ever given."

And so we are here to-day to give the best we have; not only to perpetuate some sweet and sacred memories, but to help us and others to try to express, as from time to time we gather here, our reverence for the God of the Incarnate Jesus Christ. This of itself has a value beyond all earthly values and which no fiscal figures and no quotation terms can measure or express, and which makes even the attempt to justify it seem like a sacrilege and a profanation. And yet more than this is the aim of the present-day cathedral, and more than this also will it help to do; not merely to implant in the mind of the private worshipper, but in the mind of the general public that reverence for God, which is, I submit, one of the greatest practical needs of the present practical age; without which it cannot consistently enforce, or with a practical thoroughness apply, those two practical forms of righteousness which are at least in theory so appealing to it. Is one of them love of the brotherhood, in the best and truest sense philanthropic love? Then when strifes and conflicts come to sever and divide it through avarice and greed and arrogance and pride; to disfigure and deface it with wantonness and hate; to rend and tear it with the passions of the hour, then shall this cathedral teach, not only by its voice, but by its very presence, that reverence for the God of the Incarnate Jesus Christ which shall make for peace and righteousness and love, and the righteousness which is love. What else can make that fairer form of brotherhood appear than that great and growing reverence for God which this cathedral shall help to put into the hearts of all the people?


Is it loyalty to our country, patriotic love, that high and holy sentiment which has been so deeply planted by God Himself in every human heart? Then, when we are tempted to exercise and use it for some unworthy end, for some vain-glorious or avaricious end, or to boastfully exploit it for conquest and dominion and national aggrandizement, or when, for the settlement of vexed and heated questions of an international character, we are disposed to use it to incite and inflame the passions of the people and thus to make it minister not to what is best or what is noblest in us, but to what is worst, through the savage and the barbarous ferocities of war, that obsolete arbitrament that still persists among us, then shall this cathedral teach by its very presence, standing here among us, such reverence for the God of the Incarnate Jesus Christ, who has made of one blood all nation's of men to dwell on the face of the earth, their God and our God, that it shall be as an arbitral court among us, the highest and the best, which shall make for peace and righteousness and love, and the righteousness which is love.

Here, then, is a value, a value beyond price, of a present-day cathedral, as a force to make for righteousness in our modern life; not personal merely, but public, philanthropic and patriotic--a force that will help the people of this age and the people of this city, this representative city of the whole modern world, with all tribes, kindreds, tongues and voices coming and crowding in it, to realize more fully and more faithfully to perform their duty toward their fellow-men and their duty toward their country through reverence for God. And here upon this eminence, this metropolitan eminence, does our cathedral stand, with the hospital near by as the symbol of the philanthropy of the age, with the university near by as the symbol of the patriotic citizenship of the age, each of them to be inspired for guidance and for safety, for highest and noblest use, by that which this cathedral shall forever symbolize and encourage and promote. Love the brotherhood, honor the King; philanthropy and patriotism, ethics and civics, both of them proceeding from reverence for God, shooting out on either side, in their best and purest form, as lateral branches from it.

And so, for the sake of our common humanity, to bless and to crown it; and for the sake of our common country, to help us more and more to love and to serve it and to make it take its place, its true and destined place for righteousness and peace, among the nations of the earth, we consecrate to-day, as the offering of our love, these memorial chapels and this cathedral choir, to the service here among us of the Incarnate Jesus Christ; God of God, Light of light, very God of very God, by whom all things were made, who for us men and for our salvation, in this world as another, came down from heaven and was made Man. And we have seen His glory, shining on and in and through our human life to-day, giving righteousness to it, philanthropic and patriotic. And this cathedral shall help us as long as it shall stand more and more to see it, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Project Canterbury