Project Canterbury

The Significance of the American Cathedral

By Henry Codman Potter

Rome, April 1892

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2007

Transcriber's note: the source for this material were pages previously removed from an unknown publication.
The page breaks indicate the size of the unknown volume.

The American traveller visits cathedrals in the old world with frequent enthusiasm and often with sincere and profound veneration. Indeed, it is probable that the larger proportion of people who make such pilgrimages, whether in England or on the Continent, is made up of Americans. But the great majority of these find in cathedrals as their chief charm a picturesque antiquity; and of Americans who have never seen a cathedral a still larger majority regard them as venerable but useless anachronisms. They do not expect to see them reproduced in their own land, and they still less desire it. They remember them as associated, in the history of the past, in more than one instance with grave abuses, and they think of them as costly and unfruitful nests for pompous and indolent ecclesiastics. Among modern novelists, Mr. Anthony Trollope has found in the cathedral and its staff a fine opportunity for amiable satire; and the misuse or perversion of a great institution has thus come to be widely accepted as identical with the thing itself.

1. And so, when some one, touched by the spell of some stately and splendid minster, asks, in a moment of enkindled feeling, "Why cannot one whose lot is cast in the Western hemisphere have the cathedral?" one answer, and that often the first that one hears, is that "cathedrals belong to the past." The religion, we are told, of the times that built cathedrals was a religion of much ignorance, of almost boundless superstition, of large leisure, and usually of a very elementary stage of civilized society. There was little teaching, because the great mass of the people was too ignorant to receive it. There was a very childish faith on the one hand, and there was enormous assumption of authority on the other. So incapable was the ordinary man or woman of being impressed otherwise than pictorially, that in ages when learning was the possession of the few, when printing had not been discovered, when books were the privilege of the rich, religion inevitably took on a dramatic or spectacular form, to which the vastness, the mystery, and the stateliness of the cathedral especially lent itself. [351/352] "But this," as was said not long ago in a public meeting by an eloquent ecclesiastic, "is an age not of cathedrals but of hospitals." The appropriate symbolism of religion is something--a building, a society, a cult--that stands for succor and ministry to the homelier wants of man. The age, we are told, wants work, not worship; lint and bandages, not paternosters; men and women trained in "first aid to the injured," not surpliced choirs, and vested priests, and pealing organs, and "long-drawn aisles" and "storied windows richly light." And it does. Not that this age is peculiar in that, nor so very eminent, perhaps, in the possession of such things as it imagines itself to be. Doubtless the mechanisms of human ministry and succor are better to-day than they were one hundred or five hundred years ago. Doubtless a modern hospital is a better equipped agency for taking care of the body than an ancient hospice.

But it is well to remember that every agency--I use the words advisedly and am quite ready to be challenged for their accuracy--every agency that modern Christianity employs in doing the work of its Divine Author in the world existed in substance, if not in identical form, a thousand years ago, and that the men who employed those agencies came out of cathedrals, or buildings which were as much like cathedrals--abbeys, churches, and monastic chapels--as the people of those times could make them. It is true that the old agencies became corrupt, and that the men who used them perverted them to unworthy uses. But that argument is of precisely the same force against Christianity itself as it is against the institutions which were the fruit of it. And while we are bound to recognize that fact, we are bound also to ask the further question: What, in all the noblest work for humanity that men did, in ages that we are wont, sometimes with a very imperfect knowledge of them, to call "dark ages," for their fellow-men, was the main-spring of their ministries? About that there can be no smallest question. It was not the "enthusiasm of humanity," it was not any doctrine of altruism, it was the touch of that spell of love which they had learned, however obscurely, from the cross of Christ. In other words, when we come to look back on the ages that first built the first hospitals and founded the first brotherhoods and housed the first orphans, we see that all this manifold service for humanity was done by men who had learned the secret of work, because first they had known that mightiest inspiration that comes from worship. One would not speak ungratefully or ungraciously of those forms of religious activity which distinguished his own [352/353] generation. It may well be thankfully owned that our time has seen a vast advance upon that conception of religion which was largely the conception of our forefathers--a conception that confounded discipleship with ecstasy, that mistook passive receptivity for devotion, that construed piety to be a kind of spiritual gluttony. I do not wonder at the revolt which has dismissed such a conception of Christian discipleship from multitudes of lives.

But we may well take care lest in recoiling from one extravagance we swing over into another. Am I exaggerating what I may call the public or social manifestation of religion, its organized expression, as it widely prevails among us, when I say that the Church, in the popular conception, consists mainly of a huge auditorium with a platform and a more or less dramatic performer, and a congregational parlor and a parish kitchen? I recognize cordially the earnest purpose to get hold of people out of which much of this has come. But it is well to recognize something else, and that is that religion has never survived anywhere without the due recognition and conservation of the instinct of worship. That lies at the basis of it, always and everywhere. First there must be something that moves us to that upward-reaching thought, out of which come penitence, and prayer, and faith--and all the rest. But a diet-kitchen will not do that, nor anything that appeals only to the utilitarian side of life. I appeal to any candid experience whether there is not, on the other hand, something else that does. I ask those who remember Rouen, or Durham, or Salisbury whether, when first they entered some such noble sanctuary, there was not that in its proportions, its arrangements, its whole atmosphere, which made it, in a sense that it had never been before, their impulse to kneel? We may protest that this is mere religious estheticism, and in one sense it is; but until we have divorced the soul and the body, the eye and the mind, the imagination and the senses, we cannot leave it out of account. We Americans are said to be the most irreverent people in the world, and of the substantial truth of that accusation there cannot be the smallest doubt. But did it ever occur to us to ask how it has come about? It is time to stop talking about the influence of Puritan traditions to descendants who are so remote from those traditions as to be unable to distinguish between the austerity that hated ceremonialism and the debonair indifferentism that dismisses the simplest elements of religious decorum. We have little reverence, because we have but a poor environment in which to learn it. The vast majority of church buildings [353/354] in America are utterly unsuggestive of the idea of worship. There is nothing in them to hush speech, to uncover the head, to bend the knee. And as a matter of fact they do nothing of the sort. They are expedients devised for a certain use, and that use is one which, under any honest construction of it, involves an utterly fragmentary conception of the Christian religion.

And what, meantime, have we been seeing all over the land? We have been seeing a development of domestic, civic, and commercial architecture of the most costly and grandiose kind. I have been told that the costliest building in America is that which houses a life insurance company. Is this a fine satire on that decay of faith that has dismissed out of the horizon all other and more irretrievable risks of destruction? Surely, about one thing there can be no doubt, and that is that the noblest ideas should have the noblest expression. But what are the noblest ideas if they are not those which ally man to a nobler and diviner future? It is in vain that a clever scepticism--comic and, forsooth, textually critical in the latest and noisiest exhibition of it among us-it is in vain that such a scepticism dispenses with God, and tells us that it has looked into the bottom of the analytical chemist's crucible and found no soul. Out from the despair of the present, the heart travels as by a mathematical law along the ascending arc of faith, until it reaches the vision of the kingdom that is to be. And the witness of that kingdom--its visible expression in stone and color, in form and dimensions, in position and dignity--is that not of the smallest possible consequence, while you are taking infinite pains with your child's bedroom that it shall have its face to the sun, or your stables that they shall be well drained? There is something, when we stop to think of it, in the relative cost and thought that men spend on the places in which they sleep, and eat, and lounge, and trade--on a club, a hotel, a theatre, a bank--on the one hand, and on a house for the worship of the Arbiter of one's eternal destiny on the other, which must strike an angel, if he is capable of such an emotion, with a sense of pathetic humor. And we are, many of us, so entirely clear about it. "Yes," we say in effect, "let us have churches which are cheap expedients, and that in the poverty of their every attribute express the poverty of our conceptions of reverence, of majesty, of worship. But let us build our own palaces as if indeed we ourselves were kings." I submit that in such a situation the cathedral, instead of being an anachronism, is a long-neglected witness which we may sorely need. The greatest of the world, the greatest nations of [354/355] the world, have not been those that built only for their own comfort or amusement; and it is simply inevitable that a great idea meanly housed, meanly expressed in these forms in which we express reverence for our heroes and love for our dead, and loyalty to our country, in which, in one word, we express toward our best and greatest among our fellow-men or toward human institutions, veneration, and affection, and patriotism--it is inevitable, I say, that a great idea thus meanly treated will come to be meanly esteemed. We are fond of speaking of what is archaic and superannuated, and, of our cis-Atlantic wants and conditions, as being, on the other hand, somehow absolutely unique and exceptional. But they are not. America wants, I suppose, honesty and integrity and faith quite as much and indeed rather more than she wants electric railways and a protective tariff. And if so, she wants the visible institutions which at once testify to and bear witness for these things, and that in their most majestic and convincing proportions. It is an interesting question, if a foreigner were asked where in America he had seen any visible structure which impressively witnessed to religion, and which compared worthily with the enormous buildings reared for other purposes or with similar structures in other lands--it would be interesting, I repeat, if somewhat humiliating, to hear what he would say. For, in fact, there are not five church edifices in the United States which, for dignity, monumental grandeur, nobility of conception or proportion, are worthy of being mentioned. And it would seem to be worth while to consider whether, the country having spent the first hundred years of its existence in making itself extremely rich and extremely comfortable, it might not be well to set about building at least one noble structure which did not weave, or print, or mould, or feed, or lodge, save as it wove the garment of an immortal hope, and fed, and formed, and housed those creatures of a yet loftier destiny who are immortal. In one word, it can hardly be urged that a cathedral is out of date until it is admitted that it is out of date to believe in God and to worship Him.

2. But again it is urged by a very different class of objectors that, while there may be force in what has been thus far urged, a cathedral is a thing not to be desired, because as an institution it fosters the spirit of ecclesiasticism, promotes the growth of priestly assumptions, and builds up within the communion that accepts it an official oligarchy, narrow in its vision, arrogant in its pretensions, and reactionary in [355/356] its influence. There is much in history that confirms such an impression, and it will be well frankly to recognize it. But we have no sooner discerned such a fact than we may, if we choose, discern the reason for it. The cathedral has been, in many ages and lands throughout Christendom, in this particular, like religious orders. It has been made up of men of one caste or class. The administration of its affairs both temporal and spiritual has been largely vested in the hands of this one class. Abuses of power, perversions of function, misappropriation of property, indolence, nepotism, and unwarrantable usurpations have all been possible if not inevitable, because a single caste or class has exercised its powers and discharged its trusts, unchecked by criticism or revision other than that of its own order. Now, it does not greatly matter what the order may happen to be, ecclesiastical, civic, or military: such a condition of things carries in its train the same inevitable dangers. The remedy is obvious, and in modern ecclesiastical corporations it has been, on the whole, wisely applied. It is the introduction of the lay element into the administration of ecclesiastical affairs. That in the recoil from the abuses of priest-ridden communities or institutions the movement in that direction may have been excessive is not improbable; but on the whole, at any rate in that communion of which the writer is a member, the abuses in connection, for example, with a cathedral which are the product of undue authority and excessive isolation on the part of the clergy, are no longer possible. In one way or another (it is not possible within these limits to indicate in detail how this is variously provided for in various dioceses) no American cathedral can ever be wholly independent of any other than merely clerical control and restraint.

Meantime, to those who are wont to think of the cathedral as fruitful only of ecclesiastical exclusiveness or of pampered indolence, it is well to remember that, of the names that come first to one's lips in rehearsing the history of modern theological literature, e.g., in the Church of England, those of Alford and Milman, of Trench and Wordsworth, of Stanley and Liddon, and Westcott, and Payne-Smith, and Burgon, and Row are only a few of many to whom scholars everywhere have been indebted, and all of these have been deans or canons or prebendaries in English cathedrals. When we think of a cathedral, we are apt to think merely of a huge building; but in fact the building is simply the home of an organized society, and the organized society exists to give the most adequate expression to religious worship and the most efficient presentation of religious truth. And so, out of the necessary [356/357] provision not for one man of one gift, but for a group of men of various gifts, there comes a fellowship of community which may indeed, like any other earthly community, be perverted from its original design to unworthy ends, but which holds, nevertheless, in that original design one of the noblest possible conceptions of the effective use of the best gifts for the greatest good of the greatest number. So far as the ministry can consent at all to be called a profession, the appointments to cathedral dignities deaneries, canonries, and the rest may be regarded as the prizes of the profession. And on the whole it cannot be denied that, in our time at any rate, they are as a rule wisely and worthily bestowed. This, however, is of far less consequence than the further fact that such bestowal has undoubtedly resulted in giving, to men of exceptional gifts, opportunities which otherwise they could never have commanded, for employing these gifts and enlarging the horizon of the best scholarship, and in the loftiest realm of learning, which is surely that of theology.

In our country, for a considerable part of its earlier history, this result has been reached to some extent in connection with our colleges and universities. But whatever may have been the services which these have rendered to the cause of sound learning, it will not be denied that their dominant enthusiasms are to-day directed toward a learning which is purely secular. Less and less are American colleges, especially those of commanding influence, the homes of religious teaching or theological inquiry; and though there are other centres for these things, none of them can ever have the unique advantages of that calm retreat which is to be found in a cathedral close. Worship, meditation, and the large liberty from pedagogic duties which there obtains would seem to be the ideal conditions for the achievements of a Christian scholar.

3. But even if this is admitted, there are those who will still dismiss the cathedral with the one sweeping and final condemnation that it is "un-American." I have never been quite able to make out why this is said unless it be that cathedrals are not indigenous to America, or else because deans and canons are sometimes appointed by the Queen. On any other ground there could not well be a more curiously inaccurate statement. Dismissing any attempt at subtle definition, I suppose that the synonym for "un-American" would be "undemocratic," or aristocratic, or exclusive. But the cathedral in America, at any rate in any case in which its worship is not in an [357/358] alien tongue and under foreign authority, is of all other places the one in which the principles of democracy invariably obtain. The history of religious worship and of religious buildings in America is, in this aspect of it, as exceptional as it is inconsistent. I presume it would be safe to say that there is no other land in Christendom where so many places of religious worship bear witness to the inflexible supremacy of the spirit of caste. For what is the spirit of caste if it be not the spirit which in these conditions and relationships, seeming to exclude distinctions implying superiority or inferiority of persons, insists upon affirming them? And is there any other institution which, in the face of the plain teachings of the religion of Jesus Christ--as where in the Epistle of St. James it is said: "My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; and ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?" (i.e., discriminate from unworthy motives)--is there, I ask, any other institution which, in the face of the plain teaching of its Founder, departs so radically and habitually from that teaching as thus given as does the modern pewed church? Mr. Webster once said that it was an evidence of the divine origin of Christianity that it had so long survived its being preached in tub pulpits. It will be a stronger evidence of it if in America it survives the enormous incongruity of the pew system. But in St. Paul's in London or in St. Peter's in Rome, to-day, sanctuaries each of grandest proportions and of most magnificent worship, you may see what, never since their doors were opened, has by any chance been seen in any one of the sanctuaries that line our chief thoroughfares in the great cities of America--and that is a steady stream not alone of the poor, but of the poorest, ragged, barefooted, travel-stained, workingwomen and peasants, with babies in their arms, to whom those Christian temples are not theirs, or yours, or mine, but God's, and therefore as free to them as God's air and God's sunshine.

And now it may well be asked, if we are going to teach the great lesson of Christian brotherhood, of the absolute equality of all men before their Father who is in Heaven, how more expressively can we teach and affirm it than by rearing a sanctuary in which nowhere nor [358/359] under any conditions shall there be any reserved rights, any locked pews, any hired sittings, any proscription on the one hand or any favoritism on the other? And if any one inquires whether this is anything else than an idle dream, let him go and see the congregations of thousands (six or seven thousand sometimes) of workingmen gathered under the dome of St. Paul's and privileged to share in what is to-day undoubtedly the noblest and most impressive service in Christendom. The best is there and is for him who will come and take it.

It is in this conception that the true idea of a cathedral culminates. It is vast, it is rich, it is stately and majestic in proportion and in appointments. It is for the honor of God and not for the glory of man--and it is free to all alike. If this is un-American, then they who founded the Republic were un-American also. In one word, the past of Christendom has given to the future of America a great and noble instrument. Let not ours be the doubtful wisdom of those who are afraid to use it.

ROME, April, 1892.

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