Project Canterbury

The Uses of a Cathedral

By the Rt. Rev. Henry C. Potter
Bishop of New York

Reprinted from The Century Magazine February 1902

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

When we see a man walking through the streets of one of our American cities with a turban, in flowing robes of rich colors and more or less costly and strange textures, we turn and look at him with unconcealed curiosity. He is an unfamiliar object, and, as such, we feel ourselves at liberty to stare at him quite openly. But when we ourselves are in the great East,--Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon, Canton, or Yokohama,--this is not the case. Our costume and aspect are as remote from what is wonted there as would be a Parsee's from the dress of the majority of the people ordinarily walking down Broadway. But there is this difference: the man of the West, being a traveling man, is no longer a novelty anywhere in the east. Its people are largely familiar with him as a more or less accustomed object almost everywhere.

Did it ever occur to us that one of these days this will be true of us--in other words, that the time is coming when people from beyond seas, of many lands and of unwonted customs and costumes, will acquire our habit of travel and increasingly indulge in it? Sooner or later we may be very sure that something like this will come to pass.

And, when it does, has it ever occurred to us what will be the impressions which these traveling strangers will derive from what they see? It is not difficult to forecast one of them. As they go about the streets of our great cities, these far-away foreigners will note, among other things, with equal awe and wonder, the size and height of our structures. The sky-piercing erections of twelve, fifteen, twenty stories, upon which they will come, the vast warehouses, the colossal railway-stations, the palatial inns, the splendid libraries and art buildings, will all impress them as overwhelming proofs of the tremendous energy, vast wealth, phenomenal courage and ability of the people who have reared them. And then they will ask: "But where are the temples? These people are not without a religion. On the contrary, we know they believe their religion to be so much better than ours that, for hundreds of years, they have spent vast sums of money and sacrificed countless lives in endeavoring to carry their religion to other lands and plant it among other peoples. Surely such a people must have expressed its reverence for religion and its faith in its teachings in some really stately and noble visible structures. Where are they?"

Where are they indeed? The intelligent and inquisitive traveler would at once be shown a great many structures dedicated to religion, in a great variety of styles of architecture, and degrees of dignity and impressiveness. But the impressiveness, it must be owned, would be neither considerable nor noteworthy. Few of these structures, anywhere, could honestly be described as other than ordinary in aspect and inferior in dignity or beauty. True, the inquiring stranger would probably be told by some zealous modern that the American idea of religion did not estimate very highly the value of the visible in religion; that it had outgrown the cruder notion of less highly enlightened peoples that the external in religion was of much consequence; and that, as a matter of fact, it showed the higher quality of its religion by a fine disdain of any material expression of the ideas of reverence, majesty, stateliness, or material beauty in its temples.

To which it is just possible that the intelligent foreigner might answer: "True, it is undoubtedly the mark of a high civilization to be superior to mere externalism. True, again, that the era of 'plain living and high thinking' which, I am told, has dawned in your Western world, calls for a certain noble simplicity: but, if that is the case, where is the evidence of it in the palaces which you call homes, in those other palaces which you call hotels, in your streets dedicated to commerce, finance, and the various interests of the body, or recreation, or culture, or nurture in the arts and sciences? In all these directions your material structures seem likely to surpass anything that, at any rate, the modern world has produced."

"Now, then, if in all, or any, of these there was that fine note of austerity in which you glory, it would be meet that it should prevail also in the structures which you rear to express your idea of religion. But, without presuming to comment upon this curious incongruity, this, my Western brother, you must know: that so long as you or I are here in this world of material things, great ideas, whether spiritual, moral, or social, must have great expression, or sooner or later they will dwindle and die. Undoubtedly the time has been when the value of that visible and material expression has been exaggerated. Undoubtedly there have been ages when the effort to expend religious enthusiasm in the erection of visible structures has issued in a one-sided zeal which has left undone justice, mercy, and the works of righteousness. But the rule of your prophet Jesus is true, eternally, here: 'These ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.' One-sidedness is not truth. Truth is a whole. And no truth is more certain than that, to any nation that is content to build greatly, splendidly, costlily only for man, and not for God, the idea of God will sooner or later grow dim and pallid and impotent."

And one day we shall wake up, I am glad to believe, and find out that our Oriental friend is right. Religious ideas in their influence upon the human mind do not act independently of the laws that govern the operation of other ideas. With these, environment, material conditions, what we call sometimes an "atmosphere," have a force and place that we all recognize, and that in the domain of art, of letters, of our domestic and social life, we wisely employ.

1. I have said this much in answer to a question which I hear often asked by honest and more or less thoughtful minds: "What do we want, in modern times, with a cathedral?" To that question, in its merely ecclesiastical aspect, I will not now stop to reply. There is a much larger aspect of it with which every one is concerned who believes that "the Best deserves the best"; and what the Best is, in our American civilization, I do not believe any considerable number of people are seriously in doubt. They may not have any keen personal sense of their own need of a religion; but they know that the religion which is inwrought with all the history of the American people stands for certain definite ideals of truth, and purity, and honesty, and loyalty, and self-sacrifice, which, from our first beginnings here, men have always held high aloft. They know that, without the influence of religion to sustain them, these ideals, as history has plainly shown, sooner or later grow thin and pale, and perish. They know, too, that no ideal will long survive some visible expression or symbol of it: that patriotism demands the flag, and marriage the wedding-ring, and human contracts the stamp and seal, and so on all the way through. And they know also that a great idea demands, from the very nature of it, expression, incarnation--visible and material utterance, in a word, worthy of its majesty and grandeur.

2. This is one answer to the question, "What does this modern age want with a cathedral?" But there is another. This is a democratic age. The great truth of the brotherhood of man has wrought, and wrought, down and on, through the ages, and against what enormous odds! That great ideal through which the religion of Jesus began in the world, how soon and largely she lost it! Militarism, feudalism, ecclesiasticism have been almost equally responsible, in the last nineteen centuries, for the disregard or the perversion of what some of them loudly professed.

And in no visible form of expression has this habitual disregard of the teachings of the Founder of Christianity been more conspicuously evidenced than in connection with places of worship. These have all along borne their witness to the law, not of inclusion, but of exclusion. Reserved rights in God's house for kings, governors, peers, plutocrats, privileged people of many kinds, but of one unbrotherly temper, have encroached upon the temple of Him who declared in the beginning, "All ye are brethren," until, as to the consummate blossom of the whole business, we have the modern pew system. Well, in one cathedral, at any rate, there will be no pews, no locked doors, no prepayment for sittings, no reserved rights of caste or rank, but one and the same welcome for all.

3. And this brings me to another note of the true cathedral. There is one characteristic of the days through which we are living of which all thoughtful men and women, and many who are accounted the least thoughtful are aware: It is a period, in the realm of fundamental beliefs, of suspense. The progress of human thought, of scientific inquiry, of critical literary and historical study, has loosened men's hold upon much that our fathers accounted precious, if nor essential. The older and the more recent forms in which truths of paramount importance have been stated have alike been challenged or denied. The old moorings in many honest minds no longer hold; the anchors drag; and the mariner who looks out upon the wide sea of human beliefs and speculations is honestly perplexed. At such a moment, what a great many people cannot honestly do is, in the French phrase, to ranger themselves.

A recent experience, which came to me in a foreign land, will perhaps at this point make clear both what I have in mind, and its relation to this paper. It occurred one autumn afternoon when I was leaving St. Paul's Cathedral in London. I had been, as some thousands of people had been, to hear a great preacher, and, passing out of the west porch, found myself next an English scholar and teacher of such illustrious fame that if I were to mention his name here it would be instantly recognized throughout the civilized world. "Ah," I said, "do you worship here?" "Yes," he answered; "that is just it. I worship here--as far as I can worship." "For the sake of the music or the preaching?" I asked. "For neither," he said, "so far as they are primarily influential with me; though the service is very noble, and such preaching as we have heard this afternoon eminently worth hearing. But here is the one place a man can come and say, 'Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!" without the risk, to use your expressive American phrase, of being 'corralled.' I recognize the value of all the methods which usually obtain in a modern parish church; I perceive the propriety of looking after strangers who drift into one's church, and seeking to shepherd and fold them; I honor the great zeal that seeks to know each person in a given congregation, and to bring them into closer relations with the parish: but for myself, I am not ready for that. You know my ancestry" (his father, I knew, was a British rector of a somewhat narrow and intolerant type), "and the traditions in which I was reared. Well, I have--for better or worse I do not undertake to say--parted company with them. I am, so far as many most venerable traditions and beliefs are concerned, afloat. My mind and my faith faculty--if I have such a thing, of which, sometimes, I am not very sure--will, I hope, some day find firm standing-ground. But I have not found it yet, and I am not going to be a liar and pretend that I have by taking a pew and identifying myself with a parish church. Some day, perhaps, all that will come, and I shall be glad if, honestly, it does. But just now I am like one who has been roughly handled by men or events, and who wants just to be 'let alone.' And yet," he added, "the religious instinct in me is not dead. When it is, then I cannot but think that there is virtually nothing between a man and the swine of Gadara. And since there is something in that, with Ajax, 'cries for light,' I want a place in which to lift my cry; a place in which to be still; a place in which to wait on some higher Voice; and, amid whatever can speak to me through august voice, or sacred song, or stately environment, just to listen. No one notes me here. I come and go; I stand or kneel; I listen or dream or question; and then quietly withdraw as unregarded as I came."

I venture to think that such an attitude as that is, at least, intelligible. And if it is, then I submit that the place of the cathedral rises straightway into very close relationship to our modern life. I am not one of those who believe that religion is losing its hold upon the individual faith and conscience. Dogmatic statements, reactionary exaggerations of particular periods of religious revolt or reform,--hardened, under the stress of intense feeling, into cruel and inexorable forms,--may have done that, and, as a consequence, may have left many honest minds, for the moment, adrift. Such persons are not ripe to be either "corralled" or classified. The deepest in them is passing through a transition stage, out of which one may hope they will find their way to clearer light and a firmer standing-ground.

But in the meantime, and until they can, something larger, higher, wider, roomier, more impersonal for the time being, than the parish church is wanted for them; and that is the place and office of the cathedral: God's house, but with no parish list, no inquisitive interrogation, no parochial employment, but just space and silence, the majesty of worship--and absolute freedom to come and go!

4. And all this leads up to another office which a cathedral alone can fill, and which, by many minds, will be esteemed the highest. It is not a "one-voice" or "one-man" church. The ordinary parish church is served by one person, who fills its pulpit all year round; and even in the churches to which two or more clergy are attached, the rector is expected to do the preaching, and if he does not, the people who pay their pew-rent look black. Very often the preaching is excellent; sometimes it is exceptionally good; but even then, the better it is, the more individual, usually, it is.

Analyze the grounds on which A, B, or C thinks the Rev. Mr. Screed or the Rev. Dr. Homily "the best preacher in town," and you will, oftener than otherwise, find that it is because one or the other of these reverend gentlemen has some trait of voice, some cast of mind, some characteristic of imagination, which appeals specifically to A, B, or C, as the case may be; in a word, that he is individual. But if he is individual it will also reveal itself in his mode of thought; in his bias of usage; in his trend of belief; above all, in his point of view.

Of the best preachers their accustomed listeners, ordinarily, can predicate the mode of treatment which a particular text or topic will receive as soon as it is announced. "The man's mind works that way," we say, and we anticipate its working almost before it is begun.

But, obviously, the consequence of this must be that those who listen only to one such favorite preacher gets a fragmentary, one-sided, and often, it must be owned, a very biased view of any subject. Tradition, inheritance, partisan affiliations, a passion for consistency, one of the deadliest foes to truth, a fear of hostile criticism--all these are distinct limitations to the parish pulpit as a voice for God which shall be many-toned, and not monotoned, which shall present both the Petrine and Pauline aspects of a truth with equal candor and with equal fervor.

And so it is well that, in every great center, at any rate, there shall be one pulpit which shall command and constrain to its service the best, of whatever bias or tradition, the ablest, the most fearless, the most persuasive; one pulpit which shall be dominated by no trustees or vestry or plethoric pew-holder--by nobody who can threaten to "give up his pew," for the simple reason that there will be no pew to give up, and who can stifle or strangle no clarion voice that dares to tell men the truth by "cutting off the supplies," because the preacher and the hearer will be, so far as all that is concerned, absolutely independent of each other.

There is much more to be said along these lines, if there were space here to say it. Besides all that I have urged, there still remains the tremendous influence upon thought and feeling--the highest thought and feeling--of environment. We are sensible of this not alone in the presence of mountains, in the grandeur and silence of a forest, in the Colosseum seen in moonlight, but in the most ordinary and familiar surroundings. There are houses and homes that soothe or hush, or irk or irritate us. There are congruities of form and color, of proportion and decoration, that compose and refresh us, just as there are violations and incongruities that insult and exasperate us. There may be many people so insensitive or so uncultivated that they are not keenly aware of this, or, what is oftener true, cannot clearly express what they feel. But that they are influenced by it is shown by the awe and hush which fall upon them when they come within walls and move to and fro under soaring arches the mere proportions of which silence, solemnize, subdue.

No one had less respect for the archaic, whether in architecture or in anything else, than Henry Ward Beecher. And yet, when Mr. Beecher first entered an English cathedral at even-song, he broke down under a flood of uncontrollable emotion, and straightway fell upon his knees. Every instinct of awe, of reverence, of worship, as he afterward wrote of the experience, woke in him under the touch of that august environment. And yet, with heartiest respect for the great uses which it has served in the cause of freedom and righteousness, it must be owned, I apprehend, that neither Plymouth Church nor its like anywhere could produce any such effect.

I do not urge that, in the domain of religion, feeling is the factor of paramount consequence; but ah, my brother who art hard pressed by the exacting claims of life's more sordid interests, is it not well to be able to turn aside sometimes from these into some august majesty of space and form and tone, and there, just for a little, to be still, harkening for the Voice that is highest of all?

It remains, as part of the story which the illustrations which go with this will tell, to add a few words as to the history of this particular enterprise, its progress, and its hopes. A corporation known as the Trustees of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was formed in the year 1872, under the presidency of the late Rt. Rev. Horatio Potter, which secured one or two considerable pledges, met once or twice to discuss the question of site, and rested.

When the writer, in the year 1887, became Bishop of New York, he took up the matter, published a letter addressed to the citizens of New York, convened the board of trustees of the cathedral, initiated steps to fill its vacancies, and proceeded, as opportunity afforded, to push forward the undertaking toward a beginning. Liberal gifts were made--in one instance of five hundred thousand dollars, others of one hundred thousand dollars, and others of smaller sums; considerable bequests have been received--in one case of four hundred thousand dollars, and in others of one hundred thousand dollars, and lesser amounts. The noble site formerly occupied by the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum, and comprising the blocks between West One Hundred and Tenth and One Hundred and Thirteenth streets and Morningside Drive and Amsterdam Avenue, has been secured. On St. John the Evangelist's Day, December 27, 1892, the corner-stone was laid; and since then, as fast and as far as funds would permit, the work has been pushed, until now a congregation is worshipping in the crypt of the choir, a considerable part of the foundation has been carried up to the water-table, the great arch of the tower entrance to the choir has been completed, and at this writing work is proceeding more especially upon one of the Chapels of Tongues. A word about these may interest the readers of this paper.

New York is, to a degree as yet imperfectly recognized even by its own citizens, a polyglot city. A catalogue of the languages daily spoken by its inhabitants would be to most people surprising reading. A clergyman living in New York called, one day, upon his superior officer to ask that provision might be made for religious services for some Mesopotamian immigrants.

"Really," said the bishop, a little impatiently, I fear it must be owned, "isn't that overdoing it a bit, Mr. J__? Cannot a handful of Mesopotamians be provided for in connection with services which you are conducting for your Armenian congregation?"

"I don't know what you call a handful, sir," said the young clergyman, striving to hide a smile of compassionate contempt for the ignorance of his chief. "There are some eight hundred families of Mesopotamians within ten minutes' walk of where we are sitting at this moment; and as for the attendance of Mesopotamians upon Armenian services, the languages of the two people are about as remote from each other as Choctaw and Greek."

The concluding statement was doubtless an exaggeration, but it was a sufficient illustration of a large and little-recognized fact. There pour into New York from all parts of the world steady streams of immigrants,--German, Swedish, Russian, Oriental, and all the various tribes and nationalities of which these are typical,--who, for a while, are shut up to the one language with which they are familiar, their own. For them there is needed some provision which shall bridge over the space between their coming and their later acquisition of the tongue spoken in America. And so there has been provided in connection with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the one feature which it is believed is absolutely unique. Surrounding the great choir the design provided for seven Chapels of Tongues.

In New York to-day the Episcopal Church provides services in nine different languages. In the cathedral the seven Chapels of Tongues will stand for seven of them--German, Spanish, French, Swedish, Italian, Armenian, and Chinese,--with services in these languages on every Lord's Day. These Chapels of Tongues will open directly into the cathedral, and as they become familiar with the tongue of their adopted country, those who have worshipped in them will pass from the services in the chapels to that of the great mother church itself. One's mind turns back at such a picture and recalls, with a strange sense of its new and wider meaning, that cry that broke from the lips of the multitude in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost: "How hear we every man in our own language, wherein we were bornthe mighty works of God?"

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