The Mission of a Cathedral

The following is an excerpt from my Dean’s Address to the annual meeting of the Cathedral congregation.

In the remainder of this report I want to focus on responding to the immense missionary challenges that are facing the Christian Church in general and the Cathedral in particular. In November I gave a set of talks in the Diocese of Dallas on this problem entitled Modernity and Mission. The topic was the focus of my study and prayer for the Summer and Fall. I believe I have a better understanding of what is distinctive about the missionary environment in which we find ourselves and greater clarity about what an authentic missionary engagement with modernity looks like. I have been trying to share some of these thoughts in the Dean’s Forum. As a result of this study I believe strongly that The Cathedral of All Saints is uniquely positioned to be especially effective in reaching contemporary people for the sake of Jesus Christ. 

 There are many blessings of modernity for which to give thanks, modern medicine and a remarkable rise in the standard of living right across the world. Modernity is also characterized by what the old preachers called worldliness, a mentality which is preoccupied with the things of this world in which God is not so much denied as forgotten. The experience of transcendence, of holiness and otherness is rare. The experience of awe which leads to worship is rare and so modern people are in jeopardy of losing their souls and of losing that which is essential to our humanity: the worship of the one true and living God. It requires something powerful to break out of the captivity to this worldliness and the diminution and constriction of the human heart that must be its consequence. It requires something like a Gothic Cathedral. Pope Benedict XVI has a wonderful reflection on the significance of Gothic Cathedrals in an audience address that he gave on November 18, 2009. I encourage you to read the whole thing. Here is a quote, In the 12th and 13th centuries another kind of architecture for sacred buildings spread from the north of France: the Gothic. It had two new characteristics in comparison with the Romanesque, a soaring upward movement and luminosity. Gothic cathedrals show a synthesis of faith and art harmoniously expressed in the fascinating universal language of beauty which still elicits wonder today. By the introduction of vaults with pointed arches supported by robust pillars, it was possible to increase their height considerably. The upward thrust was intended as an invitation to prayer and at the same time was itself a prayer. Thus the Gothic cathedral intended to express in its architectural lines the soul’s longing for God.”

To maintain this beautiful sacred space as well as we are able and to invite in every winsome way possible the public to come and see, places our congregation on the cutting edge of the mission to modernity. Simply getting people into the building challenges what the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, calls the imminent frame of modernity, the lowered horizon of the modern person. When people enter the Cathedral for worship or for a concert or for The Cathedral in Bloom they are taken up in a great act of prayer simply by being in the space. The experience of being in the Cathedral humbles and dignifies at the same time and causes people to awaken to “the soul’s longing for God.” The daunting sums of money that are required to maintain this building are not an impediment to mission but a form of mission that is particularly needed in the time in which we live. Of course we need to be thoughtful and creative about how to help people take a next step in faith once their hearts have been awakened from the this-worldly trance of modernity but stirring up the hunger of the heart for the one who is all beauty, all truth, all goodness is no small thing.  

Another way in which The Cathedral of All Saints is uniquely positioned for an authentic missionary engagement with modernity is through liturgy and worship which aims by God’s grace for the transcendent. I was privileged to know the great Lutheran pastor and theologian, Robert Jenson. Dr. Jenson was a friend of Fr. Edge who is a member of our congregation. Jenson believed that modernity was characterized by a loss of meaning. Years ago, he wrote a very important article called, “How the World Lost Its Story.” He believed the essential missionary response to modernity was for the church to regain the power of her liturgy. “One of many analogies between postmodernity and dying antiquity—in which the church lived for her most creative period—is that the late antique world also insisted on being a meaningless chaos, and that the church had to save her converts by offering herself as the narratable world within which life could be lived with dramatic coherence. . . The church so constituted herself in her liturgy. . . The classic liturgical action of the church was not about anything else at all; it was itself the reality about which truth could be told. . . In the postmodern world, if a congregation or churchly agency wants to be “relevant,” here is the first step: It must recover the classic liturgy of the church, in all its dramatic density, sensual actuality, and brutal realism, and make this the one exclusive center of its life. In the postmodern world, all else must at best be decoration and more likely distraction” You can find the whole article on the website of the journal, First Things. It is well worth a read.

With our tradition of liturgical and musical excellence, we are able to recover the classic liturgy of the church, in all its dramatic density, sensual actuality and brutal realism in a setting carefully designed for just this purpose. Worship is central to the mission of the church and especially a Cathedral church and the liturgical experience that we can by God’s grace provide here is just the medicine that is the antidote to the modern sleeping sickness. The care, attention and money that we spend on music and liturgy are not a distraction from mission but an investment in a form of mission which is especially pertinent to the time in which we live.

For our liturgy to be authentic and to have both the form of Godliness and the power thereof challenges us to serious preparation by prayer and study of the scriptures and by the cultivation of the holiness of the Christian life. We must also be thoughtful and creative about how we make it possible for people to enter more deeply into the power of the liturgy. What we do on Sunday morning is central but services such as Evensong and Lessons and Carols offer an opportunity for people to come out of the chaos of modernity into the reality ordered by God’s love which is the Christian cosmos. In England there are signs of life in the great Cathedrals and the services of Evensong there are drawing new people to the faith. We can do that here as well. I want to close by saying the obvious which is that at the center of a congregation that aims to be effective in mission is an absolute consecration to Jesus Christ. It must be clear that what we are all about is that He should live in us and we in Him. A living encounter with Him is all that we have to offer our time. It is all that the church when true to itself has ever had to offer. If it is clear that our care for the building is an expression of our care about Him, and that our care about the music and the liturgy is an expression of care about Him, then His light will shine here and as the prophet Isaiah said in chapter 60, “The nations will come to your light.” The word nations in the Bible means all the different kinds of people drawn by the light of Christ into the one flock of the one Shepherd.