Colossal Cathedrals: Building for God or Ourselves?

Poet W.H. Auden once described cathedrals as "Luxury liners laden with souls, Holding to the east their hulls of stone."

It's an evocative image and a reminder that a cathedral, no matter how grand, is meant to be a vehicle of sorts -- elevating the souls of worshippers and transporting them to a place of transcendence and communion with God.

Historically, cathedrals were often the largest, most ornate and most expensive buildings around. Accented with spires, gargoyles and flying buttresses, their grandeur was supposed to reflect the might and glory of God.

They were also supposed to mirror the triumphant nature of the faith of the faithful who built them.

And then there's the Crystal Cathedral, the flashy monument to abundant living in Garden Grove, Calif., that's now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

When the local Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, Calif., offered $50 million to buy the icon of American Protestantism, I had to wonder: Are ecclesiastical luxury liners really necessary anymore?

Moreover, at a time when the U.S. economy is as wobbly as a house of cards and so many Americans are struggling to keep their financial heads above water, what kind of a message does a $50 million cathedral send?

Budgets are moral documents, religious leaders have been quick to remind us in recent days as the federal government struggles to balance its own. How we choose to spend our money has a lot to say about where our true values lie.

"Where your treasure is," Jesus reminds us in the Gospel of Luke, "there will your heart be also."

When the famous cathedrals of Western Europe were built, the elaborate architecture, stained glass windows, statues and other design elements were meant to be a kind of sermon in stone that the largely illiterate masses could "read."

While illiteracy is still a problem, it is hardly the widespread concern it was hundreds of years ago. In the information age, it's no longer necessary to resort to reading architecture to understand the message of the gospel.

Bishop Tod Brown of Orange has said the 1.2 million Catholics who live in his sprawling diocese need a cathedral large enough to accommodate their growing numbers. Currently, the largest church in the diocese seats about 1,500; the Crystal Cathedral has a capacity of 3,000.

Buying the financially ailing 35-acre Crystal Cathedral campus -- including a number of office buildings that could house diocesan staff -- would be cheaper than constructing a brand new cathedral on a parcel of church-owned land in nearby Santa Ana. Plans for a newly constructed cathedral remain in their infancy, but call for a 2,500-seat sanctuary.

From my perspective, spending $50 million on a "new" cathedral -- whether built from the ground up or bought secondhand -- seems at best obscene and at worst sinful. To spend that kind of money on a building that stands as a symbol of religious excess, having bankrupted another faith community, is ironically ludicrous.

Why not make do? Be frugal. Set an example of what it means to live simply and as good stewards of our resources. Rent one of the many arenas or stadiums in Orange County when there is a need to accommodate crowds larger than 1,500. The weather in Southern California lends itself to outdoor services most of the year.

Sacred space is important as it can shape and color our responses while we're in it. But, truly, the building itself shouldn't matter.

What eventually became the Crystal Cathedral was started by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller in the 1950s atop a food shack at a drive-in movie theater. When the audacious Crystal Cathedral, with its gleaming façade of 10,000 glass panes, was built in the late 1970s, it represented contemporary religious sensibilities that eschewed formality in favor of casual worship.

At the time, construction of the "cathedral" cost about $18 million.

Last October, Schuller's ministry filed for bankruptcy, citing more than $50 million in debts. Perhaps the church would have been better off sticking with the spirit of its rented drive-in space and aiming for something more down-to-earth than spending lavishly on what has become a crystal albatross, hobbling its true mission.

Think about what else the Diocese of Orange -- which paid out $100 million in settlements to victims of clergy sex abuse a few years back -- could do with $50 million.

That could buy a lot of life-saving HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis drugs for the poorest of the poor in the developing world. It could dig thousands of new wells for the estimated 1 billion people worldwide who have no access to clean drinking water.

The kind of budgetary priority would look a lot more like Jesus' Gospel than a shiny $50 million monument to the fragility of earthly aspirations.

But don't just take my word for it.

"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth," Acts 17:24 reminds us, "and does not live in temples built by hands."

A version of this column originally appeared via Religion News Service.