Easter 2024

12 November 2011
lost cause? - is the National Cathedral a

The National Cathedral wants you to know that they need help.

Even on this reopening weekend, what should clearly be a joyous occasion, the images plastered on their website are those of plaster, and mortar, and crumbling stones -- the images of a cathedral in disrepair.

The news has not been good lately.

The National Cathedral
photo by the author, June 2008

The budget was $27 million in 2008. It was slashed by more than half in 2010 and 100 staff members were let go.

Then there was the earthquake earlier this year which closed the cathedral indefinitely. The Cathedral reopened this weekend, but $15 million (source) is needed for repairs. (Even this figure was announced with an additional hefty dollar amount -- $10 million -- needed to fund "cathedral operations through the end of 2012.")

I suspect that not wanting to dip into the principal of its $50 million endowment (interestingly, the Cathedral is not a member of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes, which seems strange) the Cathedral will rely on the approximately 14,000 members of the National Cathedral Association and other donors -- because the 800 members of the congregation surely can't foot the bill.

Let's pause here for a minute.

These dollar amounts don't really work out when you're talking about a congregation of 800.

Of course, this isn't your average congregation, this is an Episcopal congregation. Historically Episcopal congregations haven't been shy about throwing a lot of money around.

And this isn't just any congregation, it's a cathedral, and cathedrals certainly play different, larger roles than parish churches.

Indy choirboys hangin' out with Woodrow Wilson

And this isn't just any cathedral, it's the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in the capital city of the United States: it styles itself as the National Cathedral, and it has occupied a tremendously important place as a spiritual home of 300 million nominally deistic Americans. United States Presidents have been "ordained" and buried here.

But that's only once or twice every four years, or so. And yes, it's a beautiful spot...

But when we start to look at how much money is at stake for a diocesan cathedral -- I'm just going to go ahead and ask the question -- is it worth it?

Is there any cathedral in the country, in the world, that costs so much to operate?

This is a huge building. It's not the biggest, or the longest, or the highest in the world, but it does appear on all these lists.

Major funding for the St Peter Tower
was given by Mr & Mrs Eli Lilly
of Indianapolis.

And really, it was just finished. In 1990 the bell towers were finished, which marked the end of an 83 year construction period. Not bad.

And there it sat for 21 years until it started to fall apart in a big way. Ironically, it was one of those "acts of God" things.

So, here we are in 2011, and while the cathedral is not looking at another 83 year construction period, it is looking at a major repair.

And for a building this size and of this scope, this will not be the last. But as cathedrals go this is a brand new place, and if it's going to be around for another 1,000 years before being rebuilt then these are just growing pains.

However, we live in a very different climate now than 1907, and while I in no way mean to diminish the vision and perseverance of those who built the cathedral, I feel that it would be unfair at this time not to ask some questions.

The Episcopal Church grew steadily from the beginning of the twentieth century through the mid-1960s, but has been shrinking steadily since 1966.

Current membership levels in the church are those that we first surpassed in 1939.

And that's not all. Sunday morning attendance -- the actual butts in the pews/cathedral chairs -- is at a much lower level than it was in the 1930s. And these patterns are changing rapidly.

In the diocese where I work Sunday worship attendance has declined by 25% in less than a decade. (I find this statistic terrifying, which is why I keep repeating it)

If we see a trend toward fewer people in church nationally, why should those supporting a very large church building, the National Cathedral, continue to do so? At what point does it become throwing good money after bad?

What functions do cathedrals have in this country anyway? They simply aren't native to this soil -- they're definitely imported from our mother church where they sprang up organically over many hundreds of years.

While I raise these questions in good faith, I don't pretend to know how to begin to propose another way forward. And it wouldn't even really be my place to think about this, except for that moniker "National" Cathedral. But it might be worth allowing the cathedral and the diocese, with their new bishop (congrats, by the way!) to take a deep breath in regard to the priorities and the timetable.

(For instance, when is the next Virginia earthquake? How much will need to be spent to repair it then?)

All of these issues are in God's hands, and these things will work themselves out in due time.



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