Building Cathedrals

The Reverend Sandy Webb is blogging from General Convention in Salt Lake City.

In ancient times, it could take a century or more to build a cathedral. From the far corners of the globe, the finest artists would be commissioned and the finest materials procured. (The Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Washington, otherwise known as the National Cathedral, went so far as to procure a moon rock for one of their windows!) A great cathedral is more than a house of worship, it is a work of art and an architectural testament to the glory of God. At the General Convention, we may build our cathedral in three or four days, but it is no less a cathedral than any other.

We begin with an empty room – creatio ex nihilo in roughly 65,000 square feet of floor space. We have been working for two years on our design plan, and it all comes to life in a matter of hours. The stage is constructed first, then trusses are installed to support lighting and sound equipment. Banners and drapes finish off the decorations, and furniture follows on a massive scale. The altar is four feet tall, with a surface measuring eight by six; it must be moved with a forklift. We anticipate that the baptismal font, borrowed from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA, will hold at least 20  gallons. Somewhere between 4,800 and 5,200 folding chairs have been delivered and arranged in perfect, laser-guided rows.

The process is very mechanical, but a deep river of spirituality flows beneath it. My colleague and friend, the Reverend Charlie Dupree from Bloomington, Indiana, designed the space truly to be a sanctuary, a haven of rest and safety amidst the frenetic pace of the General Convention. For that reason, the reredos curtain features a stunning image of Utah’s mountains, selected to convey a sense of both permanence and dynamism.

Early in the day, I was directing one of our riggers on the hanging of four large panels at the main entrances to the worship space. (A rigger is a professional laborer tasked with suspending banners and equipment from the "low steel" girders 30 feet aloft.) The panels are beautifully designed, and welcome worshippers with four words: "Be still and know." Not a Christian, our rigger read these sacred words for the very first time: "That’s a lovely thought, you know. Life can move so quickly, but sometimes we just need to be still." In one holy moment, a cavernous space became a sanctuary. I allowed myself a moment to be still, shared the complete phrase with my new friend – "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46) – and told him a little bit about our faith. Our work was not in vain, our cathedral had been built, and sanctuary had been established – even before the first worshipper arrived.

Some suspension of disbelief is required to worship at the General Convention. Our worship space does not look like a cathedral, nor can we completely disguise its loading docks, circuit breakers, exit signs and fire safety equipment. But, sanctuaries are not made with bricks and mortar. When worshippers infuse a space with prayer, and when God moves in our midst, it is our faith that transforms our worship space into the cathedral we all need it to be.

Scripture speaks at some length about the care that is to be taken in constructing, maintaining and using God’s temple. And, in a way, the team that assembled in Salt Lake City today joined an unbroken line of temple builders extending back to Old Testament times. Our tools may be different, but our task is not: Constructing a space to ground and inspire, to lift and to transform.

Posted by Cara Modisett at 5:50 AM
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