During the Middle Ages throughout Europe, cathedrals sprang up, casting long shadows over cities emerging from the chaos of the so-called Dark Ages. The vastness of their soaring space and artisanal beauty were in stark contrast to the crumbling structures of the former glory of the Roman Empire. Cathedrals became symbols of great civic pride and the focus of wealth and power­­—think Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. Cathedrals were also the multi-media teaching tools of their day, winning converts with a certain calculated sense of architectural and liturgical shock and awe. As time went on, cathedrals became urban centers for cultural gatherings, supporting musicians, scientists, philosophers, artists, composers, writers, theologians, and politicians. Indeed, many cathedrals became the nuclei of the first universities. This was the world of the Establishment Church, state-supported Christendom, and a world in which the Christian world was the geopolitical powerbase. This is no longer our world. And if Christendom is no longer the dominant model of our world, then we must ask, what meaning is there for the great architectural symbols of Christendom, her cathedrals? Do cathedrals still have a purpose? Or are we just another big and unwieldy church?

A cathedral takes its name from the Latin for the bishop’s chair, the cathedra. Cathedrals are the seat of the bishop and therefore represent our apostolic mission and our catholic relationship with Christians throughout the world and throughout history. So if bishops link us together, what then is the unique mission for a cathedral? In his 2014 essay in the Anglican Theological Review, Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., points to the adjectives that define (or should) a bishop’s ministry: apostolic, prophetic, theological, prayerful, pastoral, just, and empowering. Those are great adjectives and each is deservedly and thoroughly unpacked in Dean Hall’s good essay. But what I find most intriguing is what he writes about the limits of the episcopacy (that is, government of a church by bishops) and why cathedrals are uniquely poised to address the challenges and opportunities facing twenty-first century Christians. We have so elevated the episcopacy, Dean Hall writes, that we have isolated our bishops in a way that “runs counter to the logical implications of baptism.” In other words, a structure of hierarchy may be limiting and distancing to the very people who might benefit from the new life promised in baptism. This contrasts with the mission of cathedrals, which are the only places in our church where all members of the church—bishops, priests, deacons, every baptized person, and every person questioning God and faith—can gather for prayer and be empowered to action. Dean Hall is suggesting, and I believe rightly so, that the center of gravity in our church may be shifting away from the episcopacy and toward the cathedral. This is not to suggest that the ministry of bishops is passé. It is merely to say that cathedrals can be more nimble and responsive to ministry in a post-Christendom world.

I say this not as a hopeful projection but as a matter of fact. Cathedrals are growing in both numbers of worshippers and visitors, averaging 3 percent growth per year in many places in the Church of England and the Episcopal Church. This growth is particularly notable because of the well-documented decline in mainline Protestant denominations. Thankfully, many cathedrals understand that their mission is to be far more than a parish church, or a gathering place for the diocesan churches, or as a stunning tourist attraction. As noted in Spiritual Capital: The Present and Future of English Cathedrals, cathedrals “have a particular capacity to connect with those who are on or ‘beyond’ the Christian periphery.” Cathedrals, in other words, are uniquely positioned to draw in the so-called “nones,” those who long for a deep connection to the sacred and to community, but are also deeply wary of a version of the Christian church that has dominated our society in the last forty-plus years.

Jane Shaw, former dean of Grace Cathedral and now professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University, offers several insights about what cathedrals offer that are new and fresh. First, cathedrals offer an aesthetic of beauty that encourages people to reach beyond themselves in the glory of God. The arts are (or should be) a centerpiece of a great urban cathedral. Secondly, cathedrals are big enough to allow people to be anonymous for as long as they need to be. “People can ‘test’ out religion without someone grabbing them and putting them on the coffee (rotation) the minute they enter the door.” Cathedrals are places where people can explore the Divine at their own pace. Additionally, cathedrals can be centers of civic engagement, gathering places for diverse urban communities, conveners of civic dialogue, and catalysts for action on issues of justice. I have witnessed how this worked especially in the Diocese of California where I was ordained. Grace Cathedral was a primary leader in forging a pastoral response in the early days of the AIDS crisis, a gathering place for a bewildered city on September 11, 2001, and a rallying place for peace and marriage equality demonstrations. The people who instinctively came to weep, pray, and work for change were only a handful of the regular members of Grace Cathedral. Believers or not, the people of San Francisco looked to their Episcopal cathedral as a place that would offer a respite of grace and hope.

My prayer is that Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I serve, will become the kind of place for the people of our region that Grace Cathedral is for its surrounding community. Christ Church Cathedral is similarly positioned to be on the cutting edge of mission. It has a diversity of gathering places within its walls. It offers a connection to the arts, and the moral imagination to be a place of transformation and outreach, all the while rooted in the ritual and spiritual practices of the Episcopal tradition that so resonate with the human heart. There are so many creative offerings that demonstrate Christ Church Cathedral’s capacity to be a great cathedral: the Cathedral Cafe, Music Live at Lunch, the Shifrah service, and many other initiatives of its Third Century Vision. Each of these new initiatives builds on a long legacy of a church at the downtown corner of Fourth and Sycamore that has always responded to the needs and concerns of our community.

The question we who call this church our home must ask now: Who is called to be here and who have we forgotten to embrace? Who can teach, gather, and challenge us? What is God now calling us to do or be?

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them …’” (Rev. 21:3).

Gail Greenwell 
Sources and Resources
Follett, Ken. The Pillars of the Earth. New York: New American Library, 2007.

Hall, Gary. “The Purpose of Cathedrals.” Anglican Theological Review 96.4 (Fall 2014): 727-36.

Shaw, Jane. “The Potential of Cathedrals.” Anglican Theological Review 95.1 (Winter 2013): 137-47.

The Foundation for Church Leadership and The Association of English Cathedrals. Spiritual Capital: The Present and Future of English Cathedrals. London: Theos and The Grubb Institute, 2012.