While some of you may find this hard to believe, I hesitated before writing this post. A lot. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the ministry that takes place at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston. Under the current dean, they have a long history of reaching out to people on the margins which is, at heart, what Jesus’ gospel message is all about. Bishop Shaw says he is “especially proud of the cathedral for doing the work of Jesus Christ — feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger.”
The recently released video about the artwork that now graces the cathedral’s long vacant pediment, however, speaks to me about the disconnect between that very gospel message and the very public portrayal of it. If you’ve been down Tremont Street along Boston Common, perhaps you’ve seen it — it’s a giant nautilus that, at night, gets illumined with blue backlighting.
The original plan called for a relief sculpture of the cathedral’s patron, St. Paul, preaching to King Agrippa (Acts 29). This idea was scrapped when the money ran out and the pediment remained empty for nearly 200 years. I’m still not sure why Paul was pushed aside for a seashell.
Sure, I’ve mocked the nautilus occasionally in the months since it went up. Mostly it was good natured. Mostly. Things like telling everyone I now refer to it as St. Paul’s Fish House & Raw Bar since it looks more like the entrance to a fancy seafood restaurant than a cathedral. Granted the Greco-Roman architecture made it appear — pre-nautilus (PN) — like a bank. St. Paul’s Savings & Loan, perhaps.
The nautilus is supposed to be a metaphor for spiritual growth, based on an Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem titled The Chambered Nautilus. I actually don’t mind the sculpture itself — if it was on the facade of a contemporary arts museum it might even entice me to go inside. But labeling it a symbol of spirituality feels contrived and as empty as one of its chambers.
But what really set me off was the artist’s description of his vision — a vision the cathedral community enthusiastically embraced. He says in the video that the cathedral is “not just a church for Episcopals.” Okay, ecclesiastical grammar aside, I understand the cathedral sees itself as a House of Prayer for All People (Isaiah 56:7) — a Biblical slogan popularized by the Washington National Cathedral. They live into this motto by offering a place of prayer for the local Muslim community on Friday afternoons and opening their doors to “all sorts and conditions” of people.
Yet, unless you first place your stake in the ground as the epicenter of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, a community of disciples following Jesus Christ, this slogan can easily delve into “A House of the Least Common Denominator for All People.”
The artist goes on to say, “I was trying to think of a symbol or an image that would be spiritual but not be religious.”
What?! A Christian cathedral by its very nature is and must be “religious.” It should be a beacon of the gospel and, as the dean says in the video, “the spiritual heart” of the diocese. If our core is this theologically squishy we may as well just tear down all of our crosses and erect nautili (what is the plural of nautilus?) on all our parish churches.
This video did make me reflect on what I envision as cathedral ministry and for this I’m grateful. I would love the cathedral to be the spiritual heart of the diocese but in order to do so, I believe, it must first be clear about its Christian identity. As a parish priest and simply a Christian, this is what I seek in a cathedral:
I want a cathedral that is both spiritual and religious.
I want a cathedral that inspires — liturgically, theologically, and spiritually.
I want a cathedral that is a powerful sign of the Christian faith, boldly proclaimed.
I want a cathedral that preaches Christ crucified and risen with reckless abandon.
I want a cathedral that is a beacon of hope amidst a sinful and broken world.
I want a cathedral that, as the bishop’s seat, is engaged in a ministry of Christian teaching and formation.
I want a cathedral that is a place of prayer and spiritual refreshment.
I want a cathedral that ministers to those on the margins of society.
I want a cathedral that is relevant to its urban context.