"Manhattan is an island of churches." So writes Holland Cotter, a New York Times art critic, in a story about some of the most magisterial and magnificent churches of the city.
From the busy streets of lower Manhattan to the residential neighborhoods in upper Manhattan, all the churches stand out in various ways: for their age, their architecture, their artwork or their ambiance. Others are noted or notable for their public programs, performances and pageantry.
Despite the variety, all these churches, Cotter says, are "a special category of real estate, set-aside zones dedicated to the proposition that all of us, praying types or not, need quiet places to be alone in public, places to think, feel and see things we may not think, feel and see elsewhere." ("Urban Uplift: Sanctuaries for the Spirit," New York Times, December 25, 2009).
It's ironic, however, that religion has nothing to do with it. Even though all these churches were built first and primarily for religious purposes, worship in particular - the draw now seems to be more extrinsic than intrinsic, more for their outward beauty and appearance than for the inward practice of faith.
In some ways, this confirms what I have feared is happening to many churches, whether in Manhattan or around the nation: that visitors are more like one-time tourists to a museum than weekly pilgrims to a sanctuary. And there are plenty of people who will tell you that when they go to a church, they derive much greater inspiration from the beauty of its art and architecture than from the service and its sermon.
But I wouldn't want to suggest that beauty is a bad thing. It would be absurd to conclude that we need to make our churches less beautiful, that we should deliberately turn them into dark and ugly edifices, as if then people will somehow be more worshipful and spirit-filled. If today our sanctuaries on Sundays are no longer filled, it's ridiculous to point the finger at beauty as the problem. In fact, if not for their beauty, some churches would be lucky to attract any visitors at all.
A church's extrinsic beauty is a good thing — but that's not the end or the point. Sanctuaries, temples, churches and chapels are built for many reasons, and among them is the impulse of God's people, inspired by inward faith and gratitude, to make an outward expression of praise and thanksgiving to God. But there is more. The beauty of the sanctuary and what goes on in it, should then inspire us to continue building the beautiful through ministries, outreach and service.
Twenty years ago, a diocese in California spent $30 million restoring its downtown cathedral. Many people in the community, both Catholics and non-Catholics, wondered if this wasn't an extravagant and wasteful use of money. Just as Judas questioned whether Mary's use of costly perfume to anoint Jesus couldn't have been better spent on the poor (John 12:5), people asked if the millions budgeted wouldn't be better used to address the severe homeless issue in the cathedral's neighborhood.
One day I was in a meeting with one of the diocesan priests who was well-known for his social activism with the poor, especially migrant farm workers. I asked him his thoughts about the controversial cost of the cathedral, certain that he would be critical of this monumental waste.
His answer surprised me. "We need a vision of the beautiful to inspire us to do beautiful things in this world," he said. He went on to explain that in a world filled with ugly words and acts that hurt and oppress people, our sanctuaries need to reflect the beauty of God, to inspire faith within us to go out and make the world a more beautiful place.
Though Cotter, the Times critic, writes about Manhattan churches with their art-worthiness in mind, he hits the target when he suggests that churches are "places to think, feel and see things we may not think, feel and see elsewhere."
The beauty of the sanctuary, both extrinsic and intrinsic, should enable us to see the same possibility for the world around us, and then inspire us to go forth and make the same — doing God's good work, loving others as we love God, and building the beautiful.
The Rev. Charles Buck is the UCC's Hawaii Conference Minister.