When I was a boy, my family attended a synagogue that had a building fund. The fund was created to build a new building, but when that was built, the fund did not go out of business. Instead, it built another building and then another until I imagined the synagogue expanding into some sort of Pentagon, just as big and just as certain that more than anything, God favors growth.
I am reminded of this because the other day a newspaper story said that the Washington Cathedral had resumed building the tower of St. Peter and St. Paul at a cost of $12 million. Work was suspended back in 1976 when the building fund, now more or less in its 75th year, went nearly $11 million in debt.
Anyway, that was it. The item said nothing more. It did not say that there was unhappiness about spending even more money on an attempt to reproduce a 14th-century Gothic cathedral in contemporary Washington. It did not contain statements from dissident clergymen, members of the congregation or what we used to call community activists questioning the use to which this money is being put. There was nothing said about the poor or the homeless or any of the people who fleetingly occupied both our time and our consciences when the ghettos were burning and we were afraid that the rest of the city might, too.
Back then, cathedral construction all over America came to a halt. In New York, the perpetual building of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was suspended. It is to be the largest cathedral in the world and has been under construction for so long that the neighborhood around it has gone from prosperous to slum. Now it squats between its flying buttresses in one of New York's poorer neighborhoods where, fortunately, many of the residents are from Latin America and accustomed to seeing ecclesiastical splendor in the midst of secular squalor.
There is, I suppose, something to be said for simply building a building. It will be finished someday and then you will at least have something. And, anyway, this is not an either-or situation--help the poor or build a cathedral. Both can be done at the same time--only everyone gets a bit less. In the end, you will have a cathedral and you will still have the poor. If you had to wait for the elimination of poverty, you would never have cathedrals.
But the resumed construction of the cathedral is also a statement. A cathedral is like the trunk of a redwood tree in which you can, by looking at the rings, see floods and droughts--weather patterns back through time. The building of a cathedral takes a long time also and it, too, stops and starts, only the reasons for all of this are social, political or financial. You can look at its construction record and say "here we were afraid" or "here we were concerned" or "here we no longer were." Nothing much changed but the focus of our concern. It went from us to them and then back to us.
Now it is back to us. It is the ethic of our times. You indulge yourself and then with what is left over (if anything) you do something for the poor and something for the homeless, but they are not what come first. This is the way we lead our lives. This is why charity comes after a new suit or a vacation or whatever, but it is not the obligation we tend to first.
But that is one of the reasons we have churches--to show the way, to question our sense of entitlement, to be better than we are, even to make us feel guilty. A bigger cathedral won't do any of that. It is just the church exhibiting its own sense of entitlement--buying something it really doesn't need before it turns to help those who really are in need.
About the time I read that work had resumed on the Cathedral, I was reading a book called "On The Black Hill." It is a marvelous novel set years ago on the English-Welsh border. In it, a farm woman, raised an Anglican, is forced by her husband to attend the starkly simple church they call "Non-Conformist." She hates it at first but then one day, looking up at the rafters, she has a revelation: "And all the great cathedrals were built not so much for the glory of God as the vanity of man."