Historical church

Baltimore-area architects Brennan+Company point today to a video item looking at the exterior of Pittsburgh’s East Liberty Presbyterian Church: two short films, with sort of excitable camera-work and a soundtrack of some music plus a lot of automotive traffic noise. It’s easy to get absorbed in, if (as I do) you like vivid urban scenery & sunlight on building-surfaces & so on.

The title given this two-part (I, II) film subject is Specters of Spain: the Spanish Gothic Architecture of Ralph Adams Cram. Cram was a major twentieth-century advocate & practitioner of the Gothic Revival, an architectural & ecclesiastical movement that swept the nineteenth century in Europe and North America, a movement of deepening interest in the flowering of social & artistic Christendom of the European middle ages — a movement, notably, which catastrophes of political upheaval & terrific bloodshed in Europe, recurring through the nineteenth and climaxing in the 1st half of the twentieth century, would help to drain the life out of by about the end of Cram’s own lifetime.

It’s hardly surprising that this church, East Liberty Presbyterian (part of the American ‘mainline’ denomination the Presbyterian Church-USA), continues to identify its ministry in Pittsburgh closely with this extraordinary building. The building is known now as the Cathedral of Hope — also the name of the congregation’s web site, cathedralofhope.org.

I just can’t help observing, though I appreciate their care for all that the edifice represents as a legacy of city culture & ministry, that in historical terms there is something a little bizarre about the very notion of a Presbyterian cathedral, particularly one designed altogether in the spirit of high-church Anglicanism & Anglo-Catholicism and celebrated today for allusion to the Christian art of late-medieval Spain.

While we’re at it, note that this cathedral is a monument for northern industrial-progressive U.S. Presbyterians featuring (see Wikip.) a stained-glass tribute to Confederate general & strict Calvinist Stonewall Jackson. And that it’s a cathedral attached today, denominationally, to the wing of (post)modern pan-protestantism furthest, ideologically, from any recognition of a continuing apostolic hierarchy & priesthood.

Not a very old cathedral, but one that can tell a good deal about the unfolding Christian story, maybe, nevertheless.

3 Replies to “Historical church”

  1. Some years ago the observation was made that in my (chiefly) Mennonite home town history had swung about: the Anabaptists were erecting enormous, ornate houses of worship, and the Catholics were meeting in modest buildings at the edge of town. Mind you, nothing the Mennonites built could draw comparison to (or fit the definition of) a cathedral. Still…

  2. So hard to tell, in the end, whether cathedral-building (in this loose sense) is a mark of failure or of success for the Christian community, in being ‘in the world while not of it’ — hm?

  3. Your post has got me thinking of the meaning of certain buildings and how we react to them.

    I had started to write in response to the, as you say, ‘excitable’ camera work that it “wasn’t appropriate”. Appropriate? For what? Anyway, seems a bit rich coming from me.

    As an aside, a few years back myself and a friend travelled around Eastern Europe for a couple on months on a less-than-grand tour. Towards the end of our trip we realised that we had spent most of our time visiting cathedrals.

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