Catholic Crystal Cathedral?

Back in the mid-1980s, the booming world of Evangelical cable television endured a round of scandals that reporters dubbed “Pearlygate,” which kicked off with the fall of the Rev. Jim Bakker.

Naturally, all kinds of editors woke up and started paying attention to TV preachers. It was in that context that, while covering religion for the Rocky Mountain News, I was shipped off to Orange County, Calif., to try to find out where the Rev. Robert H. Schuller and his “Hour of Power” broadcasts fit into this picture.

The answer, of course, was that he didn’t fit into the picture at all.

With his flowing semi-academic vestments and his love of grand theatrics, Sculler was actually serving up something so familiar that people missed what he was doing. In his own way, he was offering a kind of 1950s mainline Protestantism on steroids, a showy update on the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale for the era of the super-suburbs.

In short, he was the sort-of evangelical superstar who was never really trusted by the evangelical world. Many simply called him New Age and moved on.

Anyone who paid close attention to what he was saying could see that, sooner or later, this formula was going to break down. The old mainline was heading further to the cultural and doctrinal left and evangelicalism — other than, perhaps, the Rev. Joel Osteen — didn’t want to explore the same post-doctrinal terrain as Schuller.

Now, of course, Schuller’s own children are divided and the Crystal Cathedral has gone bankrupt.

It appears that the split is between a more standardized megachurch Evangelicalism and Schuller’s old neo-mainline formula. It’s hard to tell what is happening from the coverage in the Los Angeles Times, which has been stunningly uninterested in any aspect of this story other than family politics and disputes over sexual politics in the music ministry. Who is in those pews right now?

But how’s this for irony? Now there is a chance that Schuller’s post-denominational cathedral for those seeking Christian doctrine lite may actually turn into a real, live cathedral — with a bishop. Check this out:

A new and intriguing prospect for the Crystal Cathedral emerged Wednesday when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange said it was considering buying the bankrupt church in Garden Grove and converting it to a Catholic cathedral.

The announcement by Orange Bishop Tod Brown came one day after Chapman University made a $46-million bid for the 40-acre site. The Crystal Cathedral had earlier reached a tentative agreement for a sale and lease-back deal with a real estate developer, subject to approval by U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Robert Kwan.

A sale to the Catholic Church would solve a longstanding problem for the Orange Diocese, which has no central cathedral for its 1.2-million parishioners. It has been planning for more than a decade to build a new, 2,500-seat cathedral in Santa Ana, but has gotten only as far as hiring an architect. The Crystal Cathedral, designed by the late Philip Johnson, would provide an instant, 3,000-seat architectural landmark at roughly half the $100 million that was previously estimated for the Santa Ana project.

That would be interesting and, yes, symbolic.

However, it is in this context that the Times team tried to paint this change in rather broad, symplistic doctrinal strokes. Read carefully.

A sale to the diocese would be rich with symbolism. Schuller built the Crystal Cathedral as the physical expression of a Space Age ministry that eschewed orthodoxy in favor of a casual worship style and the self-help spirit of “possibility thinking.” It stood in sharp contrast to the sort of dogma and ritual practiced by the Catholic Church.

What, pray tell, does it mean that Schuller “eschewed orthodoxy”? In comparison to whom?

While it is true that he all but eliminated talk about dark subjects such as sin and repentance, in favor of a kind of positive pop theology, I am not aware that he actually tossed out the major doctrines of basic Christianity. He just saluted them meekly from time to time and then went his own way.

Like I said, Schuller offered a kind of 1950s mainline Protestantism and, the times I sat in his pews, that’s who I saw around me — old-fashioned Republican Protestants. You know, suburban winners. Did I miss something?

Also, his “casual worship style” was actually more formal and at times even liturgical in comparison with most of the pop-rock “contemporary Christian worship” that dominated the Baby Boomer evangelical era.

In short, has the Times decided that Schuller should now be seen as, well, a kind of emerging evangelical who was ahead of his time? He is now, officially, no longer a scary evangelical TV guy?

Just asking. I always thought Schuller was so ordinary that he was interesting, a kind of mainline guy who skipped the 1960s and floated along his own path. He wasn’t all that unorthodox and he was never a conservative anything, either. He was just, uh, shiny and light.

It will be amazing if that monument to suburban Protestantism actually turns into, well, a real cathedral. How ironic would that be? And what a complex and interesting story is taking place out there, right now. Now we just need someone to cover it.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Elijah

    “I always thought Schuller was so ordinary that he was interesting, a kind of mainline guy who skipped the 1960s and floated along his own path. He wasn’t all that unorthodox and he was never a conservative anything, either.” GREAT description.

    I would hope that the cathedral was built as a monument to Christ and His Church rather than suburban Protestantism.

  • Bob Smietana

    Actually, the Crystal Cathedral is a denomination church — they’re part of the Reformed Church in America.

  • As We Forgive in CT

    It seems that the Schiller family wants to keep the Crystal Cathedral in the family circle; note the lease-back arrangement. I cannot imagine they want it to be a Catholic Church. Pray that whatever religious group ends up with it, the church will remain a gathering place where all Christians are welcome and inspired by the edifice dedicated to Our Lord.
    If it should become a Catholic Cathedral, the bishop should be welcoming in his administration of the property and in a spirit of ecumenism, without backpedaling on our core values. The Vatican does this approach to the other Christian denominations all the time; the bishop should, too.

  • Joseph Warner

    I am saddened because Dr. Schuller did so much to
    lift the spirits of ministers who were discouraged with his Robert Schuller Successful Church Leadership Conferences. Orthodox? you bet! But he told us, “don’t run off those seeking Christ with controversial subjects on Sunday Morning”. Heavy doctrine was always a part of his ministry but it was in small groups where there could be Q & A.
    I am saddened because the music of stately hymns and blessed old Sunday School Songs have been replaced by
    the “top-tapping, up- beat- raz -ma- taz” junk.
    I am saddened because Dr. Schuller (and Mrs. Schuller) are
    witnessing the demize (sp?) of the world’s best Protestant
    Evangelical tv production with uplifting testimonies and uplifting music and a Great Savior Who Is The Greatest
    “Possibility Thinker” willing to work with us poor, narrow, negative people.
    I am saddened that Protestant millionaires like Donald Trump don’t come quickly to put together a plan and rescue the ministry. But I know faith isn’t faith until its tested. Sheila is trying but she’s a kindergarten teacher and so are her messages on a low level. Dr. Schuller is loved by millions! His “Hour of Power” gave everyone a lift and an invitation to investigate the Christ of Christianity. Get the hymns back! Get Dr. Schuller’s Grandson (Robert Anthony’s son). Get the choir from volunteers in the congregation! PLAY THAT ORGAN! “Revive thy work Lord, in the midst of the years.” – Habakkuk’s prayer.

  • Martha

    I’m torn between fascination and dread about the possibility that this might become a Catholic cathedral.

    Given the dire state of modern church architecture, at least the diocese would know what they’d be getting with the building, as opposed to whatever an architect might inflict upon them.

    On the other hand, how on earth do you turn this building into a church?

  • Rob Harrison

    It’s actually not quite true to say that Schuller was “never a conservative anything,” as the ANC flap a quarter-century ago showed; but his political commitments were also on the list of things that were shelved as much as possible behind the happythink.

  • Dan

    It is fair to say that a ministry that is all “shiny and light” and does not emphasis orthodox teachings is a ministry that “eschewed orthodoxy in favor of a casual worship style…” Eschew means to shun or avoid.

  • George

    In all fairness, Robert Schuller had a tremendous ministry from the Crystal Cathedral. Locally, there were many mission projects, prison ministry, programs for young people, prayer line, suicide hotline, resources and materials available for those in need. The Hour of Power was progressive, relevant and presented with quality and artistic excellence. This ministry was specifically targeted to those who had tired of the well-worn mainline dogma and the superficial emotionally charged evangelical junk. It was designed to attract the educated viewer — people who made a difference in their own personal lives. In return for their support of the ministry, many less fortunate were helped, inspired and spiritually uplifted. There was nothing old-style or dated about the Hour of Power. It has served it’s purpose well and, in it’s present content and format,is no longer relevant or necessary.

  • mattk

    Eschewed orthodoxy? That might be true, but I remember something from about 15 years ago where the Reforemed Church had Robert Schuller explain his theology in writing and they found him to be in compliance with their official teaching, which I guess, is Calvinist. I looked for a link but I can’t find one.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    A religious building changing religions isn’t too unusual in history. All the oldest Anglican churches and cathedrals in the British isles were built by Roman Catholics. And in Spain there is a giant mosque that is now a Catholic Cathedral. Interestingly Moslem immigrants to Spain are demanding the right to worship in the mosque-cathedral that they claim should be theirs since they built the current edifice..
    However, the little coverage I’ve seen on this story usually leaves out that the mosque was built on the site of a cathedral that the Moslems had leveled when they controlled Spain.
    I’m sure some other interesting stories could be written about religious buildings changing hands as background to the Crystal Cathedral story.
    Also, shouldn’t someone look into the improper use of the word “cathedral” by Schuller (or the media). I was unaware that Rev. Schuller was a bishop and a church is only supposed to be called a cathedral if it is the seat of a bishop (cathedra is, I believe, the Latin for seat).
    Was Schuller’s calling his creation a cathedral simply because of its size??? Or a way of self- elevation???

  • mattk

    Martha, just put an altar in it and hang some icons on the walls.

  • Karen

    Was Schuller’s calling his creation a cathedral simply because of its size??? Or a way of self- elevation???

    As a Reformed Church, “cathedral” was probably a name referring to size. The RCA has a synod structure, not a bishopric. That said, the RCA tends to separate politics from religion, providing a space where people of a variety of political persuasions can worship within a Calvinist orthodoxy. I’d call it religiously conservative for a mainline Protestant denomination, but lacking the political conservatism of evangelical churches.

    (I was ordained as an elder and deacon of one of the more liberal RCA churches in a liberal community, but we tended to avoid outright political stands.)

  • http://None Robert Kluter

    I find myself agreeing most with Joseph Warner’s evaluation of the present state of the “Cathedral.” Since my regular Episcopalian Choir is inactive for the Summer, I am taking a “vacation” from my own church and seeking spiritual experiences from visiting other churches and tuning into TV programs, like Crystal Cathedral. RE CC, the whole service has been “dumbed down:” the music is totally schlock, not even good gospel music. To me, the decline began when they began hiring orchestras to accompany the congregation, choir and music artist guests. Lots of poor stewardship here. That fine Fisk organ is never (rarely?) used, and the testimonies and especially Shiela’s sermons are infantile and don’t reach me. Then there are the properties, condos, etc., everywhere! What for? This is all inreach despite the good record of helping ministers, the poor, etc. Haven’t read RE the existence of a food pantry.
    I was shocked to see that the debt has mounted to ~$50MM since I last checked. Selling a beloved piano and a classic Mustang just isn’t going to dent that much, sacrificial as that is.
    I like the Chapman offer, but if the Catholics offer more, accept it! They will do some relayout which will convert it to a Cathedral. Doctinally it is a hard thing for me to agree to, but we’re otherwise so close in our Christian beliefs that the world will not end if this happens. Perhaps a way could be found for Schuller to use(rent) the sanctuary and even produce the TV programs there.
    CC is a ministry which had its place, but perhaps God is calling the Shullers to move on and “Sing a new song to the Lord” in a new setting. They truly over extended themselves which should be a lesson learned for all the other mega-churches. This could happen to them, too.

  • gordon jones
  • gordon jones

    it would make sense to combine the two main services into one at 10:00 am and allow the Hispanic congregation which runs about 2500 to worship about 11:45 or noon. As for debt Sheila says the actual debt to creditors is about 7,500,000. She says nearly 2,000,000 of it has been raised. Presumably another 5,500,000 could get them out of the bankruptcy court’s jurisdiction so they can have more say in what they do with the building/property. The rest of the so called 50,000,000 is primarily the mortgage.

  • Mark Nedelman

    From a finacial standpoint, buying the Chrystal Cathedral might make sense. From an spiritual and architectual standpoint, it would be a disaster.

    For the last fifty or so years the Catholic Church has been beset by a bunch of professional charlatans calling themselves architects. Catholic churches in many parishes are so hideously ugly, they are undoubtedly one factor in the precipitous drop in Mass attendance since Vatican II. In Orange County we don’t need another “Yellow Armadillo”, as the L.A. Cathedral is laughingly called.

    The Chrystal Cathedral was never a cathedral in the real sense; rather it was nothing but a tasteless and glitzy behemoth, a monument to Rev. Schuller’s monumental ego.

    Catholic church architecture should always be incarnational, every aspect visibly pointing to mystery of Our Lord’s death and resurrection, as re-presented in the Mass. If we’re going to have a new cathedral for the Diocese of Orange, let’s do it right.

  • Gloria Williams

    Having tuned in to the C.C. Sunday TV Services for years, I too am disappointed with the changes that have taken place recently. How I miss hearing that great organ, the old familiar/traditional hymns and anthems. The new format leaves me empty and as I said before…greatly disappointed.Since this is a “new day”, peraps both types of worship music could be included…old traditional as well as some “gospel” tpe.

  • Don Schenk

    It strikes me as odd that according to the theology of Schuller’s “posibility thinking” the fact that the Crystal Cathedral is in such trouble would mean…uh, actually I think that the “Hour of Power” was harmless and might have done some good.
    Also, the people who rebroadcast the late D. James Kennedy’s old sermons have left his church in protest to the current pastor, one of Billy Graham’s grandchildren.
    So it seems that chosing a “megachurch” pastor as your pastor will eventually leave you abandoned.

    (By the way, Billy Graham’s “Christianity Today” mentioned that a “megachurhc’ is one with over 250 families. How many Catholic parishes would qualify?)