Seeing through a famous glass cathedral, rather dimly

Seeing through a famous glass cathedral, rather dimly September 17, 2013

The 2010 bankruptcy of Crystal Cathedral Ministries, founded in 1955 by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller atop a drive-in movie theater’s concession stand, stunned much of the church world.

One year later, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange bid $57.5 million for the Crystal Cathedral campus itself, a sprawling facility in the city of Garden Grove, which sits at the heart of Orange County, California. Architects Richard Neutra and Philip Johnson designed the two main buildings on the site — Neutra’s Arboretum and Johnson’s Crystal Cathedral, now renamed Christ Cathedral. The news these days is that the latter is undergoing massive and much-discussed renovations to transform the space from what was, essentially, a hyper-Protestant television ministry’s epicenter into a specifically Catholic liturgical space.

The Los Angeles Times — under the awkward headline, “Changing faiths at the Crystal Cathedral” — looked in on renovations, and while presenting an interesting summary, it seemed to skirt some essential issues. And note that headline on this long, front-page feature story: Is Catholic Christianity really a different FAITH than Protestantism? Aren’t both of these flocks part of the Christian faith?

Meanwhile, reporter Rick Rojas, whose beat is a general one covering Orange County, hints at a couple of issues, and that’s about it:

The diocese launched a $53-million undertaking to refurbish the complex, moving the congregation of nearby St. Callistus to the Christ Cathedral campus and handing over the old Catholic church to the Crystal Cathedral’s refugees. (The transition hasn’t gone without tension: The removal of engraved markers, called Walk of Faith stones, during the construction process has upset some of the Schuller followers who bought them.)

Having paid $57.5 million for a 30-year-old structure that had been fairly well maintained, at least until the offering money ran out, one wonders why a nearly identical amount would have to be spent to “refurbish the complex.” A few details perhaps?

The Times story hints at some things that will need to be installed: “a traditional altar, a gospel lectern called an ambo and [a] baptismal font,” as well as “prominent images of such figures as the Virgin Mary, the apostles and, especially, the church’s namesake,” i.e., Jesus Christ.

How about answering some other  questions?  What exactly will the $53 million go for? We get hints, and end up seeing through the glass-walled cathedral, but only dimly. (I’m guessing the Jumbotron projection television screen at the front either is now gone or will soon depart — the article doesn’t say.)

Unanswered, as well, is the question of why those “engraved [walkway] markers,” which represented the contributions of onetime Schuller supporters to the ministry that built the campus, had to go, and without much ceremony. Unmentioned, and thus, also unanswered, is what happened to the small grove of mausoleums and columbaria the Crystal Cathedral grounds also contained. Have these been relocated, and if so, where?

The slight mention of “the Crystal Cathedral’s refugees” also begs a greater explanation: the bankruptcy and its aftermath have riven the Schuller family, and the group now using the former St. Callistus facility is a shadow of the ministry’s salad days. If the Times couldn’t fit that in this story, it would certainly do well to separately chronicle — at least a tiny sidebar — the present state of what was the Schuller empire, which at one time held massive influence in the region.

The “them-versus-them” tone also comes out in another section of the article, in which local property developer Rob Neal, who’s volunteered to help the Diocese of Orange with the renovation, seems to delineate, without much explanation, who gets to do what to spaces on the campus:

The same applied to the exterior of the Crystal Cathedral.

“That’s yours,” Neal said he told the preservationists, referring to the places the diocese intends to keep as ecumenical, or non-denominational, spaces.

Then he gestured at the cathedral. “But that’s ours.”

Oh, and since when did “ecumenical” transmute into “non-denominational”, Los Angeles Times? Is the paper seriously suggesting that an “ecumenical” worship service of some sort might be welcome outside of the cathedral itself?

Those who remember the Crystal Cathedral at its apex — and the rest of the Times readership — would, I believe, be well served by a little more reporting here.

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20 responses to “Seeing through a famous glass cathedral, rather dimly”

  1. Is Catholic Christianity really a different FAITH than Protestantism? Aren’t both of these flocks part of the Christian faith?

    This certainly invites the question of what word other than “faith” should have been used. It seems to me that all of the reasonable alternatives–“denomination,” “sect,” “religion”–are also fraught with problems. For example, I’m pretty sure that the Roman Catholic Church is adamant that it is not a “denomination” (as are some others) (which is the word which seems the most natural to this non-Catholic’s ears), so using that would be especially awkward in this particular story. It rather seems that “faith” has become, in some quarters at least, the least objectionable alternative–but clearly using “faith” in a particular way that is different from its use in the phrase “the Christian faith.”

  2. Agreed– using “denomination,” “sect,” and “religion,” in this story would be “fraught with problems.” One good alternative some like and seems accurate is “different Christian Faith Tradition.” The problem here is wordiness, but maybe sometimes more than one word is necessary in a news story–trying to jam everything into one word isn’t always a virtue.

  3. Haven’t read the other article about different faiths, but I will.

    In the meantime, I found the article about the Crystal Cathedral to be very well done, on balance. It was mainly about architectural and preservation issues. The story indicated that the new owners didn’t want to drastically alter the exterior looks of the buildings. That is generally how preservation districts deal with significant buildings; however, the article doesn’t say whether the buildings are subject to preservation regulations.

    The remarks at the end of the article are a bit awkward – referring to the outside of the building as “ecumenical”. I think that was meant to mean that the diocese had no intention of offending the prior Christian owners or disrespecting the distinguished architects who were responsible for such unusual structures. I’m also guessing that the choice of “Christ Cathedral” was picked to not seem to be triumphalist in taking over a famous Protestant church. A name like Our Lady of Lourdes or St Thomas Beckett might have seemed confrontational.

    There was discussion about the need for updated wiring, and other infrastructure – perhaps using newer treatments to the glass panes. As a former builder and remodeler, I can tell you that now is the time to get that stuff done. It’s much more difficult and costly to do it piece-meal. The diocese wants the buildings to last a really long time. Nice to know that the property is eminently valuable to a diocese with a wide variety of parishioners due to its location – accessible from several inter-states and on bus routes for those without a vehicle.

    Church architecture is a big subject in the Catholic Church these days and that was reflected in the experts who were interviewed. Nice that there was an explanation that Catholic churches don’t all have to follow the Roman basilica model. I thought it was an unusually good coverage. I did wonder about saying the church NEEDED to have lots of religious statues. No, it doesn’t HAVE TO HAVE lots of images of saints, but we do like to have them.

    More focus on the former owners would be better served by a follow-up article.

  4. Now I see there wasn’t a separate article on are Catholicism and Protestantism different faiths.

    It’s difficult to figure out what “denomination” even means. Does it indicate different names for parts of Christianity?

    It’s my understanding that the undivided church was just “the church” with eventually those of the West being Latin and the East being Greek. The church connected to Rome would speak of dioceses or the church as it was consisted in a particular country contrasted to the “universal” church everywhere. Meanwhile the Copts, the Church of the East (Arians) separated and had simple descriptions of who they were. After the split between Latin and Greek, the East used the adjective “orthodox” to describe how it was different from the West for various reasons and the West continued to refer to the universal church.

    I don’t think there were actual official names (denominations), for Christian religious traditions until the Reformation. After the Reformation, Rome referred and continues to refer to the offshoots as sects. Sorry, that’s what it does.

    To this day, you read documents out of Rome that refer to the universal church – meaning all the churches in union with Rome around the world as opposed to a parish, diocese or country. The only exception I’ve ever seen is documents dealing with ecumenical matters wherein the Anglicans insist on the denomination of Roman Catholic. OR news articles assuming that the English speakers expect to see Roman Catholic used.

    I think it’s particularly the English who have made “Roman Catholic” the preferred designation for the Church of Rome, and the press has acquiesced and our English-soaked culture doesn’t know any different – Catholics included.

    There is something about the “denomination” business I have never understood. It seems to deny that Protestants are offshoots of the Church of Rome. Sorry if I have offended anybody, but this is my understanding of the history of naming Christian groups.

    • No, you are incorrect on the term “Roman Catholic” which is in fact used in deeds and other legal documents by the Roman Catholic church. The old canard that “Roman Catholic” is some Anglican plot is around the internet and is particularly found in some dead ender Irish nationalist circles. But it’s a complete fiction as any diocesan chancellor will tell you. Your church has long used the term for itself in an official way.

      • Actually, Roman Catholic was the official name given to Catholics in the English ruled part of the New World. When I was young, when I had to check my religion for one reason or another the choice I had to pick was “Roman Catholic”. That’s why you see that name on many deeds, etc. We’ve been here a long time now and have acquiesced. Most Catholics don’t understand how it came about. And it is not uniformly used on deeds and other legal documents. There is no uniform US Catholic Church. Each diocese stands alone in its relationship to Rome, which does not use the term “Roman Catholic”.

        Check out this very early 20th century entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia on the subject of “Roman Catholic”.

        • Check out the website of my diocese which calls itself the Catholic Church in Southern Illinois. There are references to the Catholic News Service, the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, Catholic Resources, and the USCCB = The United States Council of Catholic Bishops. You’d have to look really hard to find a reference to Roman Catholic.

          • Thank you and I take your point. The term Roman Catholic is not universal as to internal structures and in that sense I agree with you. However, my random Google search shows MANY RC dioceses calling themselves Roman Catholic including the very diocese in the story of “Christ Cathedral” in question. As an attorney I have never seen church counsel in legal pleadings or contracts here in the U.S. ever use the term “Catholic Church in XYZ”, but that may be the coming thing. Internally, churches are free to call themselves whatever they choose.

          • I’m an attorney,too, and have done legal work for local parishes in RE matters. I know that many Catholic dioceses call themselves Roman Catholic because that’s what they hear in the general parlance and/or they are just continuing what has happened in the past. My point is that in the early days Catholics were required by the English government in the new world to identify themselves (when & where they were legally recognized) as Roman Catholic.
            I hope you read the entire entry under “Roman Catholic” in the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1911. It reports on the stand-off when the first Catholic Archbishop of Westminster (after Catholics were allowed to have bishops again) was to be presented to the Queen and he refused to be presented as the “Roman Catholic” Archbishop. This is not a bogus internet myth. He finally gave in and I think that’s what happened in the US, as well. PS I’m not Irish. I’m mostly German.

          • I didn’t say my diocese uses the legal title of “Catholic Church in Southern Illinois”. I only meant that is how it informally identifies itself to the public, not as the Roman Catholic Church in Southern Illinois.

            Here’s a recent unfortunate case against my diocese where it is identified as the Catholic Diocese of Belleville, abbreviated as the Diocese of Belleville.


  5. I agree with Julie B that there is a lot of good meat in this article, and I agree with the commenters who say that “faith” is as good a word as any for the context, but Mark is also correct that the article leaves out some important details.

    One point: “the preservationists” are mentioned exactly once, with no prior explanation of exactly what kind of preservationists they are. One commenter assumes that it is standard historical preservationists, perhaps with regulations in hand to restrict the diocese’s activities. I think it is more likely that these “preservationists” are Schullerites who don’t want to see their old home changed. The fact that the antecedent appears to have been left on the cutting room floor may indicate that an editor is responsible for the article’s deficiencies.

  6. I speak of the Catholic Faith, Orthodox Faith, Baptist Faith, and so on freely, so that was sort of a non-issue for me. I may be wrong, but there is no intent to insult.

    I agree with the comment above that the article seemed balanced to me and reasonably complete. It would have been nice to know why the Walk of Faith stones were not being transferred to the old St. Callistus, which would have seemed a simple solution.

    Finally, is “hyper-protestant” an accurate description of the Crystal Cathedral? On the one hand, you could argue that Rev. Schuller’s “possibility thinking” represents a departure from Protestant theology, possibly Christian theology. On the other hand, I’ve read that CC, when the TV cameras were off, functioned as a rather normal congregation of the Reformed Church of America, a mainstream protestant denomination. What then, would make it “hyper-protestant?

    • Blame me for the hyper-Prot reference, not Mark. Perhaps UBER-Prot would have been better. But, if you ever covered Schuller, as I did, if would be hard to name someone who had a lower commitment to any form of tradition or consistent approach to church life. He was a one-man denomination — and thus very, very Protestant.

  7. The jaw-dropping numbers are the story for this reader. Without borrowing (at least the story doesn’t say so), your church drops 50 million plus to buy the place and then plans to spend 53 million plus to renovate. For those sums a mighty fine new cathedral could have been built, with a high school on the side. One thinks of the wealth in the L.A. metroplex outside of Orange County (like Beverly Hills and Pacific Pali and Brentwood and Malibu). But OC is sort of a mixture of middle class, working class, and some affluent spots. Where is all this money coming from?
    As to Rev Schuller, putting aside the fractious internal mess, time and demographics doomed his ministry. OC and the whole of So Cal hasn’t been white Protestant for decades. The OC area is now Latino, Filipino, Vietnamese joined by a very secular, non-churched remnant of “anglo” whites. The Crystal Cathedral congregation is now in the nursing home or cemetery. The new wave is Roman Catholic or Pentecostal.

    • Where did all the money for the Crystal Cathedral and other ancillary buildings come from in the first place? The article said it would have been way more expensive to build a new cathedral with similar grounds.

  8. “Unanswered, as well, is the question of why those “engraved [walkway]
    markers,” which represented the contributions of onetime Schuller
    supporters to the ministry that built the campus, had to go, and without
    much ceremony.”

    Because that’s what the Catholic Church has always done, in it’s bigoted, small minded, petty way. When they have taken over a space, they intend to remove all traces of the previous occupants, and, no, Catholics are not just another Christian denomination.

    • Pofarmer, you may want to check your facts before posting such a rant.

      According to the website of Shepherd’s Grove (the successor to Crystal Cathedral Ministries) and according to the website of Christ Cathedral, most of the markers in the Walk of Faith will be removed. However, a video tribute has been made of those markers which are removed. Moreover, a large number of memorials will remain. This includes commemorative plaques, donor walls and statuary.

      Sadly, neither website mentions why the stones are being removed. Possibly the entire walkway, in which the stones are set, is being replaced. I wish the LA Times article had explored this sensitive matter a bit more than it did.

  9. uhhh, 50+ millions for a building just to show off, but have no money for sexual abuse victims? Roman church, when will you learn.

    • Seba, I am surprised by your comment because the Diocese of Orange (which bought the church building) has paid out more than $100 million to settle lawsuits concerning sexual abuse.

      The need to save money after such a large payout is, in part, what led to the purchase of the Crystal Cathedral. The diocese calculated that buying and renovating that building would be less expensive than constructing a new cathedral from scratch.