What we leave to the future

I am a bit baffled by the amount of money pledged for the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral and by the speed with which it has come. I am in favor of restoring the historic cathedral and I’m hoping for a kind of hybrid restoration, using modern materials in places where they cannot be seen and restoring façades to their original appearances. But all of that is an aside. What amazes me is that there was almost no effort put into the process of fund raising and more than a billion dollars has poured in. I read one article that the restoration may even be threatened by having too much money. An unlimited budget may result in flourishes and fancies that reach beyond the original cathedral, where compromises were made and shortcuts were taken because there was a certain weariness associated with centuries of fund-raising for an unfinished building.

In terms to threats to the longevity of the institutional church, the fire in the cathedral did not do any where near as much damage as the clergy sexual abuse scandal, and yet funds for reparations to victims have fallen well short of funds to restore the cathedral.

For those of us who have lived our lives inside of the institution, there is always a struggle. How much of what we do is about preservation of the institution and how much is about extending the true Gospel. We know that the institutional church isn’t the only way to live a life of faith. We know that the institution has its flaws and failings. But we are also aware that the institution has been successful in preserving precious words, extending the reach of the ministry, offering care and compassion to those in need, and transferring the faith from one generation to another.

It is clear from reading the Bible that the leaders of our faith weren’t into founding an institution. Moses encountered God in a burning bush on a hillside. He led the people in the wilderness. He went up on the mountain to talk with God. His was an outdoors ministry. He didn’t erect any buildings or found any capital fundraising efforts. His people lived day by day. And the commandments he communicated from God spoke of the obligation of families as the ones to preserve the faith. Parents were to teach the faith to their children. There was no vision of a religious institution to do this essential work.

Jesus, too, practiced his faith outdoors. Read the gospels. You won’t find Jesus sitting in a pew or climbing up to preach from a pulpit. He’s waling along the beach or putting out a little way in a boat. He’s talking to people on a plain or a hillside.

The early church wan’t invested in institutional building or maintenance either. Paul established churches, he didn’t build buildings. The quest for community in the early Christian church was focused on the people, not on the place where they gathered.

Of course we can’t build the future based on the way things were in the past. Human efforts at going backwards in history never work out. We live in our own time. We’ve collected centuries of institutional living and we’ve inherited institutions that were founded in different times. Like every generation, we are faced with a job of sifting and sorting. We have to make choices about what is retained and what is discarded. Of course, like every generation, some choices are given to us and others are made for us.

I suspect that the current decline in church attendance will continue. Despite the ease with witch the money flowed for the restoration of Notre Dame, I don’t think building new cathedrals serves the overall mission of the church. I suspect that the church buildings of the future will be a bit more practical.

I’ve been making jokes for a couple of weeks since it was announced that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rapid City has purchased a building that used to be the main downtown branch of Black Hills Federal Credit Union. It seems that the cathedral and the rectory don’t offer sufficient office space for the diocese and the plan is to move administrative functions into the downtown building. My jokes have to do with the decision to buy a bank building with five drive-through lanes. It invites jokes about drive-through sacraments. Now the Catholic church has seven sacraments, but there are only five drive through lanes on the building. It invites which sacraments require one to go inside and which can be administered through the drive through. Drive through baptism is easy to imagine, as is a lane for communion. Confirmation also is a slam dunk for a drive through, especially since those of confirmation age are really focused on getting their drivers licenses. The concept of drive through confession might really take off. Eye contact isn’t required for that one. So I’m thinking that anointing of the sick is one of the sacraments that won’t be offered in a drive-through facility. After all, the priests should be going out to visit the sick and it can be a real pain to have to get in the car and go somewhere when you aren’t feeling well. Marriage, on the other hand, is something I can imagine in a drive-through setting. Couples getting married often have their minds focused on events that don’t happen at the church. I’ve had couples who have come to me to discuss a church wedding who arranged the reception, the photographer, the clothes to wear, the honeymoon and the limousine before even having a conversation about which church. That leaves the profession of holy orders, which I think is the second sacrament that doesn’t really work in a drive-through. If you want to commit to a religious life, you really ought to be willing to come inside.

Of course all of this is just a joke. They’ll probably close the drive-through lanes in their remodeling of the building. Still, it is important for us to think about the institutions we have inherited and what parts of the institutional church we pass on to future generations. For now, I’m more worried about the legacy of faith, hope and love than I am about the buildings. I suspect that future generations will ask serious questions about all of the empty buildings.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!