Three miles from Disneyland there is another famous theme park, which proclaims itself as “America’s Television Church.” The Crystal Cathedral, perhaps the first mega-church in the United States, is about to undergo conversion classes so that it can finally get the cathedra and bishop it has always wanted. The Diocese of Orange, California, has purchased the thirty-one-acre property and its four buildings for $53 million, a steal even in this real estate market. Realizing that recent cathedrals built from scratch have cost upwards of $200 and $250 million on the West Coast, retrofitting sounds like a financially savvy move. However, turning this prismatic beacon of televangelism into a house of God may be easier said than done.
Does this purchase signal a new role for Catholic charity: to buy up properties of bankrupt Protestant ministries? If so, there may be some good opportunities in the future. How does the bishop encourage full, active, and conscious participation in the liturgy by purchasing one of the buildings most associated with religion as theater? Begun as an open-air service at a drive-in theater, the church was designed around Rev. Schuller’s flamboyant preaching. Associated with glitz and money, it was the site of fancy and expensive holiday celebrations including trapeze artists, live animals for Christmas, and a lavish $13 million production called Creation.
Said to be the first all-glass structure built for religious purposes, it is associated with the feel-good theology of the 1980s. How to convert a building like this and at the same time disassociate it from its founder and his theology? Crystal Cathedral Ministries was a religion about self-promotion, and, appropriately, its main buildings were designed in disparate modernist styles by three well-known architecture firms: Richard Neutra, Philip Johnson and John Burgee, and Richard Meier. Each building is a personal expression of the architect, so that together they create a campus without much to unify them. Perhaps what may be of more concern to its future owner, the Neutra tower (1968) does not meet earthquake codes and the Crystal Cathedral (1980) and the Welcoming Center (2003) are high maintenance glass and metal buildings. This could be an expensive investment.
Can the Crystal Cathedral be converted to a Catholic Cathedral? We shall see. After all, the much noted cathedrals of Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are all expressionistic modernist sculptures. The diocese has said that they will not change the exterior of the church and will not compromise the architectural integrity of the 2700-seat interior. Yet, without a radical transformation the building will always come across as a technological mega-church rather than as a sacred place. It needs to be totally gutted and reconceived. And even if the interior can be functionally retrofitted for Catholic liturgy, many believe that its identity will always be that of the Crystal Cathedral.
One of the major criticisms of Catholic architecture during the past fifty years is that it has incorrectly adopted many of the forms of low-church Protestantism: the theater form, a fear of sacred images, asymmetrical layouts, vacuous sanctuaries, minimalist liturgical elements, prominently placed Jacuzzis for baptism, and the banishment of the Blessed Sacrament to the baptistry. The altar area becomes a stage with a focus on entertainment alongside praise bands that perform upbeat music. In response, liturgists have argued that all of these things are simply the outgrowth if not the requirement of Vatican II. Are they finally admitting their agenda by purchasing a ready for TV megachurch complete with a jumbotron and three huge balconies for the “spectators”?
The timing of this is wrong. A whole new generation of priests, laity, and theologians has grown up with this stuff and find these Protestant innovations dated and lacking in substance. They desire an architecture that grows out of the Church’s rich tradition and that will enable them in worship. Asked what cathedrals should look like in the twenty-first century, they point to Saint Patrick’s in New York, Saint Peter’s in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, and other obvious suspects. These are buildings constructed hundreds of years ago, yet continue to speak to believers and unbelievers alike today. A timeless architecture built for the ages, a cathedral should be a durable building constructed out of masonry, transcendent in height, and directional in length. Unfortunately for the new generation and their children, the Orange diocese has chosen the opposite direction and will foist on them a building that is of its time and not particularly suited to Catholic worship and devotion. Twenty years from now, it will not matter that Orange got a really good deal whereas another California diocese quadrupled its budget. People will simply ask if it is a beautiful cathedral, worthy of the Creator.
This editorial first appeared in issue 21 (Spring 2012) of Sacred Architecture and is reprinted with permission.