By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
The Diocese of Connecticut is not sure it needs a cathedral anymore. For the past nine months, a six-member task force appointed by the Rt. Rev. Ian Douglas, Bishop of Connecticut, has been asking what type of cathedral, if any, is needed to serve this diocese of 168 parishes and other Episcopal institutions. At annual convention in November, the panel will present its recommendations.
“Everything is on the table,” said the Rev. Harlon Dalton, priest-in-charge at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford and convener of the task force.
Since 1919, Connecticut has looked to Christ Church as its cathedral in the heart of Hartford, just steps from the state capitol. It has long served as the spiritual home for the bishop, the site where baptized youth are confirmed and the place to which clergy flock once a year in Holy Week to renew their vows.
But for several years, diocesan conventions have taken place at other sites around the diocese. That means even some of the most active Episcopalians in Connecticut never cross the threshold of the cathedral and do not feel much attachment to it. They’re now wondering whether it’s still needed or if Christ Church should revert to parish status, which had been its demarcation for 124 years before becoming a cathedral.
“We’re not taking anything for granted,” Bishop Douglas said, “but rather we’re asking: ‘how can we reimagine the gifts we’ve received from the past in order to be more faithful Christians going forward?’”
Both Dalton and Douglas emphasize that Connecticut’s situation is not like Rhode Island’s, where declining membership and high maintenance costs forced the closure of the Cathedral of St. John in 2012. Christ Church Cathedral has investment assets worth around $14 million, Dalton said, which means no financial crisis prompted this round of discussions.
But there may be a need for parishes around the diocese to cover more of the cathedral’s costs. The status quo is “unsustainable,” Dalton said, because congregational giving covers less than 20 percent of operating expenses.
“One of the questions on the table is: if there is going to be a cathedral, who supports it?” Dalton said.
Cathedrals, Dalton said, traditionally have served as a nexus point for church and civil society. That role is among those being reimagined. This year, the cathedral became a rallying spot for “Moral Monday” activism, which mobilizes regular public demonstrations. The cathedral provided space for organizing a 4.5-minute die-in at Hartford City Hall to protest the police shooting of African-American teenager Michael Brown on August 9, 2013, in Ferguson, Missouri.
This spring, the task force is soliciting thoughts from around the diocese at workshops and at a dinner for wardens and diocesan convention delegates. Perhaps the diocese will decide it needs not one but two cathedrals, each serving a distinct purpose, Dalton said.
“We’re asking what’s going on in Hartford to which that body of Christ known as Christ Church needs to be responsive, whether that’s the State House or poverty or housing needs,” Bishop Douglas said. “I could imagine the cathedral, as a result of this discernment, being more engaged in the life of God in the neighborhood. That would be a wonderful result.”