A Sidelined Cathedral

The Sacred Castle
The Cathedral of Christ the King
Kalamazoo, Michigan

Blurb. Pp. 80. $34, paper.

Review by Douglas LeBlanc

Whatever else may be said of the Diocese of Western Michigan’s Cathedral of Christ the King, it embodied the spirit of the late 1960s. Seen only at a distance, in black and white photos, the cathedral looks about as inviting as the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, an embattled landmark of brutalist architecture in the nation’s capital.

The Sacred Castle, available in rich color from the innovative print-on-demand Blurb imprint, highlights the beauty that transcends the former cathedral’s forbidding exterior, with its 16 towers rising from a boxy base. The book collects photographs by the Very Rev. Cynthia L. Black, who was the cathedral’s dean for 19 years, and four others: James Carter, Kirsty Eisenhart, Mike Matthews, and Lance Rosol.

Black writes in a brief introduction about seeing the cathedral interact with nature: “I could witness the east wall appearing to be on fire as the sun rose in the early morning each spring, and catch the majesty of a full moon rising over the king’s ‘crown’ in the fall. Each week as I celebrated the Eucharist I saw a cross appear in the wine (a reflection from the lights above, with the oculus at the center). On any given sunny day I could watch the sunlight come through the oculus and trace an arc on the Cathedral floor, but capturing those images was rarely possible.”

The images in The Sacred Castle capture moments of high energy and quiet ritual. In one, Black speaks to a packed nave. The Sacred Castle is light on text. Other than Black’s one-page introduction, it offers only dust-jacket copy that quotes the Rt. Rev. Charles E. Bennison, fifth bishop of Western Michigan, who envisioned the cathedral as part of a larger complex of buildings.

The jacket copy explains the central concept of the cathedral’s design: “Symbolically, the circle in the square represents God in our world. The square is a most ancient symbol for the finite world (for example, the base of the pyramids follow this pattern). The circle, bounded by a curved line without beginning or ending, but possessing a center, is the ancient symbol for the infinite, the Universal [Principle], or God. (Stonehenge and the Pantheon follow this pattern.)”

Because it was published in 2007, The Sacred Castle does not tell the longer arc of the cathedral’s history. This much was clear then: the diocese could no longer afford to maintain the building, and would sell it. The purchaser was Kalamazoo Valley Family Church, which began as a small group in a rented facility in 1991 and has since grown to a congregation of about 4,000 people.

Valley Family Church, as it is now known, added an 85,000 square-foot facility with stadium seating, video screens, theatrical lighting, and amplifiers worthy of a rock concert. The cathedral’s 49-rank Aeolian/Skinner organ made its way to a Lutheran congregation in Tennessee. The large round altar is gone. The inevitable exterior Labyrinth gave way to landscaped grounds favored by wedding photographers. From a distance, again, Valley Family Church’s expanded facility looks like a former Circuit City attached to an architectural non sequitur.

Nevertheless, Valley Family Church appears to appreciate the building it bought, and uses it for more intimate gatherings. “In addition to the Bible classes and special events we host at the Cathedral, this historic facility is available for rental and will serve as a striking venue for a variety of Christ-centered events,” including weddings and funerals, the church says on its website. “It’s a beautiful mix of retro, modern and contemporary architecture.”

The cathedral’s former congregation (now called the Parish Church of Christ the King) moved five miles southwest into a small building that was once home to Texas Corners Bible Church and, later, to Heaven’s Gate gift shop.

“This location has proved to be wonderful,” Black told the Kalamazoo Gazette in 2009. “This is the quintessential little American town.”

When Episcopalians acknowledge the church’s struggle with declining membership, some say that this is the price of prophetic ministry and that only easy answers to 21st-century theological questions will attract large congregations. This trope is blessedly absent from the sparse text, leaving instead many haunting and lovely images of what once was.


Lost Opportunity

By Joseph Neiman
The Living Church
August 27, 2007

In late June, the official papers were signed, and the Cathedral of Christ the King, former center of the Diocese of Western Michigan, was sold to the Kalamazoo Valley Family Church for some $2 million. The sale and relinquishing of the cathedral represents a great failure on the part of the diocese to live into a strategy for the mission and ministry of Christ in Western Michigan.

The cathedral was built in the late 1960s according to a creative design by architect Irving W. Colburn. Its unique design of the circle (symbol of the divine) and the square (symbol of human creations) and its location along Interstate 94 gave it a stunning visual impact for thousands of people who passed by. The Rt. Rev. Charles E. Bennison, the fifth Bishop of Western Michigan, under whose leadership the cathedral was built, spoke of its location as being on “the main street of the Midwest.” Over the years busloads of tourists visited, and the local arts community included it in its listing of places to visit in the Kalamazoo area.

Bishop Bennison’s vision for the cathedral was global. As he put it: “The dynamic diocesan center I envision would have to be a church first and foremost housing at its heart the altar, with the various related aspects of the total mission of the church going out as spokes from the altar hub to all parts of the cathedral building and from there out to the world. Further, the church, through the cathedral, would have to be involved in all of life. Nothing which concerns any part of human life, in even the slightest way, could be divorced from the life and work of the cathedral. Moreover, this building would have to be not only the official seat of the bishop of this diocese of The Episcopal Church, belonging to all of the clergy and the laity of the Diocese of Western Michigan, but in this age of ecumenicity and the constant need for the grace of reconciliation to be born in the hearts of all people, the cathedral would have to serve as a spiritual reservoir of all people of every race and creed.”

The last dean of the cathedral, the Very Rev. Cynthia Black, and those before her, made the structure a place for creative arts, worship, and dialogue. In the 1970s, there were balloon launches on the extensive open spaces surrounding the cathedral, and ground-breaking ecumenical services with Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Hundreds of ordinations and weddings took place there. Western Michigan University used the cathedral and especially its 49-rank Aeolian/Skinner organ, for musical productions.

Many diocesan events, including conventions and related mission meetings, were held at the cathedral, as this was the diocesan office or headquarters, the bishop’s office symbolized so powerfully with the central stone chair (cathedra) surrounded by impressive stone stalls for the canons who advised the bishop. The cathedral’s location near the southern end of the diocese, which includes the western half of the lower peninsula of Michigan, made diocesan meetings held there a burden for those in Grand Rapids and further north. The Rt. Rev. Edward L. Lee, Jr., seventh Bishop of Western Michigan, took his “cathedra” on the road for conventions and meetings.

The eighth and current bishop, the Rt. Rev. Robert R. Gepert, decided with the executive council and the concurrence of the diocesan convention that the budget could no longer support the facility. Neither could the small congregation which met there under the leadership of Dean Black. Subsequently, the decision was made to sell the facility, but retain Resurrection Gardens, the burial site for cremains on the cathedral grounds.

The failure leading to the sale of the cathedral lies with the lack of a serious commitment to evangelism. There is no growth strategy into which the cathedral would fit. Such a strategy has little to do with the current inflammatory issues of homosexuality or church polity. Rather the inability of the people in the pews to speak convincingly about three key questions resulted in a great silence about the mission of The Episcopal Church.

The first question about which people should speak with friends and neighbors is simple: Why Jesus? Why do people need and benefit from a personal relationship with the risen Lord? Can we share with them how that leads to “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7)? Can we demonstrate both in word and deed how that relationship has changed our lives?

The second question also is simple: Why the Church? Why do Christians need to assemble together? Why is it not possible to be a faithful Christian alone? Can we speak convincingly about how our participating in congregational life strengthens and expands our faith? It is in the assembly of disciples that we learn to love one another as Christ has loved us, that we learn to forgive one another 70 times seven, that we learn to pray and worship as our Lord taught us to do, and that we learn to serve one another and persons in need like good Samaritans.

Third: Why this church? Why The Episcopal Church and this particular congregation? The diversity of the congregations, the search for meaning in relationship to crucial questions of life and culture, the significant exposure to scripture in the lectionary, community and world service in Christ’s name, the awesome nature of good worship with joyful hymns of praise – these are but a few of the reasons why this church.

It is with true purpose and excitement that Episcopalians are working together to reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs of the United Nations. But it would be more fruitful if we had congregations enthused about the mission and ministry of Christ in the world because they have a personal relationship with the risen Lord, are engaged with others in their congregational life, and believe The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion can make a difference in changing the future of humanity and of the earth.

“The Kalamazoo Valley Family Church, which purchased the Cathedral, began in 1991 under the leadership of the Rev. Jeff and the Rev. Beth Jones, with three adults and four children. Today its membership is near 2,500. The church’s website notes:

From the beginning, we have seen Kalamazoo Valley Family Church as a local church with a regional influence. Our vision and purpose have been focused on reaching Southwest Michigan. Our message has stayed consistent and can be summarized as one of abundant life through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and through faith in God’s Word!”

Isn’t this our mission as well? Isn’t this what Bishop Bennison envisioned for the cathedral? If the people of the Diocese of Western Michigan and elsewhere were as committed to that mission and could answer the three questions with enthusiasm and personal testimony, would it have been necessary to sell the cathedral? I think not!

The Rev. Joseph Neiman is the retired rector of St. Mark’s Church, Paw Paw, Mich., and the former editor of the Western Michigan Episcopalian.

As of Jan. 8, 2012, the remainder of Parish Church of Christ the King, which had been meeting in Texas Township, disbanded.

Cathedral of Christ the King


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