Blue Murder in the Cathedral

A Letter from America by Max Liddle

Many of us will never get to visit Robert Schuller's 'Crystal Cathedral', but luckily for us, BCNZ Lecturer Max Liddle (currently on study leave in the USA) did. Here he gives us a glimpse of what we might expect to see.

On Sunday June 1, Helen and I attended the Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles. To those of you who have followed this ministry over the years, I am happy to bring the assurance that it has not deviated in the slightest from the vision of its founder, Dr Robert H. Schuller.

The person with whom we were staying, an occasional visitor to the cathedral, informed us that this Sunday was a special fund raising event. Forty million dollars was needed for the building of an International Visitors' Centre and the provision of further extensive parking space.

Prudence and traffic conditions indicated that we should opt for the 9.30am rather than the 11.00am service, and so we duly arrived at the large and impressive campus on which is situated the cathedral, together with other architectural testimonies to 40 years of outstanding entrepreneurial ministry.

The first building was a drive-in centre where people attended services in their cars, much like going to a drive-in theatre. To this were added over the years the Garden Grove Community Church building, the Cathedral itself (a vast edifice of glass - impressive on the outside, but resembling a huge barn on the inside), the Tower of Hope, from the top floor of which Dr Schuller exudes a genial aura of self-esteem over his ever-expanding organisation, and the Bell Tower (a hugely expensive white pachyderm if ever I saw one) from which bells ring out every half hour. To this must be added the Memorial Garden of Rest in which those sufficiently endowed may purchase a final resting place.

It was clear on our arrival that this was no ordinary Sunday. Virtually every tree and post on the large property was festooned with balloons. As we crossed the 'plaza' toward the cathedral entrance we were greeted by the Santa Ana Winds, a group composed of brass instrumentalists and marching girls who were setting the spiritual tone for the whole event. We were welcomed at the door by greeters and shown to our seats by ushers who were all wearing white hard hats. This seemed to be the general uniform of all the staff, marking their involvement in and commitment to the new great enterprise.

Inside the church we took our seats facing the stage behind which was set a spectacular 35' by 60' rendering of the new International Hospitality Centre.

The service began with a processional. This was led by the Santa Ana Winds and the marching girls who were followed by three pastors (including Dr S) each clothed in an ornate academic gown and each wearing a hard hat. This combining of the frolicsome with the solemnly academic provoked within me such warm feelings of appreciation that Helen had to punch me quite severely in the ribs. I could not help but feel how much our BCNZ graduation processions would be enhanced by the addition of marching girls and brass bands. John Hitchen and Peter McKenzie1 would look well with such an entourage.

After the Opening Sentence by Dr S we launched into our first hymn, specially composed for the occasion. The words, thoroughly Schullerian (ie Pelagian) in content, included as first verse:

We build a new tomorrow, we draw the pattern clear,

We make our plans with wisdom, for God is always here.

Our thinking makes our future, our actions pave the way;

We build a new tomorrow, on plans we make today.

The rest of the hymn, sung to the tune of Stand Up for Jesus, contained similar content.

There followed in carefully rehearsed precision a Scripture reading of selected Bible verses (not surprisingly these all had to do with building; the only obvious omission that I could think of was Genesis 11); a choir item At the Edge of Tomorrow, a Minister's Welcome (at the conclusion of which we had to turn to all our neighbours and tell them "God loves you and I love you"; the folk in front of us seemed impressed that we came from New Zealand - I guess they had never been loved by New Zealanders before); a truly impressive piano and orchestral arrangement of A Mighty Fortress is our God, the virtuosity of which was doubtless helped by the fact that the musicians were not weighed down by hard hats.

Dr Schuller then rose to give his message entitled "Continue the Dream". He began with a quotation from Scott Peck concerning denial. (Denial is now, it seems, an incontrovertible psychological fact.) According to Scott Peck it is expressed not only in the denial of addictions such as alcoholism and gambling, but also in the denial of possibilities for the future - the denial that one can achieve one's dreams:

"This morning I confess to you that for some years now I have been in a state of denial, denial that God has yet some great project for me - for us as a church - to complete. Today I am coming out of my closet" (yes, his very words!) "of denial. Many years ago, after the completion of this magnificent building, I remember driving onto this campus and saying to myself, 'Thank God it's finished - I could never do that again!' And then God called and commissioned me to build the Tower of Hope. After its completion I remember saying to myself, 'Thank God that's over. I could never do that again!'"

As he related the history of building on the property it appears that Dr S had said this at the completion of every enterprise. The success of achievement had been followed by a plunge into denial. But now God was calling him again to build yet another architectural marvel to the glory of God. Would we, his audience, help him to fulfil this new dream that God had given him?

The success of the project would entail great and sacrificial dedication. But the result would be worth more than the effort. Instead of just paying a fleeting visit on a Sunday, visitors from around the world would be able to come and stay for a literally life-changing week. Thus, through the new centre God through this church would commence a new work "that will literally change the face of world Christianity in the new millennium."

The sermon, if indeed it could be called that, was a Schullerian tour de force noteworthy as much for its sentimental oratory as for its absence of Scripture (after all, who needs the Bible when you have Scott Peck?). Absent also was any reference to the precise cost of the project.

There followed a solo Let Your Dream Take Flight, a choral item in which the hard hatted choir sang We Would Be Building, a Dedication Prayer by Pastor S, following which occurred the event for which the whole service had been designed - you guessed it - the 'Presentation of Commitments and Offering'.

The offertory was prefaced by an explanation from one of the other pastors, David Tyler Scoates. We each received a pledge card which helpfully pointed out, among other things, that were I to pledge $2000 per week, over a three year period I should have contributed $312,000 to making Pastor Schuller's dream a reality.

Then came the offertory. Hard hatted ushers poured down the aisles passing buckets along the rows of seats. Others pushed wheel barrows into which the buckets were emptied. Other hard hats erected chutes from the balconies to carry the contents of buckets to waiting barrows below. All this time the magnificent pipe organ played The Impossible Dream. As the bucket came past me and I made my contribution, I had the warm feeling as I did so that if 39,999,999 other people were to make the same contribution as I, then the impossible dream would come to fruition.

The organ pealed to a crescendo and fell silent, to be replaced by a loud whirring noise outside. I should have mentioned that adjacent to the stage a huge door, perhaps one hundred feet high, had been opened. Through this there now appeared the boom of a huge crane that lowered a large cement container to the floor of the church. The contents of the barrows were emptied into this container, the boom was lifted, and vast numbers of coloured balloons were released from the ceiling.

We sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic and Pastor Schuller pronounced the benediction, before leaving the cathedral with all the dignity possible to someone wearing a hard hat while following the Santa Ana Winds and Marching Girls.

I left the cathedral in pensive mood. As I wandered across the plaza where the Winds and Marching Girls were still disporting themselves (the latter were now twirling white flags), I gave myself to reflection on what I had just observed. How could I describe it?

Worship it certainly was not - at least not of God. Edification also scarcely featured. My conundrum was solved when I met an elderly gentleman from Arizona while we were both waiting in line to use the rest room facilities (why they have fountains playing in the cathedral I shall never know). After introductions had been exchanged, he said, "That was pure Hollywood." He paused for a moment, then added, "Fantastic!"



1 John Hitchen and Peter McKenzie are, respectively, principal and president of BCNZ.


Max Liddle, who is married to Helen, teaches Theology and Ethics at BCNZ's residential campus in Henderson Auckland. He is currently on study leave in the USA.

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