My visit to Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine

Took a tour Saturday of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on Amsterdam Street in New York City.

The church takes up a whole city block and totals 121,000 square feet inside.

It felt … big. No, enormous. Or was it “gigantic?” But I have to say the one thing it didn’t feel like was a church.

I’m still baffled and intrigued by the church push for size. At least the megachurches that want thousands of members can say that growing that size enables them to raise more money and, theoretically, help more people.

But why would you set out to build a church of infinite size? I say infinite because nobody is really sure how big St. John the Divine is supposed to be. It’s nickname is “St. John the Unfinished.”

Construction began in 1892, and continued periodically until 1941. Construction resumed in the 1980s and stopped in 1997, but as our tour guide made clear, the cathedral isn’t finished. Who knows when construction will begin again, but the church has discussed two towers and even a third tower to rise from where a dome has capped the cathedral.

And our guide made it VERY clear that St. John is “bigger than St. Patrick’s,” the famed NYC Catholic Church. He must have said “we’re bigger” four or five times.

I still don’t quite get it. I’ll be writing more on this through the week.

About John Hilton

I grew up in Susquehanna County, Pa. and graduated Syracuse University with a dual degree in journalism/political science in 1998. After working for nearly three years for a weekly paper in upstate New York, I came to southcentral Pennsylvania. I spent 13 years as a reporter and editor for The Sentinel in Carlisle and joined the York Daily Record as religion reporter in September 2011.
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One Response to My visit to Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine

  1. Martin Hammond says:

    We have learned of your visit earlier this year to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and are glad that you derived joy, peace, and spiritual enrichment from your participation in the Sunday service. It is chartered as a house of prayer for all people and a unifying center of intellectual light and leadership.

    Given the above mission, it is perhaps unsurprising that the culture of the Cathedral throws up trenchant questions of morals and ethics – some of which relate to senior members of its staff.

    We are a group of organists, some of whom – in 2009 and 2010 – accepted engagements to play Sunday recitals at the Cathedral. These concerts were set up by the Cathedral’s previous Director of Music, and featured a selection of professional recitalists interspersed with first-rate lay musicians of established reputation (many of whom aspire to the same, and not infrequently higher, standards of excellence as/than their professional-musician counterparts).

    Following the arrival of a new Director of Music the Cathedral saw fit, early in 2012, to retract unilaterally its invitations to a large number of artists to participate in the “It’s Sunday” series. While some of the performers, with engagements scheduled from 2014 onward, had not yet commenced musical and logistical preparations for their recitals, others with visits agreed for 2012 and 2013 had already set up other recital arrangements in the USA around their engagement at the Cathedral, and had already arranged cover at their home churches (and at their own cost) to enable their appearance at the Cathedral.

    It is obvious that while local artists can remain at home if an event is withdrawn, other performers from out-of-state or a different continent do not have this option. When the point was made to Dean James Kowalski, he simply went into denial, writing in one and the same letter: “I supported (the previous Music Director’s) decision to offer those invitations when he came to the Cathedral some three years ago. I did not know that things would change so fast and that some invitations would extend so far beyond his tenure” – and – “I support (the present Music Director’s) decision to rescind the invitations his predecessor offered to musicians” (Note the downgrade from agreement to invitation…)

    In writing thus, the Dean admitted not just to a serious error of judgement. In neglecting to exercise a “checks and balances” function at the outset (by limiting the agreements entered into by the Music Department to, say, two years ahead), he compounded a dereliction of duty with a flagrant breach of the agreements entered into in good faith with his Cathedral’s hapless counterparties.

    That the Cathedral authorities recognized the lack of ethical foundation for their decision became clear in messages sent by its Music Department to non-US performers, in which a pretext of force majeure was advanced as a diversionary tactic: “We have had to revise our protocol here due to Homeland Security Visa stipulations. We are only able to accept artists who are coming with a valid O Visa….otherwise we’ll have to release your date and secure another recitalist”.(Note the “at gunpoint”, intimidatory tone).
    This was further elaborated in the Music Director’s Wikipedia entry

    “Controversy arose when X established a new protocol for artist participation at the Cathedral and released organists who were scheduled to perform recitals in future years. In particular, this involved realigning the observation of visa standards for performing artists to adhere more closely to those used in the classical music industry”.

    All this begs two questions:

    1) Whoever decided that a cathedral (a house of prayer for all people) adopt the same conditions as a Broadway theatre?

    The whole purpose of the O Visa is to regulate the acceptance of employment as such, in the USA, by non-US persons. It thus pertains in principle to an on-going series of engagements (e.g. an extended production run on Broadway, or a series of lectures sponsored by an academic institution) and normally the institution will secure the visa under which the visiting performer / lecturer is covered.

    One-off engagements, on the other hand, are generally covered by either of two categories of visa. Organ recitalists that are non-US persons and who enjoy professional status (i.e. fees of ca $2000 upward per recital) frequently stay in the USA for a series of events extending over several weeks/months, and are managed by an agency, which will obtain the necessary O Visa. Other artists playing one-off concerts for lower fees that no more than cover their costs of travel and subsistence, are eligible to apply personally for a B2 Visa. (In the case of residents of most European countries, a visa waiver will suffice). This is typically the sort of artist found on the recital listings (Sundays or weekday lunchtimes) of major churches and cathedrals throughout Christendom, whether in London, Washington, Liverpool, San Francisco, Paris, Berlin, Milan, Freiburg, Stockholm, Truro, Sydney, Wiesbaden, Edinburgh, Chicago, Bourges, Odense and many more. Of course the performing artists often comprise both professionals and amateurs, the latter category including but not restricted to musicians whose main thrust is in teaching or choral work, and who do not derive remuneration – other than to cover outgoings – from recital activity.

    Conclusion: the Cathedral has used cannons to shoot at sparrows, creating a problem where none existed!

    2) Which other US churches found it necessary to align the visa status of their visiting performers with that obtaining on Broadway?

    In seeking to align the Cathedral’s Visa standards with those of what he describes as the “classical music industry”, the present Music Director has gone out on a limb. We know of no other US church that limits the participation of non-US artists to holders of the O Visa (with one exception – an organization that was the Music Director’s previous employer…). Seen against the adequacy of the B2 Visa for one-off recitalists at low fees, the so-called realignment is a thinly-disguised attempt by the Music Director – through a smokescreen of duplicity and deception – to change the goalposts, and in doing so breach the agreements under which a large number of soloists were engaged (without regard to committed expenses on their part). That non-US performers continued to play recitals in spring 2012 without having to obtain an O Visa proves that the imposition of the new protocol was not mandatory, merely arbitrary. Moreover the fact that engagements featuring US persons as performers were likewise eliminated demonstrates that the issue has less to do with visa regulations (which the Music Director blatantly distorted) and more to do with calling the shots, and blatant cronyism.

    As further proof of hypocrisy, it emerges that the Music Director wrote to a number of disenfranchised recitalists that the Cathedral “does not, as a matter of policy, have amateurs to play in the series”. Notwithstanding this assertion, the upcoming guest artist on November 18 is described as an assistant US attorney, and thereby falls into the category of amateur performer. (So one group of amateur performers is eliminated, while another is engaged…)

    All in all, the following ethical questions remain:

    1) Is any Dean – however charismatic – above the law to the extent that he can take the law into his own hands? (We do not believe that the Cathedral of St. John the Divine enjoys the immunity – conferred by territoriality – that is enjoyed by the Vatican)

    2) Is any member of staff entitled by their artistic excellence and achievement (which we do not underestimate) to use deceptive statements (citing force majeure) in unilaterally breaking agreements into which the Cathedral had entered in good faith, with a large number of counterparties?

    “The building attracts some wonderful international Organists and terrific performers, it’s a shame that one person can be so instrumental in its downfall – an Australian recitalist”

    “The Dean should know, if he does not already, that the actions of his employee have adversely affected the reputation of St. John the Divine, if not the USA altogether” – an eminent US organist.

    Again, one senior member of staff, the canon pastor – with distinguished credentials in both theology and music, and former Head of Professional Concerns at the Association of Anglican Musicians – might have been expected to bring an ethical viewpoint to bear, and exercised a “checks and balances” function. Did this happen? No, her response was a state of denial and declaration of blind obedience to the Dean.

    A really sad state of affairs! But bit by bit, we are bringing it into the open…

    The Disenfranchised Organists’ Group

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