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WESTERN MICHIGAN: A Sidelined Cathedral

WESTERN MICHIGAN: A Sidelined Cathedral

The Sacred Castle
The Cathedral of Christ the King
Kalamazoo, Michigan Blurb. Pp. 80. $34, paper.

Review by Douglas LeBlanc
January 31, 2012

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.


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