Where Prayer Has Been Valid: a cathedral reaching-out


For many of us in the Episcopal Church we feel somewhat surprised by so many spiritual seekers coming through our doors and finding enough of something, often very indefinable, that makes them want to come back. Yet, on deeper reflection, our initial feeling of surprise fades, for was this not also our initial experience on finding our way into relationship with the Episcopal Church?

The Cathedral and the Life of Prayer

In August of 2006, I found myself sitting in Trinity Cathedral for the first time. My partner Al and I, at that time still living in London, were on one of our visits to Phoenix to spend time with our young family who had recently moved here from Washington D.C. My first impression was how different Trinity was from my more familiar experience of an English Cathedral. Yet, as I sat with the light streaming through the stained glass windows the words from T.S. Elliot’s poem Little Gidding drifted into my mind:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

I knew without doubt that I was kneeling in a place where prayer has been valid. The walls of Trinity Cathedral are saturated with the prayers of generations of Arizonan Episcopalians. From here all Episcopal life in the city of Phoenix traces its origins. Even in this new world, the cathedrals of the Episcopal Church are places that collect the intensity of generations of hearts laid bare in prayer.

What is a Cathedral?

The easy answer is that a cathedral is the church housing the cathedra, or bishop’s chair. Yet, as I remind the members of our diocese on those great family gatherings around diocesan confirmations, and ordinations, the cathedral is also our collective spiritual home. On such occasions I rather enjoy the surprise on many faces as I say, ‘welcome home!’

Unlike a parish church, the cathedral exists as a benefit for the life of the whole diocese. The peculiarity of its clergy being known as canons further drives home the point. For the title of canon simply means appointed for the benefit of the whole Church. Although at Trinity, we have a life that is not unlike that of any parish, it is in our identification with the wider church that we feel most particularly fulfilled. 

Trinity and the Diocese

In the Diocese of Arizona, Trinity Cathedral is the church that everyone has a right to look to for an example of excellence in liturgy, music, and as a source for spiritual guidance. Our sense of service is most potently experienced when the members of the diocese gather together in the presence of our bishop. Bishop Kirk is not only our shepherd; through being in communion with him we are connected to the network of relationships we call the Wider Church.

Although an attitude of elitism is a temptation cathedrals are often vulnerable to, Trinity is a source for excellence and tradition in a world where the value for such is easily lost. Trinity is the place where tradition in worship encounters contemporary ideas as we seek to live out the tensions between the traditions we receive and lives we are actually living in the 21st century. For us this tension is the very essence of being Episcopalian.

Trinity and the City of Phoenix

In the City of Phoenix, Trinity Cathedral is the church for the city. We embrace the city through our ministries of music, the arts and social outreach. Ministry to the arts is an important service to civic life that cathedrals in particular, are able to offer. At Trinity we welcome all who seek a sacred space for those important life occasions such as weddings and funerals. We are a place where the civic life of the city has an opportunity to connect with the dimension of the Divine.

Being placed in Phoenix’s urban heart our embrace of diversity enables us to be a place of refuge and hospitality for those who have found it difficult to find a spiritual home elsewhere. For any person an essential ingredient in finding a spiritual home lies in being able to look around and experience themselves reflected in the faces of others. In this sense, diversity is not simply a quality Trinity aspires to. It is the core quality defining our particular identity. Diversity is what makes us different from many parish churches, which rightly tend to reflect the profiles of their particular neighborhoods.

As the cathedral, Trinity does not exist only for its own members. Neither does it exist only for the diocesan family. It exists for everyone, whether they are Episcopalians or not, our kind of believers, or not.

The Anglican Tradition has been molded within more than a thousand years of interaction between Catholic Christianity and the cultural life of the English Nation. This interaction between Christian Tradition and culture has shaped an attitude of openness to the world. For over 300 years the Episcopal Church has continued that interaction between Church and World within the distinct experience of American culture.

Trinity Cathedral’s particular vocation is to embody in its life the heart of our Anglican Tradition of Benedict and the Benedictine Spirit. Historically, our cathedrals continue the spirit of the Benedictine monastic institutions and traditions they came to replace at the time of the English Reformation. As this spirit comes to be re-embodied afresh in each new generation, not only in our cathedrals but in all our parish churches, at Trinity we understand this to be in particular, our vocation and mission.

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