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Hallo again to all.

Not long ago we found ourselves in Australia. While there, we joined worship services and explored church and cathedral buildings in three different dioceses (Sydney, Adelaide, and Northern Territory). We also found time to explore the city centres of two of Australia's largest cities, Sydney and Adelaide. It has been interesting to compare this visit with past trips to various places across the Atlantic, and to think in that context about what it means to be Anglican and what it means for a church to be Anglican in those various places.

But today we want to talk about the cathedral in Sydney and not all that other stuff. That's for another day.

Cathedral peeking out from behind the treesIn nearly every older city that we've visited in the Christian world there is a cathedral building that can command your attention. Older cities seem to have better locations for their cathedrals, because more of the land was empty in the further past, so there were more choices about where to put it. Sometimes the cathedral's builders were fortunate enough to build their edifice on top of a hill, to make it more visible, to enable it to command more of your attention.

Cathedrals are visual. They make nonverbal statements. Nearly everyone has heard the quote from St Francis of Assisi, 'Predicare il Vangelo a tutti i tempi - Se necessario, utilizzare le parole.' It's usually written in English as 'Preach the Gospel always - if necessary use words.' Cathedrals preach the Gospel without using words. We've learned a lot from the silent sermons that came to us from cathedral buildings.

A cathedral is an integral part of the life of a city. People talk about it, think about it, look at it, attend events there, or just go there to be and to sit and to pray.

We found three major cathedrals in Sydney, and we spent a good bit of time in each of them.

The first of them, the Cathedral of St Andrew, seemed to be entirely devoted to words. Its website barely has any pictures of it at all, but is chock-a-block with the text of sermons that have been delivered there. The sermons do indeed preach the gospel, but they don't involve the building itself in any way. When we went to St Andrew by train and walked out of the train station, it was not immediately obvious which building it is. We found it hiding behind some trees. The obvious door opened to the east end, from which a few steps took us to — oh, oops, we're right behind the altar. Blush. Oh, wait. There's no altar; this is just how you get in. Not an apse but a lobby. We stood behind the area that we still think of as the altar even though there was no altar, and drank in the somber Victorian aura of the place. We walked around to the nave, sat in a pew there for a long time, alternating between prayer, reading the Bible, and looking around. When we looked around, mostly what we saw was tourists like ourselves, come to see what this place might be.

Sydney's real cathedralWe could see that this building was not Sydney's cathedral, so we went away. The next day, we went to St Mary's Cathedral, seat of the Roman Catholic see. The guidebook told us that it was the largest church building in Australia, and it is certainly ornate, complex, and a candidate for being called beautiful. It's located in a pretty area but has no pedestrian traffic. It was just an 800-meter walk from St Andrew to St Mary, but the two neighbourhoods and two buildings were a world apart. Upon entry we were greeted by someone who (seeing the camera) asked us not to take pictures, so we didn't. This cathedral was busy; during the several hours that we spent there, there were two worship services, and we saw all manner of people who seemed to be staff members, each looking businesslike and purposeful. We were, as far as we could tell, the only tourists there. We left with the understanding that this place served well the diocese's need for a cathedral, but not the city's need for a cathedral.

On the third day, we walked to what is clearly Sydney's real cathedral: the Opera House. We walked to it through the Botanical Gardens, and merged with the crowds on what is clearly Sydney's 'Cathedral Square' to explore and appreciate the building. We saw three different weddings taking place, and caterers scurrying about to prepare a wedding reception in one of the large rooms. People posed for photographs, napped on the steps, and marvelled at the natural and man-made beauty of their surroundings. Despite its reach towards heaven, there was nothing even remotely Christian about the place; no one came there to worship or to pray. Its role as Sydney's cathedral was entirely secular. But entirely real.

We felt the presence of Christ in parish churches in Sydney, but not in its Christian cathedrals. That's fine with us; as long as we have a place to go for proper worship, we don't much care where it is. We prefer, as a matter of personal style, the incense, bells, chanting, vestments, music and liturgy of a smells-and-bells high-church parish, but we know that we can find Jesus just as easily in a parish with an overhead projector where our eyes expected the altar, and music from electric guitars. And we know that the next time we're in Sydney, when someone says 'Can you join me for a concert at the Cathedral?', that its nearest train stop is Circular Quay.

See you next week. But not in Sydney; we're back home where we belong.

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Last updated: 29 March 2009

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