Edifice complex

Michael Piazza wants his proposed $20 million cathedral to send a message to the world -- gays can go to heaven too

She notes that MCC has recently been granted observer status, which means they can attend most events but can't vote or have other privileges that members do. When an MCC official, Gwynn Gybord, spoke at the National Council of Churches general assembly last November, the response was mixed.

"It was a perfect symbol of the divisiveness," the National Council worker says. "Some people gave her a wild standing ovation; others stayed seated and didn't even clap. [MCC] members are not shunned when they talk with other denominations after the meetings. But I don't see a move toward unqualified tolerance...by most of the mainline churches, even the more progressive ones. Their conservative members are too vocal. They'd rather hold more meetings to 'study the issue.'"

Eastman, former pastor at Dallas' Cathedral of Hope, thinks the National Council of Churches' discomfort over admitting MCC comes down to one simple fact: Mainstream churches would rather ignore the fact that they have lesbian and gay members. Eastman recalls taking part in a radio debate in 1983 over MCC's effort to become part of the council. His broadcast adversary was Paige Patterson, then president of Criswell College and currently president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The Rev. Michael S. Piazza wants the Cathedral of Hope to be a center of inclusiveness and community service.
Mark Graham
The Rev. Michael S. Piazza wants the Cathedral of Hope to be a center of inclusiveness and community service.
The proposed $20 million Philip Johnson cathedral would sit under the flight path of Love Field and arguably be Dallas' most architecturally ambitious church.
The proposed $20 million Philip Johnson cathedral would sit under the flight path of Love Field and arguably be Dallas' most architecturally ambitious church.

"A male caller [to the radio show] asked Patterson what he was going to do with the gay men in his church choir," Eastman says. "Patterson said, 'There are no gay men in the First Baptist church choir.' The caller said, 'Yes, there are; I've slept with two of them.' Patterson had nothing to say for a minute there."

If the ecumenical body that is Christianity would rather pretend that devout members cannot also be homosexual, then many homosexuals would rather ignore Christianity altogether. In that case, the Philip Johnson design could become a more successful secular symbol than a homo Mecca, more of a place for lovers of architecture to drool over than a Gay Canterbury for homosexuals worldwide to seek solace. The possibility that the larger lesbian and gay population would discount this structure because of its unease with Christian doctrine chaps Piazza's hide a little.

"I think the gay and lesbian community has discounted us as assimilationist," he says. "There is also some hostility from within simply because I'm a Christian and I'm a preacher."

Given the self-hatred that Christian upbringings instilled in many gays and lesbians as children, it's perhaps inevitable that some unease would exist with Piazza's family-values rhetoric, revamped and unabashedly leftist though it is. William Waybourn admits some impatience with lesbians and gays who would ignore the good Piazza is doing for the larger community because of anti-Christian bias.

"One's religiosity is irrelevant to the importance of the Cathedral of Hope," Waybourn says. "The church is an extremely powerful social and cultural institution in America. Churches have traditionally been the bastions of support for the downtrodden. But during the height of AIDS in the '80s, many of them closed their doors to us. During the early days of the civil rights movements, racist America knew how important churches were to African-Americans, and burned them down. But the black community would hold services in an open field if they had to. The church was a unifying center for them. We've never had that. AIDS sort of unified lesbians and gays for a while, but having death and devastation as your rallying point drains you."

But can any church -- even one designed by a world-renowned gay architect with a minister who promotes outreach programs in almost secular terms -- provide a new rallying point for gays and lesbians? Piazza insists that his monument will break ground by 2000, although he's raised only about a third of the $20 million cost. You have to wonder whether a community that's understandably wary of Christian doctrine thinks that's the best use of funds in a world of anti-gay adoption bills and multimillion-dollar newspaper and TV ads that exhort gays to bury their sexuality.

Deb Elder calls the new post-grassroots activist era "slow for me, like watching an iceberg grow." It's an appropriate metaphor, because the proposed Philip Johnson building looks like an iceberg, a giant frozen mass with jagged corners, lines, and edges. Piazza jokingly calls it a "bargain-basement cathedral," and Waybourn refers to it as a "chicken-wire shape covered with sprayed concrete." The existing building will be connected to the new one by an open walkway. The new cathedral's main sanctuary will be 32,000 square feet and seat 2,200; the 3,000-square-foot chapel will seat 134. Johnson's plan calls for "smooth concrete on steel construction" for a cathedral that, at its peak, is 111 feet high. There will be a bell wall that stands 78 feet and contains an electronic registry of the names of AIDS fatalities.

Almost all of the $7 million raised so far by Piazza and his assistants has come from three sources. First is the congregation itself. Next are Dallas arts patrons excited at the prospect of Philip Johnson's last big project being built here -- and a church, no less, in a city where gigantic worship spaces tend to look like malls or convention centers. The last group of contributors is made up of wealthy patrons who are sympathetic with the Cathedral as a humanitarian cause but who, for the most part, don't want their names on the record. (The only one who doesn't mind his name being mentioned in association is Stanley Marcus, who's Jewish.) Piazza has tried to raise money by allowing donors to dedicate parts of the building as memorials, but so far well-meaning financial supporters don't want their surnames anywhere near a plaque inside the world's largest lesbian and gay congregation.

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