Where We Worship: Bryn Athyn Cathedral

Posted: April 21, 2014

BUX-MONT'S landmark Bryn Athyn Cathedral looms large in its community - 180 feet large, measuring to the top of its tallest tower.

Inside, the view from the pews is awe-inspiring. Artisans built the place just after the turn of the 20th century to resemble Europe's great medieval churches, down to blowing their own stained glass on site.

Outside, the view overlooking the Pennypack Creek Valley from the vast, terraced grounds is breathtaking.

But the church's congregation is as ordinary as they come: a button-downed collection of women in sensible, pretty dresses, men in jackets and slacks, and very well-scrubbed college students from Bryn Athyn College across the street.

Their solidly Christian worship services have the interesting twist of being grounded in New Church theology, which holds - among other beliefs - that the Second Coming has already happened and that people can become angels.

Pastors layer insights from a set of provocative 18th-century texts on top of an Episcopal-style liturgy for a church service that's both familiar and surprisingly different. "It's a very conservative church," said the Cathedral's chaplain, the Rev. Jeremy Simons. "But the ideas are wild and outlandish."

Who we are: Bryn Athyn is one of about 50 New Church congregations in the U.S. and others worldwide that follow what's known as the Swedenborgian Theology. The local congregation has about 2,000 members.

Where we worship: Bryn Athyn Cathedral is at 900 Cathedral Road in the borough of Bryn Athyn, just off Huntingdon Pike near County Line Road. Expect near-capacity crowds for the adult Easter service, at 11 a.m. Sunday. "It'll be packed," said Simons. The cathedral also celebrates a family service at 9:30 a.m.

What we believe: In Christ and the Bible, first and foremost. New Church members also believe that the Second Coming has already happened, Simons said - not as the arrival of another savior but as information revealed in the 1700s to a scientist/prophet named Emanuel Swedenborg, who went on to write voluminous interpretations of the Bible and its messages.

One of his big topics was life after death. "We're known for being a place for people to find out what heaven is like," Simons said. "We don't believe that you float around on a cloud with wings, but more that you continue your existence in a better place. It's a very cool idea."

What else they're known for: In addition to the cathedral, two other noteworthy buildings occupy the Bryn Athyn grounds - the Cairnwood Estate, Bux-Mont's go-to venue for classy weddings (booking now for May 2015) and the Glencairn Museum of religious history.

On April 27, the museum hosts a Sacred Arts Festival (admission $8-$10, kids under 4 free) where glassblowers, manuscript illuminators, Hindu henna artists and others will demonstrate their craft. Starting Wednesday and continuing though the Sunday festival, the Ven. Losang Samten will create a Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala. (Details at glencairnmuseum.org.)

Bryn Athyn glass: The artisans who created the cathedral's stained glass windows rediscovered a lost, ancient technique for painting a streaky hue of red known as "striated ruby." The window behind the altar, done largely in red and blue glass, casts a cool purple glow.

Bryn Athyn brass: The Cathedral Brass, an ensemble including a French horn, two trumpets, a tuba and a euphonium, plays at some services.

God is . . . "Jesus Christ," Simons said. "God is love and wisdom. You can also just say just God is love."

Good works: Church members are active in Habitat for Humanity. They support a local food pantry and orphanages in Kenya and Nepal. The New Church also operates a rigorous elementary and high school that are open to nonmembers and offer substantial financial aid.

Big moral issue we're grappling with: "A big, big thing here is a healthy marriage," Simons said. "Fidelity is important and being chaste before marriage, looking to God together.

"It's not the same values that the culture as a whole always shares, so there can be tensions. You're always grappling with that."

Words of hope: "The world is getting better continually. We're going to make it through, and eventually, peace will come to the world," he said. "I really believe that's the way it's going to work."

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