Ecclesiastical Ostentation — I like it!

October_2006_Sep 2006 003Whenever we spend millions of dollars on a new temple, there are always a few naysayers who say the money would have been better spent on the poor, blah, blah, blah.

My feeling is that as long as you do in fact spend money on the poor, then it’s OK to build great and spacious buildings for God. In fact, it’s not only OK, it’s imperative, as our spiritual aesthetic needs things of beauty to inspire the soul. Case in point, Otto Wagner’s Kirche am Steinhof in Vienna. Speaking of this incredible building, J.A. Lux has said, “Whoever believes that the mystical-religious impulse is nurtured in the semi-darkness of a poorly ventilated, cold and damp interior is brilliantly contradicted by Wagner’s building.”

I couldn’t agree more. Wagner’s church is in the grounds of a psychiatric clinic. I can think of no better place to hear the voice of God, for Gothic gloom and Protestant cinder blocks do not stir the religious soul. I know my old mate John Fowles used to attend the world’s most soul-sucking, depressing, prefab stake center in Salt Lake City. It was so drab it made you want to weep with the cruelty of it all. Truman O. Angell would be appalled.

As noted above, I can imagine certain philistine objections to such ecclesiastical ostentation. Needless to say, die Kirche am Steinhof is more than a church, it’s an exercise in public imagination and we need more of this in our concrete-choked cities.


Wagner was a Secessionist architect, a fin-de-sie`cle art nouveau movement in Vienna.

October_2006_Sep 2006 002


  1. In case anyone needed any more proof that the Mormon Church is the most American of religions, isn’t it funny that the plans to revitalise the spiritual centre of Mormonism (an idea I wholeheartedly support) involve building shopping malls.

    Oh, and I don’t mean “ostentation” as in “tacky,” but “ostentation” as in “that’s no moon, that’s a space station” (Dome of the Rock, Chartres, Salt Lake temple).

  2. Haha Ronan. Actually, I still do attend that stake center. You are just (un)fortunate to have had the opportunity to go to a Priesthood session there with me. That building is bizarre. In case anyone is wondering, it is on 1900 E. and approximately Harrison Ave. in SLC, right next door to Clayton elementary. Anyone have a picture?

  3. (But at least it is in a good, non-supermajority-LDS, possibly predominantly non-LDS neighborhood in SLC, if that is an important consideration.)

  4. Sorry, Clayton Jr. High.

  5. David Brosnahan says:

    (Mark 14:3-6) And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head.
    4 And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, Why was this waste of the ointment made?
    5 For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor. And they murmured against her.
    6 And Jesus said, Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me.
    7 For ye have the apoor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.

  6. Ronan: What you’re missing is that the Church’s business interests are segregated from the tithes and offerings. The business interests or self-sustaining and employ literally thousands. I suppose we can give a fish or teach a person how to fish. In any event, owning a shopping mall and using to bless the lives of others by providing a vibrant business climate isn’t quite the same as spending millions on churches. Our churches are strictly utilitarian. Our temples don’t begin to compare to cathedrals and mosques (tho mosques aren’t nearly as ostentatious). Now I am well aware that a good cathedral was the basis for a vibrant economy in varous European fiefdoms during the the middle ages and may continue to have that effect today. So they may serve a similar functional purpose.

  7. MikeInWeHo says:

    Give a fish or teach a person how to fish.
    Build a shopping mall or…..?

  8. . . . . or see property already owned further deteriorate.

  9. (Steve 5:16) and the LORD did utterly smite with scabs and hives those who did quote Scripture without explanation nor context, and did plague them unto the sixth generation that there was naught but the sound of the trumpets in their tents.

  10. Blake,
    I fear you have completely misunderstood my post. Seeing as you’re a very smart man, I accept all the blame.

  11. Ronan: I am at fault for not seeing what you were getting at. Frankly, I love flying buttresses and arches and columns as much as the next guy — sometimes more. We have a good deal to learn about how architecture inspires. It will take someone like you with a bit more history and bit more appreciation than we have been able to muster so far.

  12. So let me clarify:

    1. I like big, brash, beautiful churches.
    2. I think a sparkly SLC downtown is a good idea (an idea I wholeheartedly support).
    3. I am simply observing how quintessentially americain it is that Zion’s Center Place is a shopping mall.

    And 2-3 are only addenda. We’ve already had this discussion. Mostly, just looking at pictures of Wagner’s church make me happy and I wanted to share.

  13. Pictures of the Salt Lake temple all lit up at night please me too. We do have a tradition of in-your-face beauty and we should cultivate it.

  14. Ronan, one problem of endorsing a course of conscious ecclesiastical ostentation, as you put it, is that the Book of Mormon speaks against that:

    36 And I know that ye do walk in the pride of your hearts; and there are none save a few only who do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts, unto the wearing of very fine apparel, unto envying, and strifes, and malice, and persecutions, and all manner of iniquities; and your churches, yea, even every one, have become polluted because of the pride of your hearts.
    37 For behold, ye do love amoney, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted. (Mormon 8:36-37.)

    Although some LDS temples are aesthetically beautiful, they are still primarily utilitarian, in keeping with this scripture. I am a huge fan of the beautiful churches and cathedrals of other faiths, as anyone who knows me personally will attest. But I feel that the ecclesiastical ostentation of many of the great cathedrals does not bring in the utilitarian aspect and can tend to fall into the category described in Mormon 8. I have come to realize over the years that despite “in-your-face” ostentation of those cathedrals, as you put it, the majesty of them did indeed stem from a purity of intent in many cases. I took this lesson from learning of the efforts of St. Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, in building the Lincoln Cathedral, completed in 1234 AD. St. Hugh was a fanatic, no doubt, but his zeal was jealous and his efforts to build a magnificent cathedral were not pride-based, in my opinion after learning something about his mission to construct it. Ratehr, he wanted to provide medieval people with a sensory experience that brought them closer to God through things that were truly other worldly in that time: the gothic arches providing for the flood of light through magnificent stained glass windows prepared in vibrant colors that simply were not available around the household of medieval peasants. Smells and sights were to be found in the cathedral that transported the peasant out of the drab earth-life existence into a heavenly realm, closer to God, if you will.

    Still, when you investigate the history of individual cathedrals, you will find that not every cathedral or church has this pedigree. Others are pretty clearly products of pride; the outward manifestations of money and power that are criticized in this passage of scripture.

  15. D. Fletcher says:

    The only temple I have visited besides SLC and DC is the Kirtland Temple, no longer a temple and no longer an LDS building.

    The Kirtland Temple is beautiful, and part of its beauty comes from its absolute austerity, and the other part of its beauty comes from its history and origins. I had a spiritual experience touring the Kirtland Temple, with my father and an RLDS tourguide (no other visitors that rainy afternoon in 1998).

    On the other hand, I have nothing but disdain for the rebuilt Nauvoo Temple.

  16. John F.,

    I would be interested to know which of the cathedrals you think is a product of pride. Most of them were built over several generations, the construction sometimes lasting more than a century.
    Perhaps there was a collective pride involved, but no more than for the 19th-century temples which took up to forty years to build, at great sacrifice. Now we put them up very quickly, but are totally divorced from the process.

    The Bishop of Lincoln was probably influenced by the Theology of Light, articulated by Abbot Suger earlier in the 12th century, who in turn, had been influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Here is a translation of some of his writings describing the events surrounding the construction of the cathedral of St. Denis.

    This was the inscription he appended to the gilded doors:

    Whoever thou art, if thou seekest to extol the glory of these doors,
    Marvel not at the gold and the expense but at the craftsmanship of the work.
    Bright is the noble work; but, being nobly bright, the work
    Should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights,
    To the True Light where Christ is the true door.
    In what manner it be inherent in this world the golden door defines:
    The dull mind rises in truth through that which is material
    And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.

  17. Sorry about the confusing pronoun reference in that last paragraph – the quoted writings are from Abbot Suger.

  18. To me, buying shopping malls is the last thing the church should be doing. As Christ’s restored gospel, it should focus primarily on helping others rather than turning a profit. I am confused by the brethren’s willingness to accomodate the comparisons of the church to a giant multi-national corporation. I don’t see how the widow’s mite is magnified by real estate ventures.

  19. DV, you’re being short-sighted. The Church’s business acumen has permitted it to remain largely self-sustaining and independent from the world. As a result, it is able to help others over a much longer period. Would you have the Brethren immediately liquidate all church assets and distribute the funds? How about its real estate? Its chapels?

    Your complaint is overly simplistic, in other words.

  20. What DV said. All of this drivel over the church just handing out money and aid just ignores the reality that doing so solves nothing except momentary hunger and temporary shelter. On the other hand, revitalizing SLC employs thousands and insures ongoing support for generations.

  21. D. Fletcher says:

    The Church does have some vision for future, but it often makes big blunders.

    I don’t think the giant Conference Center, costing between $250 and $500 million dollars, is particularly useful, particularly in this age of easy broadcast. The Church is taking advantage of the broadcast technology, and the CC is pretty much wasted.

  22. mark smith says:

    Blake(#6), How can you know that the finances are segregated from the business and ecclesiastical sides of the church? The church doesn’t release any information of finances. There really isn’t any way to know. In my opinion any distiction is meaningless anyways, simply because cash is the most fungible of resources.

    That said, I think that beautiful buildings are wonderful. Some of the temples the church has built definately qualify. The most attractive temple the church has build (IMO) is the D.C. temple. With the least attractive ones being the Provo and Ogden temples.

    And then the new conference from the exterior fails to inspire me at all. I’m with D. Fletcher on this one as well. The Conference Center makes zero sense. A better choice would have been to renovate a floor of the Church Office Building into a broadcast center.

    In regards to the shopping malls, I sure hope the church can make money on this. The church historically has a mixed record on business dealings up until the church stopped releasing financial information. Since then who really knows since the church hasn’t released any financial data, though if I were to guess I think it likely the church’s business ventures have faired much better due to President Tanner’s influence.

  23. Jonathan Green says:

    D. Fletcher, you might want to actually visit the Nauvoo temple before disdaining it.

  24. I’m going to go all John Kerry and bring some nuance to the proceedings. Basically, you’re all right and wrong. How’s that?

    John (#14): I think what you’ve done here is made an argument for ostentation. I fail to see how you can say that Lincoln’s mega-cathedral is in fact “pure” and others aren’t. So, you have the story of St. Hugh. I can give you a million St. Hugh’s.

    And I hate to break it to you brother, but we have some mega-temples that definitely break the spirit of Mormon 8 (as you see it). The DC temple lording over the Beltway like the Emerald City is absolutely a symbol of pride. It’s deliberately in-your-face and the local members love it because of that. Note all the local urban legends about how people have had accidents just gawping at the temple. (Said with great amusement!) Utilitarian? No way. Another culprit: San “Disney Castle” Diego.

    But embrace the ostentation, man! Just accept that if we all lived Mormon 8 we’d be doomed to your stake center and Europe’s old cities would be boring indeed. The church breaks its own rule and I’m glad.

    Now, as for these shopping malls…

    Again, you’re all right. Steve and Blake are right to defend them. Urban regeneration is a good thing in my book. And in America, this means shopping malls. Excellent.

    Two points though:

    1. Mark Smith is right in a sense about the source of the cash. Really, it doesn’t matter. Tithing at some point has gone into investments, and without tithing the church would have to spend investment money on its day-to-day operation. So tithing does, in fact, facilitate these projects. No bad thing, except…

    2. I just wish the church would share the love. Personal story: my parents are service missionaries at the restored Gadfield Elm chapel in England, the site of the 1840s United Brethren conversions. Right now, they’re forced to stay upstairs in the office because there’s no heating in the chapel area. Also, if people come at night, they cannot read the hymnbooks because the lighting is so dim. They have repeatedly asked for improvements to be made — costing a total of perhaps $20k — but some unknown committee in SLC keeps turning them down. Even basic stuff like the precariously situated immersion heater that is about to fall on someone’s head any minute.
    So, build your malls in Utah (= good), but please let the colonials have heating in their chapels (= good).

  25. Nice pics!

    It seems as though the church has left ostentation behind lately.

    Maybe it’s time for someone to investigate the existence of a “ostentatious cycle” as an analogue to the BofM’s rumored pride cycle. Let’s see–austere beginnings with the Kirtland Temple, the odd foundation and an abandoned building, a longish strech with big, labor-instensive temples, and then the recent phenomenon of small prefab temples dotting the land.

    Maybe the numbers impress, but the buildings themselves are a far cry from some of the other structures mentioned above. Does this mean Benson’s campaign against pride is bearing fruit (conference center excepted)?

  26. Nah. I think San Diego’s Disney Castle is Benson-era.

  27. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop has an interesting chapter where a poor, oppressed household servant visits the Catholic bishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico. She takes comfort in some of the finery and gold on display that is absent from her life except in the context of worship. As long as the poor aren’t cast out of the cathedrals and temples, any expense and effort in their decoration serves the poor as much as the rich, and in some ways it serves the poor more than the rich since the rich will enjoy private esthetic pleasures anyway. The poor need more than bread.

  28. John M.,
    You and I agree on something at last!

  29. D. Fletcher says:

    Jonathan, I disdain the concept of restoring the Nauvoo Temple. Some of architecture’s power and beauty is its history. Would we restore the Parthenon and the Pyramids to their former finishes, using modern materials and building techniques? No, this would ruin them. Even when Abu Simbel had to be moved from its original site, it was re-built in its ruined state, not “restored.” Antiques lose their value when restored.

    Additionally, the Nauvoo Temple is only restored on the outside. The inside is a modern building.

    The old, burned-down temple had a LOT more spiritual power than this.

  30. D. Fletcher: What are you talking about? There was no building at all but merely a foundation in a forelorn field. When I stood there before it was rebuilt my sould longed to see what is now there. The Pantheon and Pyramids belonged to a people whose religion has long since died. Not so Nauvoo.

    I also love San Diego. I served in Italy and it reminds me of the Duomo in Milano just a bit — and I love its external architecture. Still, isn’t it a strech to call any temple ostentatious? Where are the relics, the statues, the lasting art? If anything they are as utilitarian as our chapels for their own purposes. I really wish we’d catch the vision of inspiring and inspired architecture. Where are the vast colonnades and butresses and domes?

  31. Kevin Barney says:

    I like the Nauvoo temple, but I would have liked it a lot more if GBH had decided to go with the recumbent weather vane figure on top instead of the standard Moroni Statue.

  32. Steve-
    My comment was not a complaint, merely an observation. The role of spiritual leaders should be to lead others spiritually. Jesus did not have a place to lay his head, because he focussed on things of eternity, and not things of this world. I am simply surprised that the brethren are spending so much money on income-generating real estate ventures. Your classification of chapels as real estate is accurate, however a chapel serves a basic use. How does a shopping mall serve a basic use to a world-wide church when it is only available to those who live in Salt Lake City? It seems to me that it was purchase for its income generating potential, as any other commercial real estate. Please do not confuse chapels and shopping malls. They are two entirely different types of property. One is a special-use property, the other is an income generator, pure and simple. Usually people who place material wealth above spirituality are chastized in the scriptures. But when the brethren do it, it becomes something that is alright? My simple analysis holds water. Remember Deepthroat’s advise? Follow the money. Why did the Savior have no place to lay his head, yet his church has become a group of profiteer’s more concerned in turning a profit, than using their vast resources to actually help others. Aren’t there people starving today in other countries? Maybe some of that money could be used to help build infrastructure in those countries, rather than contribute to the bottom line of a multi-billion dollar religious organization.

  33. Blake,

    My trusty Google toolbar dictionary search tells me that “ostentation” means “excessive display.” I guess we could argue over “excessive” all day long. One could say that Wagner’s gleaming gold is “excessive” in the sense that from a purely utilitarian perspective it isn’t necessary. Gargoyles and collonades are equally “excessive.” Huge, bright-white, towered edifices that loom over freeways are also “excessive.”

    This is all good.

    I think houses of God should shock and awe. I think of the Sumerian ziggurats on the flat Mesopotamian plain, all white-washed and lovely against the brown desert. I think of the Temple Mount. And yes, I think of the San Diego temple.

    None of this, however, is an excuse for ostentatious kitsch.

  34. Kevin: I agree. An angel weather vane though.

  35. I’ve never seen that stake center in SLC, but there’s a chapel just south of Oakley, on the state highway to Kamas, that has to be the ugliest church building I have ever seen. Or at least the ugliest building the church has ever built.

    There was the old building that the Harlem Branch met in (on 128th, just off Lenox) that looked like a concrete block chicken coop, and the East New York Branch building, on Pennsylvania Avenue in Brooklyn, just off Atlantic, that looks like a bunker, complete with flat roof and roll-down steel security doors.

    But those were purchased–they looked like that when the church acquired them. Not so the Oakley building.

  36. D. Fletcher says:

    I wouldn’t mind a little ostentation in our buildings. My sisters’ ward in SLC is a building built in the 1920s; the chapel is raked (slanted downward) and marked by pilasters with corinthian-style tops; the pilasters are between beautiful, tall Georgian windows; and at the back of the room, behind the choir seats, is a beautiful stained glass window of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemanae.

    It’s a lovely space, perfect for our kind of worship. The Church doesn’t build such spaces anymore.

  37. Steve Evans says:

    DV: “Aren’t there people starving today in other countries? Maybe some of that money could be used to help build infrastructure in those countries…”

    DV, what you’re missing is that some of that money IS used to help build infrastructure in those countries. In other words, your comments show that you just don’t understand or appreciate what the Church actually does with its funds.

  38. Steve,

    Well, what it doesn’t do much of is putting heating into important overseas historical sites, or allow the Saints in Milford Haven, Wales, to meet in something other than a vandalised community hall…

  39. Yes, I’m bitter today.

    Tomorrow I’ll tell you that according to the publicly available UK church accounts, SLC puts more money into the UK than UK tithe payers send back to SLC. So the colonials deserve their lot.

    But today I’m just going to grumble.

  40. Ronan, you’re entitled to some grumbling. Live you, I’ve attended church in unheated rented halls with vandalism and poor plumbing. But the SPIRIT, man — nothing but raw spirit to be felt.

  41. I am aware that the church is involved in charitable causes. I have seen the church videos produced to show how the church is involved in helping the poor. I have read the available financial statements of the church. I contribute a full tithe to make sure things like that are happening.

    What is distressing to me, and the point I am trying to make, which you seem to comprehend, is that only SOME of the money goes to these wonderful things, while BILLIONS of other dollars are going to commercial real estate ventures.

    Shouldn’t our church prioritize helping people above real estate ventures? Your comments seem to indicate that the church has solved all of the world’s problems, so therefore it’s okay now to go out and make a buck with the surplus. My point is that possibly it may be more important to help some starving soul who the church HASN’T helped, rather than build a robust real estate portfolio. We have a difference of opinion, that’s all.


  42. Ronan, would proper heating and lighting detract any from the Gadfield Elm chapel’s historical quality?

  43. DV, my point is that you are quite mistaken, and your comments show that you don’t quite understand how effective philanthropic organizations function as a general matter. The Church does prioritize helping people above real estate ventures, and it always has. This isn’t a difference of opinion, it’s a fact. You portray the Church as being money-grubbing or desiring “a robust real estate portfolio” more than helping the hungry, but you couldn’t be more wrong. You clearly have no real-world experience with the Church’s welfare efforts, or else you wouldn’t make these kinds of claims at all.

  44. D. Fletcher says:

    Ronan, the church in your example is a century old. Are there any modern buildings of other churches that are ostentatious that you find… inspiring?

  45. Well, I’d like to see where you get your statistics, DV. Steve, does it bother you at all that we don’t see a comprehensive list of what the money goes to? I’m curious.

    But, Ronan, getting back to your topic, I agree. Heaven is probably very ostentatious and I think the spirit dwells in beauty.

  46. annegb, what you’re talking about is the issue of transparency: does the Church owe it to us to completely open up its books for all so that we can see how funds are being used?

    There are significant arguments on both sides. People like DV that are nervous about the evil, money-grubbing Brethren would likely have more to gripe about as they can now complain over every misplaced penny. That would make them happier (?). The argument is that transparency leads to better money-management as you have more watchful eyes following your actions.

    That said, transparency has its drawbacks. It limits the ability of money managers to use their discretion and creativity. It also places undue emphasis on short-term uses rather than long-term objectives, as money managers feel undue pressure to produce immediate results.

    In the context of consecrated funds, transparency could lead to a perverse result where the members of the Church are telling the inspired leadership what to do, rather than following revealed courses of action.

  47. Orange Julius says:

    As a former church employee and as a former broker that did business with the Church’s investment groups, this is cracking me up. There are so many baseless assumptions being made its comical. Comical I say. Comical.

    This notion that tithes are not being used is silly. Ask yourself this hypothetical question – If ALL tithes from members ceased tomorrow due to economic changes, would the church draw on other business sources to sustain their temples and operations? Hey, if its really the Lord’s work and it matters, you would hope the answer is yes. right? So, those resources could be used for building the Kingdom rather than the Neighborhood, right?

    Here is another question to consider. Where did the original monies come from that were used to build the business ventures that created the cash to rebuild downtown SLC? Uh….., duh, uh…. tithes, offerings, donations… maybe? Were those tithes just temporarily loaned to a business or corporation and returned later when the Lord needed a Kingdom expansion?

    Finally. What difference does it make? The church is rich. They have more money than they need to sustain the current membership and the slow growth. It would be a terrible investment to spend that money on efforts to gain converts when most converts do not stay and do not pay tithing. The wealthy and large tithe payers are generally multi-generation members. Converts are not large contributors. So, even if the mall is a poor return on investment, it’s a significantly better return than money spent on new tithe payers. So big deal. Its the Corporations money they can do as they see fit. Really, what is the big deal with that? If you dont like it…. well…. don’t let the shopping mall door hit you in the Mr. Mac Sansabelt Slacks on your way out the door.

  48. Last week I took some pictures of the tabernacle I attended as a child. The building is beautiful, inside and out, A balcony in the chapel, great big stain-glass windows. But can the church really do anything other than the boring cookie-cutter churches they build now? Do they have time for interesting design when they’re putting up so many new buildings?

  49. Orange Julius says:

    In the context of consecrated funds, transparency could lead to a perverse result where the members of the Church are telling the inspired leadership what to do, rather than following revealed courses of action.

    Perverse? Input from the members is perverse? You are joking right?

    There is great irony and undertones to this, which I am sure you did not mean, but nevertheless presented. ANY input by a woman regarding the spending of money, in your view, would be considered perverse. Because, there are no inspired female leaders.


  50. goodbye, Orange Julius.

  51. Nathan C. says:

    Here’s my take on it. Let the church spend major bucks on temples and church buildings. It’s what churches do. I don’t begrudge a single dollar spent towards a building actually used for worship. I reserve the right to mock the designs of those buildings if they remind me of disneyland, but hey, money for religious buildings? Knock yourself out. The most inspiring architecture in the world comes from religious buildings. We need more inspiration and design in our religious buildings, not less. Why does a shopping mall get granite and marble, but my local church building has to make do with painted cinderblock walls and institutional carpet on the floors?

    But, (and as Pee-Wee Herman says, everyone has a big but) $2B for shopping malls? That much from anyone is a boondoggle, but from a church it’s just irresponsible and crass. If the brethren are worried about the neighborhood around temple square, why not just raze the buildings and put in a world-class park? Buy up the streets in between, and have a true buffer zone between the temple and anything else. There would be grass, flowers, and fountains for a block in every direction. You could do that for MUCH less than $2B, while preserving the area around temple square. And that would make temple square even more serene, less worldly, and more like what our religious architectural tradition should be like.

  52. just raze the buildings and put in a world-class park

    Nathan C.,

    You have forgotten what happened when the church tried to turn the space in between the temple and the COB into a park.

  53. Merry Go Round says:

    52: Mark, the difference is that the church in that instance was trying to buy city property that had been a public space (and a free-speech zone) for many years. Here, the church would be buying private property and converting it from a blighted use to something beautiful and spiritual. The irony of the church buying a shopping mall and profiting from the sale of fashion, enetertainment, and beverages routinely condemned as evil across the street twice a year is rich.

    For 10 reasons why the mall development project is a bad idea, see

  54. Merry Go Round says:
  55. Nathan C. says:

    “You have forgotten what happened when the church tried to turn the space in between the temple and the COB into a park.”

    What happened? The church got a park, the city got some money, and newspapers had something to write about. In the end, everyone except for a few loose cannon nutjobs got what they wanted from that deal. What was so bad about that?

    The biggest problem was the church shouldn’t have agreed to an easement in the first place. Take that away, and it would have been an open-and-shut deal. Also, it was really only news in SLC, and only for a few people.

  56. JM (#42):

    Ronan, would proper heating and lighting detract any from the Gadfield Elm chapel’s historical quality?

    No. Just as they don’t detract from the Whitmer home, I imagine.

  57. Steve, you may be right that the church places a high priority on its charitable contributions as a large philanthropic organization. I guess I am just sad that more isn’t done, and that priorities seem to be mixed up. I do have a lot of firsthand knowledge about the church welfare system. I have worked many hours on church farms hauling hay, cleaning up, picking cotton, and canning many things from lima beans to grains. I have served quite a bit, and count myself lucky to have been able to serve in those ways. Its not fun work, but it does help others. I’ve spent many an hour here at the cannery in Mesa, Arizona where I live. So I am well aware of how the church welfare system works here. I just do not understand the apparent disconnect in SLC between people’s needs in third world countries, and the brethren’s real estate agenda. That’s all. Thanks for your ideas though, even though I disagree with most of them.

  58. Fair enough, DV.

  59. Steve,

    I think your argument against transparency makes no sense. Members like DV now are telling the Brethren what to do with the money, or expressing dissatisfaction with some of the decisions that are made in that arena, so the “perversion” as you call it already exists. If you are correct, and the Church really does have its priorities straight such that it is spending more on humanitarian relief than on real estate and other business ventures, then opening the books would prove you right, make the church look good, and silence the critics. Of course, in places where the church is required to make financial disclosures, it has been revealed that the church expends approximately 0.2% of tithing funds on humanitarian relief efforts, so one wonders if transparency would vindicate your assessment of the Brethren’s priorities.

  60. Eric, I wasn’t arguing against transparency necessarily, just laying out the issues in a general sense. The problem in your critique is that you view the opening of the books as a neutral act; that is, that opening the books doesn’t necessarily mean any change in how money is spent. Financial history shows us that is not the case. Often, as I mentioned above, transparency results in a shift of priorities from long-term to short-term. In the context of a large humanitarian effort, I can think of many reasons why immediate use of funds may not make sense.

    You seem to believe that the critics are the best arbiters of how the money should be spent. That’s not necessarily the case. Shareholders (a poor analogy to tithepayers) are often the worst source of input for business strategy. In the case of a religion with pre-establish detractors (such as yourself), opening the books would just give the exmos more to gripe about rather than actually help starving people.

    You know, though, fundamentally there’s an issue of trust at work here — do you trust the Church leadership to make sound financial decisions that will further the kingdom of God on the Earth and help the needy, or don’t you? No amount of financial disclosure will resolve this issue for you, OJ, DV, Nathan C. or anyone else.

  61. Nathan C. says:

    “No amount of financial disclosure will resolve this issue for you, OJ, DV, Nathan C. or anyone else.”

    Where did I say anything about transparency or financial disclosure? Please don’t paint everyone who does not have the exact same opinions that you do with a broad brush of taint.

  62. Rosalynde says:

    “I am simply observing how quintessentially American it is that Zion’s center place is a mall.”

    Now Ronan, you know better than this. The deep roots of English drama, to name one example of hundreds, are equal parts religion and commerce: the morality plays were first performed at the markets, and this is no coincidence. The Athenian agora was home not only to the marketplace but also to its many temples. And the same is true of the virtually every hellenistic city, for the simple reason that commerce and religion are and always have been the symbiotic centers of civic life.

  63. There’s an old Russian proverb that says “trust but verify.” Can’t remember who used to say that….

  64. Nathan: “But, (and as Pee-Wee Herman says, everyone has a big but) $2B for shopping malls? That much from anyone is a boondoggle, but from a church it’s just irresponsible and crass.”

    I was speaking as to issues of trusting Church leadership to make responsible financial decisions, not just transparency, Nathan. I think your complaint above qualifies you to be painted with my brush of taint, however broad.

  65. Eric, that was Ronald Reagan.

  66. Nathan C. says:

    Steve, I think everyone in the bloggernacle deserves that brush of taint, unless you want to outlaw having an opinion.

  67. Nathan — agreed.

  68. Here’s another: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Was that Lord Acton? Between these two aphorisms, I think there may be an argument in favor of opening the books for inspection. It’s not as though Mormon doctrine claims infallibility for its leaders. Does it? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

  69. Eric, quoting Alan Moore will get you nowhere. Look — either you believe in a Church led by inspired leaders or you don’t. If you don’t, then this is a pointless discussion for you.

  70. Steve,
    Why this need to make substantive, well-thought-out arguments? I thought third-hand rumor and pithy quoted statements were the rhetorical order of the day.

  71. Every dollar the church spends on church buildings, whether chapels or institute buildings or schools or temples is a dollar that will never return to the church (except in the rare instances where the church sells a building).

    On the other hand, the redevelopment project in central SLC is a business investment, and I suppose that the people making the investment are expecting a return on it. Now, they may turn out to be wrong and the church may never recoup its original investment, to say nothing of earning any profit on the investment. But if they are right, and the church does earn a positive return on the investment, then two goals have been accomplished: (1) the area around Temple Square has been preserved as a vibrant part of the city and (2) the funds that were invested have been paid back to the church, which can then use them for whatever religious or charitable purposes it desires.

    Those criticizing the church’s decision seem to think that the money has just been poured down a rathole, and that the church has seen the last of it.

    They also seem to have assumed that every dollar of the church’s receipts (tithing and otherwise) should be spent this year, or if not, put in a jar and buried in the dirt until the time comes that the money is needed. Implicit in this is the idea that they (the writers) know of some worthwhile and worthy use for those funds that the leaders of the church don’t know of. If only they were so well-informed.

    (That being said, I suspect that they don’t know about the heating and lighting problem at the Gadfield Elm Chapel. And they are probably kept from knowing by some cog in the great bureacratic arm of the Presiding Bishop’s Office known as Physical Facilities. Or is it Fysical Phacilities?)

  72. 69: Does inspired=perfect? Does inspired=infallible? If not, disclosure would seem to be appropriate. I think LDS doctrine is that Bishops are inspired, no? Would you argue, then, that the requirements that two people be involved in the counting and delivery of tithing to the bank each week be done away with? Or that audits of ward budgets, etc. not be conducted? I take issue with your black-and-white, all-or-nothing dichotomy of believing in inspiration or not. One can believe that the prophets are inspired in some things at some times (“when moved upon by the Holy Ghost”) and not at others. In fact, one could find quotes from the Prophet Joseph Smith to that effect.

  73. “Does inspired=perfect? Does inspired=infallible?”

    Eric, a believing member would at least sustain them. Let me know when you get that far. Further, as I discussed above, I don’t agree with the leap you’re making from “leaders aren’t perfect” to “therefore, disclosure is appropriate.”

  74. Well, Steve, we may have different views on what it means to “sustain” the Brethren. I know some faithful LDS who think Dialogue is run by apostates and its readership less than faithful. I disagree with those folks, but they are out there. I don’t think sustaining the Brethren requires unquestioning obedience.

  75. Eric, we’re probably on the same page, just different paragraphs. Neither one of us believes that we need to be mindless automatons that never ask questions. You just want transparency, and I disagree that it’s a good idea.

    Let me clarify: I’d be curious to see how things get done. But that’s it — it’s just curiosity. I think transparency as a general matter would be bad for the church and its members.

  76. This is a simple issue of assets vs. liabilities. Assets bring in money, liabilities take away money. The Church wants more assets than just its members, therefore they buy a mall. It brings in money so that they can continue to have money. If you don’t own assets you don’t have money for very long.

    Eric S,
    Are you suggesting there are no safeguards in place (like having two people involved with tithing) within the COB? And who says the general ward membership is the best safeguard? Sure, I can understand it might be a good idea to have Deloitte go in and do an audit, but why do you need access to that information? All you’re (general “you”) going to do is decide that in some way they’re not spending the money the way you think they should (x5,000,000).

  77. 76:
    I don’t think those who criticize the Corssroads purchase are saying that the church should not own any income-generating assets, or that the church should liquidate all of its real estate holdings and give the money to the poor (though Jesus did give similar advice to the rich young man, he also gave the parable of the talents–appeal to the Bible can cut both ways here). But just because it may be good for the church to be involved in some commercial enterprises, does not mean this is a wise one. And just because the church might not want to liquidate all of its assets doesn’t mean it shouldn’t liquidate some of them. If it’s such a great idea for the church to generate income from the properties it holds, I suppose the church could rent out its buildings on Saturday nights to saloon operators. The church could emply lots of people, generate income that could be used to help people, and put an otherwise dormant asset to use. But just because the church could do that, doesn’t mean it should. Just because the church might make lots of money operating a mall selling rap music, R-rated movies, and alcohol doesn’t mean it should. And no, I don’t think it is an act of spiritual disloyalty for members of the church to question such a move.

  78. mark smith says:

    Steve (#73)

    I don’t agree with the leap you’re making from “leaders aren’t perfect” to “therefore, disclosure is appropriate.”

    You are way overstating it. This isn’t a “leap” it’s more in the nature of a piddling little step. In my opinion it falls in the “of course” category. I think financial statements similar to financial statements made by U.S. corporations would be perfectly appropriate. The church is rather an oddity among non profits in that it doesn’t disclose it’s finances. There really has to be a reason why the church isn’t issuing financial statements. I’m just curious what they don’t want us to know? What is the church hiding? (And by hiding I don’t think we are talking anything criminal)

  79. I agree with all of you, I am grateful for the beautiful buildings that are built also. Oh wait, you’re not really talking about that… doh!

    Wonder how much it cost to build the duomo in Florence?

  80. “The church is rather an oddity among non profits in that it doesn’t disclose it’s finances.”

    Not so, Mark Smith. Not so at all, actually. You’d be hard pressed to find any major church that does so. But your comment gets at what I’ve been talking about: trust. “What don’t they want us to know?” Conspiracy theories and mistrust of how Church funds are used are just symptoms in my opinion of an overall attitude of mistrust towards how the Church is run. The truth is out there!

  81. Eric S.
    You’re making my exact point. You don’t object to the Church owning assets in general, but you object to this specific one. So it’s not a matter of kind but of degree. And your degree differs from the Bretheren.

  82. …er, Brethren.

  83. I agree with Steve and add…..

    Top church leaders probably just want to avoid the whole discussion both internally and externally over the church financial statements. Its easier to just stay quiet.

    They want to avoid stuff like this… Pres H’s secretary walks in and says….

    Pres H. Peggy Stack from the SLTRIB is on line one. She says she wants to discuss the portion of the budget that covers missionary expenditures in Africa and why they went down 4% last year. She is also wondering about how much of a housing subsidy Pres Packer is getting to pay those enourmous property tax increases that are the result of increased RE valuation in SLC. It seems his compensation has been going up.

  84. bbell, it’s unlikely that Peggy Stack would make that kind call, even if she had access to that data. She’s a class act.

  85. mark smith says:

    bbell (#83)

    Its easier to just stay quiet.

    It certainly is easier. But in this case I don’t think that easier is the right thing to do. Shouldn’t the kingdom of God be an open institution or should it be clothed in secrecy?

    Well I should probably leave this alone since we’re fairly off topic, though Ronan started it with his comment on the malls (sort of :-) ).

  86. “Shouldn’t the kingdom of God be an open institution”

    Mark, has it ever been this way, ever? Where do you find justification for the transplanting of current US practices of transparency onto an ecclesiastical model?

  87. I know, I threadjacked my own post. I’m surprised no-one wants to know who the old dude in the stain-glassed window is.

  88. We still haven’t solved the problem at Gadsford Elm.

  89. Mark,
    Send me the money and I’ll buy the heating. Promise.’

    c/o Skint Graduate Student Bank
    Vienna, Austria

  90. Funny. So, re: the Steinhof church’s cupola: during the tumultuous planning stages one incensed state representative warned that “the golden dome will shine all the way to Hungary so that the Hungarians can say, that’s where the idiots live who pay 70% of our bills.”

  91. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 80 That’s incorrect, Steve. Most major denominations in the U.S. practice full financial disclosure. I believe the JW’s and the Roman Catholics do not, although I’m not exactly sure how the Catholics work it. There is an organization called the Evangelical Council For Financial Accountability ( which has established guidelines toward this end. I do not believe the Church would meet their 7 standards of responsible stewardship, which is too bad.

    My personal theory is that the Church does not practice full disclosure because we would all be shocked if we knew how much money was involved. The real estate holdings alone must be worth many billions of dollars.

  92. Steve Evans says:

    MikeinWeHo, I stand corrected, but I was thinking specifically of the Catholic church when I wrote my comment.

  93. Ronan, tell us more about the window.

  94. mark smith says:

    Mike (#91)

    My personal theory is that the Church does not practice full disclosure because we would all be shocked if we knew how much money was involved. The real estate holdings alone must be worth many billions of dollars.

    I personally believe that as well. I believe that is the main reason today for the church hiding the finances. I hesitated to say that though, because it is nothing more than speculation on my part. In particular, the size of the commercial holdings would be very shocking to people.

    In regards to the financial disclosure by churchs I really didn’t know about whether or not they mostly disclose or not, thats why I went to the broader classification of “non-profits” where I was more sure.

  95. MikeinWeHo, I stand corrected, but I was thinking specifically of the Catholic church when I wrote my comment.

    Anyone else see the irony in looking to the Catholic Church as our exemplar for ecclesiastical administrative behavior?

  96. Elephant Mayan says:

    Eric, I see the irony.

  97. Well, by some measures Mormonism is much more Catholic than Protestant.

  98. Man, reading most posts here makes me aware of how spaced out most americans are…”oh, our spiritual aesthetic needs…”

    You guys don´t, can´t even conceive what “being needy” means…you live in such an economics-centered, opulent lifestyle, you´ve lost it…

    Most people in Africa´s poor states live on $20 a month…or, not to go too far, the whole world witnessed how you cared for your own poor in the aftermath of Katrina…but, your “spiritual aesthetic needs” are doing fine, aren´t they?

    Sheesh….with this in-cre-di-ble social awareness, no wonder the world´s going down in flames, judgement day, or global warming.

    Jesus himself, never cared to own a dime – He lived amongst the poor and the needy.

    Yet you n all religious pious selfrighteous good samaritans, build HUGE buildings, cover yourselves with gold, drive 4 x 4 SUV´s, AND talk of being charitable!

    But, don´t let me interrupt you – go right on, being modern, dynamic, and worshipping shopping malls and aesthetically pleasing churches – as if the REAL God, the guy who creates GALAXIES, cared s… for man-made structures.

  99. Daniel,

    I’m a Brit, which I know is far, far worse than being a yank.

    I don’t for a minute think God cares two hoots for man-made structures either. But I think men need beautiful buildings, both as testaments to our God-given talents and hard-work, and because our sense of beauty demands it.

    But you’re right about SUV’s…ghastly.

    As for the poor, I think you are wrong to suggest we should choose one or the other. You may be interested to know that the Kirche am Steinhof pictured above was built for the “poor”; it stands in the grounds of a mental health clinic and was deliberately designed to help enliven depressed spirits.

  100. Ronan et al,

    mmmm….sorta apologies if I was too intense. I´m usually polite.

    Don´t worry, I couldn´t care less in whatever part of the planet you were born, humans all alike to me – green, black, grey, yellow, and countries just man-made fiction. We all bleed red, we all love and die, we all meet our Maker at some point.

    This said, Brits are nice, especially their accent and politeness, I like it.

    I also like nice beautiful buildings, etc., but I DO feel a sorta perception gap twixt the well-to-do n the poor joes.

    Though I don´t defend levelling everyone at the same level, sure, but how many of you have ever spent like 1 or 2 days without food? You feel like you´re dead, dizzy, can´t think or walk straight, does wonders to keep one´s priorities straight.

    N if you wanna inspiration n beauty, a star-studded night sky is simply one million years ahead of anything we might build in the next millenium. After all, THAT´s the Creator´s handiwork at its best.

    I´m not a Bible type. I don´t go to churches or the like. I´ve always felt, Nature is God´s work, in Nature, He´s everywhere, this planet is (one of) his “churches”. And man, naturally, does his best to destroy it, and keep it out of sight – if possible, behind the newest and tallest skyscraper.

    But the night sky? Me, when I look at it, well, feel like I´m a lowly lowly bacteria on a speck of dust; like I´m a guy who´s just bought his first violin, doesn´t know which end to hold, and wants to compare with, say, Vivaldi or Strauss.

    I mean, when you look at God´s artwork, man, be it the infinitely big, or the infinitely small, all you can do is open your eyes wide, and be awed at the inconceivable Mind behind all that.

    Clap your hands, applaud Our Father; and help thy brother, REALLY help thy brother, to the extent that you can, not going to…charitable parties in which the too-rich are only REALLY interested in showing off, but being honest with yourself, acknowledging that no matter if you´re a billionaire, or a “powerful” man, before God, you´re like dust, you´re NOTHING, before a Being that´s BILLIONS of years in existing, that´s TRILLIONS of times ahead of us.

    So help thy brother, don´t fall for being indulgent in your wealth or your burgeoise values…value God´s work, value people, not things.

    That´s what matters, the rest…is the rest.

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