I was recently invited by denominational leaders to participate in a conversation regarding the RCA offices located on 475 Riverside Drive in New York City at the Interchurch Center. Those who were invited were from the two Regional Synods, which are directly near the center. Due to shrinking membership and the need to be more frugal, the conversation was a time to explore options to relocate the offices from “The God Box”, a term often used when trying to find the place with a taxi driver at the wheel. “The God Box” – what an affectionate term for a building which began with such a vision: Christian Unity. Here is an adapted historical explanation, which I found on the Interchurch Center’s website.
In the early twentieth century a worldwide fervor for Christian unity developed. In the mid-century, interest increased, especially in New York. Hopes were high to build a center in which Protestant and Orthodox churches in America could engage in dialogue and cooperation. Inspiring the endeavor was the idea that Christians ought to do all they can together unless conscience requires them doing it separately. This Lund Principle so named because its source is the 1954 World Conference on Faith and Order in Lund, Sweden — appealed to many churches, but not all. Evangelicals and Pentecostals remained isolated from interchurch relations. The Roman Catholic Church had not yet officially entered the ecumenical movement and so was not even considered as a partner to ecumenical initiatives.
Originally conceived to be called “The Protestant Center”, and so identified in the 1948 Act of Incorporation, by 1954 it was clear to the founding fathers and mothers of the Center that “Protestant” would not serve as qualifier if, indeed, the building was intended to be ecumenical in identity and mission; thus, the word “Interchurch” was adopted.
On 12 October 1958, a crowd of more than 30,000 people gathered for the Laying of the Cornerstone ceremony. The day’s ceremonies opened with a carillon recital at Riverside Church followed by a procession on Riverside Drive. As the autumn breeze waved the banners of thirty-seven Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches, the President of the United States, Dwight D Eisenhower, laid the cornerstone.
On May 29, 1960, the completed edifice was dedicated in a moving ceremony that marked an unprecedented advance in the movement for greater unity among the churches in the United States. Known as “Dedication Sunday”, the day began with worship and thanksgiving in Riverside Church.
For fifty-one years, our RCA denomination has held offices in this truly remarkable building, which is known around the world as an example of Christian Unity. The RCA even owns 14% of the building, we found out in our meeting.
As the discussion, led by a well trained mediator, continued throughout the morning and afternoon, we learned more about the lack of usage on our part and the costs. I provide these here for your benefit: First, it seems that our ecumenical partners from 50 years ago are seeking other locations for the denominational headquarters. The Presbyterian Church [USA] and the Evangelical. Lutheran Church, to just name a few, have moved some time ago. It appears that the vision is giving out to economic pressure. Second, we did the math, and to our surprise, the cost per square foot was
less than $25. We all remarked that this was cheap considering the location. Third, only particular boards and consultants really use the offices on a daily basis. When the General Secretary moved his office to Grand Rapids, several other RCA boards moved with him. That means that our office space in the Interchurch Center is not being used to capacity. There was some discussion about changing the office size. However,
that was only one possible option.
In the end, there was no final word. We were asked to respond on our own to one of the secretaries. So, none of us know what the outcome will be – whether the offices will move or not.
I share this with you,so that you hear about these discussions in our denomination. Many of you may well remember the events as described above in the history. It must have been a grand celebration. The sad part, in my opinion, is the slow deterioration of the vision. It is quite disconcerting! For it appears to me that Christian Unity is more needed today than ever before. We need a place such as the God Box/the Interchurch Center to promote discussion and to lead us onward with putting aside our differences.
When I find out what the RCA denominational leaders decide regarding the offices on 475 Riverside Drive, I will let you know. You may want to take a trip into NYC yourself and visit the center. There are exhibitions and all sorts of special rooms there for you to tour.
Shalom, Pastor Susan