A Protestant Vatican on the Hudson

You gotta like the sound of that…a Protestant Vatican on the Hudson.

Ambitious. Bewildering. Ridiculous.

It was the original vision, I guess, of the Interchurch Center, that 19-story office building at Riverside Drive and West 120th on the Upper West Side that was built in 1958 to house the leaders of Protestant America.

When President Eisenhower laid the cornerstone that year, 30,000 people came to watch.

This week, the building — known far and wide as the God Box — was rededicated. And, oh, have things changed.

The place was built, really, to house the leading denominations of mainline Protestantism and the mainline world’s chief ecumenical group, the National Council of Churches.

As we all know, mainliners have a much smaller (and quieter) influence on the culture these days.

Evangelical Protestant Christianity, a movement that includes about a quarter of all Americans, would have little interest in what goes on inside the God Box.

In fact, the building is not really Protestant any more. It’s taken on more of an interreligious feel.

As Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said at the rededication:

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The Interchurch Center is a richly diverse community of many faiths – Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and more. We are theologians, administrators, actuaries, health professionals, food preparers, building management specialists, educators, students, communicators and more. We are a community of many races, ethnicities, languages, nations. The Interchurch Center family today is almost a perfect microcosm of God’s world.

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An Orthodox priest, a rabbi and an imam offered the call to worship at the rededication.

John D. Rockefeller played a big role in planning and financing the God Box. His grandson,  Steven C. Rockefeller, professor emeritus of religion at Middlebury College, came to the rededication service.

You have to like Kinnamon’s line on what changes will take place inside the big, old building over the next half century: “Just state your plans for the next 50 years if you want to hear God laugh.”

There is something about the Morningside Heights neighborhood where the center is located. Right across the street you have Union Theological Seminary and Riverside Church. And close by are the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Each institution is a NYC landmark of sorts. But all have faced their share of changes and challenges.