Thursday, August 15, 2019

What about the National Cathedral?

One of my favorite places to visit in Washington, D.C., is the National Cathedral, and I have been there several times. Although I have some conflicted feelings about it, I am in total agreement with a public statement the clergy there made last month. 

Liking the National Cathedral
The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington is the official name of what is generally called the Washington National Cathedral. It contains a cathedra (Latin for seat) for both Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.
The cornerstone for the Cathedral was laid in September 1907, and “only” 83 years later the building was pronounced finished in 1990. But just 21 years later it suffered $20,000,000 in damage from a rare earthquake, and repairs are still being made to the magnificent building.
And certainly, the National Cathedral is a magnificent building with a magnificent organ that, unfortunately, was also badly damaged in the 2011 earthquake. The “Great Organ” was installed in 1938 and last upgraded in 1975. It has more than 10,600 pipes!
Many years ago, I stood in the center aisle listening to the organ postlude, and I was so overcome by the beauty of the Cathedral and the power of the organ music that tears began to trickle down my cheeks.
Questioning the National Cathedral
Despite my fondness for the National Cathedral, I have questions about it because of the separation of church and state issue that I wrote about briefly in my July 25 blog article.
In 1791, Pierre L'Enfant drew up plans for a “federal city” and presented them to President Washington. Those plans for the city that became Washington, D.C., included the idea of “a great church for national purposes.”
The idea was to have a church in the U.S. that plays a role similar to England’s Westminster Abbey. That Abbey was re-established in 1560 as an Anglican church responsible directly to the English monarch.
There is no question about the lack of separation of church and state in England. To the extent that the National Cathedral is similar to Westminster Abbey—and who could deny that in many ways it is—how can it not also border on the infringement of the principle of church and state?
Applauding the National Cathedral’s Statement
In my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, I suggest that the phrase “a free church in a free state” is perhaps better than “separation of church and state.”
That being the case, it seems clear that the National Cathedral, despite hosting prayer services for the last five presidential inaugurations, including that for DJT in 2017, the clergy of the Cathedral evidently feel completely free to criticize the President.
Bishop Mariann Budde (b. 1959)
On July 30, Bishop Budde, as well as the dean and the canon theologian of Washington Cathedral, made public a 670-word statement titled, “Have We No Decency? A Response to President Trump” (If you haven’t read it yet, click here to see the full statement.) 
That was a powerful response to DJT’s highly objectionable tweets about Rep. Elijah Cummins and the city of Baltimore on July 27. Among other things, the leaders of the National Cathedral declared, “Make no mistake about it, words matter. And, Mr. Trump’s words are dangerous.”
They closed, then, with this noteworthy statement:
On January 21, 2017, Washington National Cathedral hosted an interfaith national prayer service, a sacred tradition to honor the peaceful transfer of political power. We prayed for the President and his young Administration to have “wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties that they may serve all people of this nation, and promote the dignity and freedom of every person.”
That remains our prayer today for us all.


  1. I had a better feel for it, and partook in communion with them back before the Anglicans were excommunicated from the Province in a non-canonical manner. They have their issues as well.

  2. I have always been intrigued and enamored with the National Cathedral. My love of all things British has certainly contributed to this. It is an extraordinary space. My longtime friend Bill Riggs went to a couple of elderhostels at the Cathedral back in the 90s where he studied its history, among other topics.

    While it is a functioning /arish/congregation, I do appreciate having a space for national occasions. And those services can accommodate any religious tradition--or the lack there of--if necessary. The fact that it is a seat for an Episcopal bishop is separate (for me) from its occasional use as a national gathering space for solemn events. This is why the existence/use of a national cathedral has not been a church/state issue for me.

    With regard to the recent statement by the Cathedral staff, I believe it's important they feel they can speak on issues such as they did. I regret that other religious leaders (even local congregations) didn't feel they could speak out on this until this statement made it okay/more safe to do. I appreciate that they spoke up on a moral and religious issue and didn't cave in to the argument that it was only a political issue.

  3. Local Thinking Friend Vern Barnet's brief, pertinent comment:

    "You didn't solve my cognitive dissonance, but you illustrated it very well. Thanks."

    1. Thanks for your comment, Vern.

      I'm not sure how the problem could be solved, but perhaps recognizing that there is a problem is the first step toward working toward a solution.

  4. Here are comments from local Thinking Friend Bob Leeper, who writes from the viewpoint of an agnostic:

    "Leroy, as conflicted as I am at entering cathedrals and mega churches, I can attest their awesomeness; I recall in 1967 standing in the st. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th avenue in New York; a non-believer struck by the majesty and heraldry of the place. Thanks for your studied perspective on these important topics."

  5. Comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments about the National Cathedral in Washington and for sharing some of the remarks by Bishop Budde.

    "I have been to the National Cathedral, where Woodrow Wilson is buried, along with his second wife, Edith. It is a magnificent structure. And not to be outdone, as the Roman Catholic church erected Westminster Cathedral a few blocks from Westminster Abbey in London, the RCC erected the National Shrine (Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception) in Washington. It is also a magnificent structure."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Eric.

      In addition burial service for Pres. Wilson, the Cathedral has hosted four State Funerals (Eisenhower, Reagan, Ford, G.H.W. Bush) and seven presidential Memorial Services.

      Regarding size, the RCC basilica in D.C. you mentioned is purported to be the largest church building in the world, whereas the National Cathedral is #23 on that list on Wikipedia.

  6. Here is the opening paragraph of a longer email from Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona:

    "You must forgive me for my slowness, but I failed to see your point regarding church-state separation. Does the National Cathedral receive any support from the government? That would be crossing the line. Be that as it may, I am not a strong separationist as I believe government and religion can work together in areas of mutual concern such as human services. (See my book, "Church-State Cooperation Without Domination") Certainly there have been terrible abuses in church-state relations that continue today. I agree with former Chief Justice William Rehnquist who commented on Thomas Jefferson's "Wall of Separation." He describes the wall as a " metaphor based on bad history, which has proved useless as a guide to judging. . .it should be frankly and explicitly abandoned" (Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985). Part of the "history" Justice Rehnquist was referring to was the fact that in Europe and colonial America, the government took care of dependent and homeless children but used church wardens to distribute the funds. The issue is one of boundaries. Jesus' words are clear, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are God's." (Mark 12:17) Peter and Paul both urged respect for leaders in government and both were executed by the government."

  7. I was happy to receive the following comments from Thinking Friend Andrew Bolton in England:

    "A great blog on the National Cathedral. When I stood in it some years ago I marveled at the size; it makes the cathedrals I am familiar with in the United Kingdom seem small.

    "British Anglican cathedrals and also parish churches display memorials to soldiers and wars. Regimental colours hang in them. As state church cathedrals they worship the nation. The supreme governor is the monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II. Westminster Abbey recently had a service of thanksgiving for 50 years of the British nuclear deterrent. There were many protests about that.

    "I too am ambiguous about the National Cathedral but I wholeheartedly applaud their speaking truth to power against President Trumps racist language. Thank you for your excellent blog."

  8. Here are comments from local Thinking Friend Bill Ryan, specifically about the statement issued by the clergy at National Cathedral:

    "Thanks for the link to the statement, 'Have You No Decency.' I am old enough to remember very well the so-called McCarthy era and watched Edgar R. Murrow's CBS expose of McCarthy, which was the primary act that put an end to that fear monger. Americans generally have such limited knowledge of our own history that we seem to have to witness similar dysfunctions generation after generation. We seem to have forgotten, for example, why we fought WWII and what it was we fought against."

  9. My parents moved our family to northern Virginia in 1965, and as a result I had several opportunities to visit the then under construction cathedral. As an impatient teenager I was impressed by the glacial progress of building it. Then again, I am now terrified of the glacial progress of glaciers. Oh, the ironies of life!

    In 2000 I had occasion to look at the church-state issue as it applies to buildings when Liberty High School held graduation for my oldest child's class in the RLDS Auditorium in Independence, Missouri. Many schools have held graduations there for decades, but I learned something amazing in the lead-up to my son's graduation. My father's class at William Chrisman in Independence held their graduation in the old Memorial Building's cramped space. Afterwards, my Uncle Frank declared his class was going to hold theirs in the much more generous space of the RLDS Auditorium. So he got himself elected President of the Student Council, went to work on the School Board, the RLDS leadership (family was RLDS), and the Independence city government. His class was the first ever to hold its graduation in the Auditorium. I was amazed to hear the story, for about all I knew about Uncle Frank was that he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, not all that far from the National Cathedral. Suddenly the picture of the young man in uniform on my grandfather's wall came to life. In the short time he had before he gave all in the liberation of France, he had profoundly changed the midwestern world I was living in, and I did not even know it.

    I am not bothered by religious groups lending or renting their buildings to government functions that need a large space, as long as it is done in a relatively neutral way and provides a service the government actually needs. Just as the RLDS (now Community of Christ) Auditorium is only one of several venues used for graduations around Kansas City, I would feel better if other sites around Washington were invited to share in rotation with the National Cathedral for events where their facilities were appropriate.

    I happened to see Bishop Budde in a discussion on the news (PBS) with Richard Land last night. He was dancing in circles (though not around her) as he squirmed through her prophetic criticism of Trump. Surely Evangelicals have made God's name stink among the gentiles. I wonder where the next generation of Christians will come from, with so many running for the exits. Christianity needs a major retooling if it to find a future.