The Washington National Cathedral is once again at the center of controversy, but this time it isn’t for political pronouncements from the pulpit. The Episcopal cathedral is garnering criticism from some Episcopalians – including within the Episcopal Diocese of Washington – for hosting a regular interfaith prayer service as part of festivities marking the U.S. Presidential Inauguration, and for agreeing to send its boys choir to perform at the Inauguration itself.
Sarah Bryan Miller at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has more:
In a statement, the cathedral’s chief communications officer, Kevin Eckstrom, said, “We do not pray or sing to bless a political ideology or partisan agenda. From its earliest days, the Cathedral was conceived as a ‘great church for national purposes,’ a place that could assist the nation in marking significant moments in our national life. For decades, the Cathedral choirs have participated in those moments, particularly when they involve the office of the president of the United States.
“The choir was invited to join the inaugural ceremonies as one of three choirs who were chosen to help celebrate the peaceful transfer of power and to honor the office of the president. [The Dean] accepted this invitation as part of our role to serve as a spiritual home for the nation.”
The performance, he said, is optional for members of the choir, and most will participate. The spokesman did not respond to inquiries about the number of singers who will take part, whether they will be paid or the repertoire.
The Post-Dispatch story goes on to quote Anne LeVeque, a vestry member at nearby Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring, Maryland who has concerns:
“We do this every four years, regardless of who the president is,” she said. “Celebrating the inauguration goes beyond that. In a very real sense, it’s honoring the person who is being inaugurated.”
Sarah Pulliam Bailey at the Washington Post reports that past Cathedral Dean Gary Hall is among the critics who oppose the cathedral’s role in the Trump inauguration:
“I think the faith community should be a center of resistance against Donald Trump’s vision in America,” Hall said, adding that he believes any participation in the inauguration legitimizes Trump.
Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry weighed in on Thursday with a statement, noting that there has been controversy “about the appropriateness of the Washington National Cathedral hosting the Inaugural Prayer Service this year, and of church choirs singing at inaugural events.”
“We can and, indeed, I believe we must pray for all who lead in our civic order, nationally and internationally. I pray for the President in part because Jesus Christ is my Savior and Lord. If Jesus is my Lord and the model and guide for my life, his way must be my way, however difficult. And the way prayer for others is a part of how I follow the way of Jesus.”
While the Washington National Cathedral is both the seat of the Bishop of Washington and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the church considers itself “a house of prayer for all people” and is regularly the site of funerals for former government officials and other ceremonies of American civil religion.
The Episcopal denomination, of which nearly one-quarter of all U.S. Presidents were affiliated with, has become increasingly liberal in recent decades. The church’s General Convention issues political pronouncements that typically align with the far left of the Democratic Party, and the Cathedral itself inserted itself into public conversation about gun control advocacy, same-sex marriage, voting rights and the Confederate battle flag.
Earlier this week a liberal Episcopal parish in Pasadena, California made news by announcing that it would no longer pray for the President of the United States by name in its Sunday liturgy, citing “an active danger to health and safety” of the congregation by using the name of President-Elect Donald J. Trump that may be a “trauma trigger” to some.
UPDATE [1/17/2017]: National Cathedral Dean Randy Hollerith writes: “I understand the strong disagreement many people have with the decisions to accept an invitation for the Cathedral choir to sing at the Inauguration and for the Cathedral to host the Inaugural Prayer Service. I am sorry those decisions have caused such turmoil and pain. Yet I stand by those decisions — not because we are celebrating the President-elect, but because we want to model for him, and the rest of the country, an approach to civility.”