Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Unique Case of our National Cathedral

As I discuss in this week's edition of Anglican Unscripted, Washington's National Cathedral is a hybrid creature: it is not owned by any parish or Diocese of the Episcopal Church (USA), but is owned by a public charitable trust, called the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation. The Foundation was established by a charter from the United States Congress, enacted in January 1893 and signed into law by the outgoing President Benjamin Harrison, to facilitate the project of raising funds for the construction of a cathedral and religious education center that would be suited to the nation's capital.

The idea for a national cathedral had first been conceived by the French planner Pierre l'Enfant, who had been commissioned by President George Washington in 1791 to lay out the design for what in 1800 became the city of Washington in the District of Columbia. Major l'Enfant set aside a site ("Lot D") in his plan for what he imagined as a non-denominational religious center (see the detailed notes and plan at the end of this article):
This church is intended for national purposes, such as public prayer, thanksgivings, funeral orations, etc., likewise a proper shelter for such monuments as were voted by the late Continental Congress for those heroes who fell in the cause of liberty and for such others as may hereafter be decreed by the voice of a grateful nation.
But nothing came of that idea, and in 1836 construction began on the Old Patent Office Building at the site, which now houses the National Portrait Gallery.

While the Episcopal Church began to re-examine its structure and governing documents following its centennial in 1889, a movement began at the same time among prominent parishes in the District of Columbia to erect a suitable cathedral for the nation's capital. This movement, led by the Church of the Epiphany, began with the chartering of the Foundation in 1893, and next the formation in 1895 of a new Diocese of Washington. The latter was created by carving out of the Diocese of Maryland the area of the District of Columbia, together with the Maryland counties of Montgomery, Prince George's, Charles, and St. Mary's. The new diocese elected as its first bishop the Right Reverend William Satterlee, who immediately took up the cause for a cathedral and became its driving force.

Under Satterlee's leadership, the Foundation first acquired 30 acres for a cathedral on Mt. St. Alban, a prominent site overlooking the city, and the location already of the existing parish of St. Alban's. Additional acreage was purchased over the years, as funds became available. (One of the chief contributors was Charles Glover, the president of the no-longer-extant Riggs Bank, but which at the time was the largest bank in Washington.) Fundraising for such a project took considerable time, however. In 1906, the Foundation hired England's leading Anglican church architect, George Frederick Bodley, to design the building; one of his followers who had come to America, Henry Vaughan, was hired as the supervising architect.

Just one year later, in 1907, the Foundation held a grand ceremony to lay the cornerstone, which an estimated fifteen to twenty thousand people attended, and at which both the Bishop of London and President Theodore Roosevelt gave an address. (Although many of his predecessors were Episcopalians, and attended services at Episcopal churches in the District, Roosevelt was the first of many Presidents to be connected with the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, to give the building its full proper name.) The cornerstone, a huge block of American granite, incorporated a stone which had been brought from a field next to the Church of the Holy Nativity, in Bethlehem, and inscribed on it were the words from John 1:14 -- "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us."

Bishop Satterlee died in 1908, but his successors kept the project going. The cornerstone of the Bethlehem Chapel was laid in 1910, and the first services were held there in 1912. There was a brief hiatus in the fundraising during World War I, and by the time the War was over, both Henry Vaughan and Frederick Bodley had passed away, as well. The Foundation selected an American, Philip Hubert Frohman, as the head architect. He would work continuously on the project for the next fifty years of his life, and is considered the principal author of the Cathedral's final design. The son of the designer of New York's Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., was hired to lay out the landscaping for the Cathedral Close.

Work on the Cathedral did not finish until eighty-three years later, with the completion of the west towers in 1990, when a ceremony was held at which President George H. W. Bush delivered the dedicatory address. Both he and his son, President George W. Bush, held their inaugural prayer services there. There are many more people associated with the building's long history, including the amazing Rowan Le Compte, who at the age of sixteen designed a stained glass window for the Cathedral. He and his wife Irene subsequently went on to do many more windows and colorful mosaics for the interior, and at age 81 he was still at work on designs, as related in this informative article.

As I explained on Anglican Unscripted, the Cathedral, its schools and its grounds, as well as its bank accounts, prayer books, organ and altar cloths, are uniquely exempt from the language of the Dennis Canon, since they are all owned by a public charitable trust, whose charter dedicates it to a much broader purpose than just serving the Episcopal Church (USA). Nevertheless, the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul serves simultaneously as the see both of the Bishop of Washington and (since 1940, as adopted by a concurrent resolution of General Convention) of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church -- who by a canonical change in 1943 was for the first time required to resign from his diocese upon being elected.

There began shortly afterward, during the term of the Rt. Rev. Henry Knox Sherrill which began in 1947, that slow process of "primatial creep" which transformed the Presiding Bishop's office, with its mushrooming staff, into a major institution of its own in the Church, as I described in this earlier post. And, now, despite the definitive rejection of a proposal at General Convention in 1946 to create a territorial see in Washington for the Presiding Bishop, and the defeat of a later proposal to turn the Presiding Bishop into the equivalent of a metropolitan archbishop, we have nonetheless arrived at that result via a little-noticed change made by the newly adopted disciplinary canons of Title IV, as I discussed in this post.

Thus while the Presiding Bishop has no Diocese, he/she still has a cathedra -- an episcopal chair in the National Cathedral, and all ceremonies of installation to that office take place there. In recent years, however, the Cathedral's budget has shrunk considerably, and more than half of its staff have been laid off. Its most recent Dean, the Very Rev. Dr. Samuel T. Lloyd III, is returning in September to his parish at Trinity Church in Boston's Copley Square. Nevertheless, the Cathedral has balanced its budget and begun a nationwide campaign for support through the newly re-launched National Cathedral Association.

Plans for a stable future have now been shaken, both literally and figuratively. The recent Virginia earthquake caused significant damage to the masonry of the Cathedral, as can be seen in the gallery of pictures at the Cathedral's Website. Apparently there was no insurance, due to the scarcity of earthquakes on the East Coast. Raising the millions needed for repairs will once again devolve on the shoulders of the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, which has a notable Board of Trustees, and should be up to the task. Donations to the cause may be made at this page, where the photographs of the damage can be seen.

[UPDATE 09/07/2011: While I deplore the current blinkered attitude of those in charge of the Cathedral and what goes on there, I draw a distinction between the people in charge and the building which they mismanage. That building, as my post above shows, has a long and distinguished history, and embodies the love and professionalism of many dedicated and highly talented individuals. The damage to it done by the recent earthquake may be repaired on its own merits by making contributions for that sole purpose, without thereby signaling approval or ratification of the Diocese's misguided policies. The building will continue to be a national monument long after the current multicultural craziness has ceased to be a factor in its image.]


  1. I have been wrestling with this. On the one hand, it is a national treasure, and in some sense, has a semi-independent existence from TEC. On the other had, the church I attend was one of many which left TEC under less than cordial circumstances. Construction is in progress on the new building, and funds are still being raised for basic furnishings. I would like to help the National Cathedral, but a donation there which might pay for a coat of paint would help furnish the altar here.

  2. You may set your conscience at ease with the old maxim, "Charity begins at home," Tregonsee. By the same token, the first duty to donate to repair the Cathedral falls on the members of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington; and then on Episcopalians everywhere. Those no longer in the Church are a distant third, and may at least be assured that any gift will go back into the Cathedral, and not to fund litigation against departing parishes and dioceses.

  3. I lived in Alexandria from 1977-1982 and visited the Cathedral fairly often. I even had a chance to read a lesson on Virginia Sunday one year, a sobering honor. It was a beautiful place and the bookstore offered some great books on the Christian faith, some a little loopy but many sound.

    I have been back a few times since those days. The bookstore has gone the way of all flesh and is filled with heresy. The sermons seem to be totally political. And there is a huge confusion of God's promise to make his house a place of prayer for all nations (meaning that those from all nations would worship the Triune God) with the idea that all faiths can and should pray there. It is no longer a place of Christian worship, however beautiful it may have been before the earthquake.

  4. I lived in Alexandria from 1977 to 1982 and I used to go to the cathedral from time to time, sometimes to worship and sometimes simply because it was such a beautiful spot. The bookstore carried quite a few orthodox books.

    I was last there in 1990 for a College of Preachers seminar (with Paul Zahl). The bookstore had gone new age and there may have been a few CS Lewis books, but otherwise nothing orthodox. I can only imagine how much worse it has gotten since.

    "My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations" has been twisted from its original meaning (that men and women from all nations will pray to the living and true God) to mean that worship of any and all gods is fine.