American culture is highly individualistic. We Americans tend to personalize ethical decisions and appeal to the Bible for guidance about our individual moral decisions. But the Bible’s major ethical concerns are actually corporate, social ones: economic and social justice; the treatment of the poorest and most vulnerable; peacemaking at home and abroad. Those of us who lived through the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s remember a time when the mainline American faith community engaged in dialogue and action around that great social, moral issue. Those who have come into the church more recently have seen only the conservative, evangelical segment of Christianity at work in the political arena. So when a major faith institution such as Washington National Cathedral re-enters the public square, some understandably ask what religion has to do with politics.
Because our Constitution disallows the establishment of any one faith as America’s “official religion,” some have thought that the “separation of church and state” would relegate all religious activity to the private, personal, individual sphere. While that impulse is an understandable one, it betrays a shallow understanding both of the Constitution and the Bible. Not establishing one religion is not the same as saying religion has no role in public life, though there are those who would like to compartmentalize religion and isolate it from our ongoing social discussion, there is nothing in the historic Anglican way of understanding scripture or tradition to support that point of view.
Hence the occasion for this issue of Cathedral Age. In the following pages, we address two major questions that any mature faith community must consider: what are the key issues in our public life that demand our attention, and what does suffering look like from the victim’s point of view?
As to the first: because we are a cathedral church in an historically Anglican mode, Washington National Cathedral is the inheritor of a tradition that understands its life and ministry as centrally engaged in public life. A cathedral [from cathedra, bishop’s chair] is a bishop’s church, and the ministry of bishops in Western Christianity is essentially a public one. Bishops are the focal points for faith and ministry in our church, and their cathedrals have historically been the places where their public ministry is lived out. Because we are both the Washington and the National Cathedral, we are naturally concerned with social issues that have both a profound theological grounding and combined local and national impact. Gun violence, poverty, education, healthcare, human rights: these are religious, social issues that rightly claim the attention of a national and local cathedral church.
As to the second, suffering: in the Western intellectual tradition, we are accustomed to examining issues abstractly, from a distance. No one can read the interviews with survivors of gun violence in this edition of Cathedral Age and come away untouched. Christianity is an incarnational religion, one that understands truth to be embodied both in a person (Jesus) and in the human community. Because gun violence has emerged as the primary religious and social issue of our moment, we feel it is essential that we look beyond the policy questions to the cost of gun violence on particular human lives.
A longtime priest friend of mine is fond of observing that a mature faith community, like a healthy family, can talk about sex, money, and politics. As a church striving to be a spiritual home for the nation, Washington National Cathedral strives to be a mature faith community as well. In the following pages you will encounter a history of that maturational process as lived out in the ministries that have gone before us in this wonderful place. I hope you will find strength and encouragement for your own prayerful engagement in our public life.