On January 22, 2013, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden began their second term in office by attending the presidential inaugural prayer service at Washington National Cathedral. Accompanied by family members, they marked the fifty-seventh inauguration with members of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

On the coldest morning in the nation’s capital in more than two years, some 2,000 invited guests shivered in the single-digit winds that whipped across the Cathedral’s west entrance as they queued to pass through security screenings. Cathedral Carillonneur Edward Nassor
played American patriotic music on the 53-bell carillon
as they arrived.

Red, white, and blue flowers continued the patriotic theme within the Cathedral. Red Gerbera daisies and roses, blue agapantha and delphinium, white germini, lisianthus, daisy mums, and anthurium—and tea leaves symbolizing good luck—cascaded from monumental urns and adorned the Canterbury Pulpit and lectern.

William Walton’s stirring Crown Imperial brought pomp to the organ prelude, echoed by a selection of American music played by the Brass Ensemble of the “President’s Own” United States Marine Band, directed by Col. Michael J. Colburn, including Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. The Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS) Children of the Gospel Choir, who also sang at President Obama’s first inaugural prayer service, sang two pieces under the direction of Michele Fowlin to close the prelude, just as the president himself arrived.

One Nation under God

The Rev. Gina Gilland Campbell, the Cathedral’s director of worship, worked closely with the Presidential Inaugural Committee and Joshua DuBois, then special assistant to the president and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, to design the interfaith service of music, readings, and prayer. “The most rewarding part of preparing the service,” said Campbell, “was the surprisingly rich and deep dialogue experienced in working with our interfaith partners to bring their own way of praying into the service. Above all, we wanted to be respectful of the faith traditions represented, while maintaining the form and function of the liturgy itself.”

Campbell arranged the liturgy to include participants chosen by the White House and to use the nave meaningfully. She placed the Christian, Hebrew, and Muslim chanted calls to prayer to the mid-nave so they would “evolve as a natural progression of moving part of the liturgy into the midst of the people so they would be embraced by the surrounding sound.”

Colorful and distinctive vestments worn by the 23 participants reflected the unprecedented diversity of their faith traditions: Christians (Protestant, Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Greek Orthodox), Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and, for the first time, a Sikh. The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of Washington, and the Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Cathedral, offered the official Cathedral greeting in Spanish and English when the procession concluded.

The Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) offered an opening acclamation. The prayer for the day, read by the Rev. Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-chair of the National African American Clergy Network, preceded the singing of the National Anthem. The Rev. Elder Nancy L. Wilson, moderator of the University Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, read from Isaiah (55:6-11), marking the first time the predominantly gay denomination participated in a presidential inaugural service. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, led a responsive reading of Psalm 116:4-12, after which the Cathedral Choir sang John Rutter’s familiar setting of “For the Beauty of the Earth.”

Prayers for Those Who Govern

Cantor Mikhail Manevich of Washington Hebrew Congregation chanted the traditional Jewish Sh’ma Yisrael (Hear, O Israel) to invite prayers for those who govern, which were read by the Rev. Dr. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Kathryn Lohre, president of the National Council of Churches; and Imam Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America. His Eminence Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C., read from 2 Corinthians (4:6-10). First Lady Michelle Obama led a spontaneous standing ovation for the WPAS Children of the Gospel Choir after their performance of a contemporary pop anthem, “Determined to Go On.”

Prayers for Those Who Serve

Dr. Abdullah M. Khouj, president and imam of the Islamic Center in the District of Columbia, chanted a traditional Muslim call to prayer leading to prayers for those who serve. Offering those prayers were Sapreet Kaur, national executive director of the Sikh Coalition; the Rev. Charles Jenkins II, senior pastor of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago; and Dr. Stephen F. Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. The Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, delivered the third reading (Matthew 5:13-16) in Spanish and English.

Prayers for the People

Allison Mondel, Cathedral cantor, sang Hildegard of Bingen’s twelfth-century chant Nunc gaudeant as the invitation to the prayers for the people, which were read by Rabbi Sharon Brous, founding rabbi of IKAR Jewish Community; the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York; and His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America and exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The congregation then joined in the sermon hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

Compassion, Vision, and Perseverance

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kans., delivered the sermon. Dr. Hamilton wryly suggested that the president had missed his calling: “Unlike any other president that we’ve had, you have the ability to cast vision and inspire people. You should have been a preacher,” he said, to knowing laughter.

Noting that January 1, 2013, marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which earned Abraham Lincoln the sobriquet of Great Emancipator, Hamilton drew upon Moses (emancipator of the Hebrew people) for lessons in compassion, vision, and perseverance. Speaking directly to the president, he said, “Lead us, Mr. President, to be a compassionate people, concerned for the marginalized. Help us rediscover a vision for America that is so compelling that it unites us and calls us to realize the real potential of America to be that ‘shining city upon a hill.’ And, when you feel your lowest, don’t give up. Rather, wait upon the Lord and he will renew your strength.” As a meditation following the sermon, Dr. Wintley Phipps, bass-baritone and founder of the U.S. Dream Academy, sang the popular 1960s hit, “I Believe.”

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, offered a prayer for the nation. The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, senior pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, then led the Lord’s Prayer. In response, Canon Michael McCarthy’s poignant arrangement of “America the Beautiful” began with the voices of children, expanding into four-part harmony, and ultimately the whole congregation—accompanied by full organ and brass—singing of the “patriot dream that sees beyond the years.”

The service culminated with blessings given by Laila Muhammad, founder and executive director of Ash-Shamsiyyah/The Umbrella Family Service in Chicago, and by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism in New York. The Rev. Dr. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, of which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was pastor at the time of his assassination, closed the service with words from King’s last Sunday sermon delivered from the Canterbury Pulpit on March 31, 1968: “We must all learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we will all perish together as fools.”

The Washington Ringing Society attempted a quarter-peal in celebration of that most quintessential of America’s civic ceremonies—the quadrennial inauguration of a president of the United States.