Over the course of Washington National Cathedral’s history, several deans have gone to England to visit cathedrals. Some made those trips to forge companion relations with such great churches; others did so to cement bonds of friendship and common mission. Every dean who made one of these journeys spoke highly of the depth and importance of the experience for his own ministry at home.

Thanks to a generous gift that made our trip possible, Kathy and I spent the first two weeks of May in England visiting six cathedrals: Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s, and Southwark in London; and outside the metropolis the cathedrals of Salisbury, Canterbury, and Manchester. The purpose of my journey was not so lofty as those of my predecessors: it’s fair to say that I went to improve how I understand my job.

I began my current work as dean on October 1, 2012. By October 3 or 4, it had become clear to me that I didn’t know as much as I would need to about the culture and mission of cathedrals. I had been on the staff, of or rector of, some very large parishes; had served as dean and president of an Episcopal seminary; and in Los Angeles had even worked on the staffs of two bishops—but I had never actually worked in or for a cathedral. All of the experience I had prior to coming to Washington had equipped me for leading a large and complex institution like ours, but despite such preparation I still felt that a sense of how an Anglican cathedral understands its mission and ministry was lacking. The solution? I needed to see some English cathedrals in their context.

There are 43 Anglican cathedrals in the United Kingdom, and Kathy and I knew that it would be impossible to visit every single one, but it was difficult to narrow the list down to only six. Because our Cathedral was founded, in part, to be the “Westminster Abbey for America,” a visit to Westminster seemed obvious. But what about the others: Ely, Winchester, Gloucester, Norwich, and Durham? With my then-assistant Sheri Jackson’s expert help, Kathy and I ultimately chose to narrow our list to places that shared some core aspect of Washington National Cathedral’s mission. We chose St. Paul’s in London because it is both a major tourist attraction and a diocesan cathedral. Salisbury and Canterbury are similarly iconic in English (and worldwide Anglican) religious life. Southwark and Manchester, perhaps the two least likely, are doing important and transformative urban ministry. We certainly missed some tourist gems, but the six cathedrals we visited all embodied a part of what Washington National Cathedral seeks to do.

Following are the five lessons that were most important for me, both personally and professionally.

1. Habits before Policies

Washington National Cathedral is a complex institution: we have multiple programs and departments, hundreds of volunteers, and around 100 full-time employees. A large part of our work involves coordinating and prioritizing work between and among competing claims for time, space, resources, and energy. Those considerations were in mind when the staff asked that I come back with written policy statements from our English counterparts regarding how they choose between competing priorities. Closing the Cathedral for a funeral or a wedding involves canceling tours and turning away visitors, after all, and both worship and visitor services are part of our mission. How do English cathedrals decide?

When I posed these questions to my English dean friends, they all looked at me as if I were speaking Esperanto. One simply said to me: “We have no policies. I just decide.” Now before you assume that the dean was being merely authoritarian, it helps to know that the Church of England requires its clergy to gather for both Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer daily. At Westminster Abbey they’ve been praying together as clergy and lay staff colleagues for around 1,000 years. At Canterbury Cathedral they have been taking attendance at the Daily Offices since the Reformation. They can tell you, with absolute accuracy, who was present for Evensong on a particular day in 1669.

The Anglican emphasis on daily corporate prayer arises from the Benedictine spirituality of the Reformers. Because these cathedral communities are primarily praying communities, they have evolved Benedictine habits of discernment, value, and mission. Rather than policies, they have developed habits. They have internalized the Benedictine values of hospitality and balance so thoroughly that they are able to arrive at an operational consensus almost without thinking. One dean said to me that the Benedictine ethos—a unity of body, mind, and spirit lived out in hospitality and community—was central to everything they did. They are able to do what they do where they do because of their longtime habits of prayer and reflection.

2. Relationships before Programs

As Washington National Cathedral seeks to refocus its missional life around both “Faith and Public Life” and “Interfaith Collaboration,” our natural tendency has been to ask what specific programs we should develop. Indeed, the Chapter’s Program Committee is even now hard at work developing a programmatic agenda that will enable us to live into an ambitious vision of what we can offer the nation and our local community to have transformative impact on our world.

At one of the cathedrals we visited, I asked a senior canon about their programmatic life. He handed me a compelling set of brochures organized around important issues of faith and policy that have intriguingly been targeted to particular constituencies in the metropolitan area. After describing these to me in detail, he then said, “You Americans are very keen on designing programs. We Brits start with developing relationships.”

Other than the lived reality of the prayer life that so deeply impressed me in England, I would say that the second aspect of U.K. cathedral life that most engaged me was this propensity toward developing relationships—with other faith communities, with civic and business leaders, with governmental agencies and non-profits. The programs put on by cathedrals in the U.K. all arise out of what we might call a deep relational conversation, one that both grounds them and gives them a network of connections that will enable their programs to bear fruit. In the U.S., we tend to be better at the “one-off” kind of symposium than the long-haul, transformational engagement I saw in England. In this respect we have some work to do, I believe, to catch up with what our English colleagues are doing.

3. Safe Is Not Neutral

The Chapter asked me to do several things when I came to Washington National Cathedral, two of which might at first sound contradictory. They asked me to use the Cathedral as a “convening space” where people of diverse religious, political, and ideological commitments could come together and find common ground. They also asked me to use the pulpit to address important issues of the day as those concern Christian faith and practice. The two are both obviously priorities, yet they seem to go in opposite directions. How do we both convene and advocate at the same time?

The tension between convening and advocacy has always been central to our Cathedral’s life. Our deans have spoken out on public issues (civil rights in Dean Sayre’s day being the most prominent), and they have also used the Cathedral as a forum for airing different perspectives. But in fact every English cathedral I visited shared some form of Washington National Cathedral’s dilemma—sometimes dramatically, as English deans well known to speak prophetically knew that their cathedrals had to represent the country’s “Established Church”at the same time.

I discussed this tension with a senior staff member at one cathedral, and I found it helpful when he reminded me that “to be a safe space is not necessarily to be a neutral space.” He went on to elaborate: “When you are hosting a discussion—either in your home or a public forum—you owe it to your guests to let them know where you stand.” Because of its location, his cathedral hosts numerous forums on public policy. But it does not do so out of a presumed “neutral” position: it begins from the assumption that Christian ethical and social values arise out of solidarity with, and concern for, the poor and most vulnerable in society. The implications for Washington National Cathedral’s stance on public policy matters (gun violence, marriage equality, early childhood education, veterans’ issues) are clear. We can stand for and with those whom the Gospel demands we embrace, and we can also convene conversations encompassing multiple points of view. As it turns out, “convening versus advocacy” is in some ways a false choice.

4. A Place of Engagement

A number of recent studies have shown that English cathedrals are growing in attendance, membership, and giving even as parish churches continue to decline. There are several possible explanations for this trend, but the most compelling to me comes from a dean who noted that “a cathedral is a place of engagement.” This dean went on to observe that cathedrals, as public centers for their communities, bring many diverse groups and experiences together. They host liturgies, concerts, art installations, public forums, and community fairs. As a consequence, people can enter the life of a cathedral from multiple points and participate in ways tailored to their interests. Parish churches tend to expect (or demand) total participation in all aspects of their ministry. One can attend all or part of a cathedral’s offering to be considered incorporated in its life.

Because of their size, cathedrals can also offer more than a simple range of experiences: they can offer those experiences at a very high quality. Although this may sound elitist, cathedrals can present worship, educational, cultural, and programmatic offerings characterized by an excellence that smaller institutions cannot provide. We should seize on the opportunity that our resources offer and use it as a way to build relationships with congregations and dioceses around the country.

5. The Heart of Its City

Of all the visits Kathy and I made to English cathedrals, our last stop in Manchester was perhaps the most transformative. Manchester Cathedral is located at the center of the city’s downtown, and Dean Rogers Govendor (along with Development Director Anthony O’Connor) have used its location and resources to fashion a network of relationships with the government, business, and non-profit sectors that is truly astounding. In our two days in Manchester, Kathy and I saw the cathedral in action throughout all parts of its city: a job training center and a community organizing group in the Mossside (south side) neighborhood; a round-table gathering of business leaders in the city’s financial district; a meeting of elected officials (including the Lord Mayor) at the city hall; an art installation featuring images of the cathedral in the arrivals hall at Manchester International Airport. In all of these venues, the dean and the development director were intimately involved in the city’s life. Manchester Cathedral is a model of a house of prayer that lives out its ministry through collaboration with the institutions and constituencies of the community’s life. You cannot experience Manchester without realizing that its cathedral is the very heart of the city.

Whether in this way or in others, each cathedral we visited embodies some aspect of Washington National Cathedral’s ministry. Westminster Abbey is the spiritual home of the British nation. St. Paul’s, Salisbury, and Canterbury are diocesan cathedrals serving as both cultural/tourist attractions and missional life. Southwark and Manchester are urban cathedrals serving the full range of the diverse populations of their communities. For Kathy and me, the opportunity to visit six English cathedrals was a unique and irreplaceable gift. The only way to serve as dean of the Cathedral we know and love is, in Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde’s words, to “embrace it in all its complexity.” Cathedrals are one part church, one part university, one part social service agency, one part arts organization. At the same time they enact a bishop’s apostolic ministry, the church’s liturgical and musical ministry, a central role in the life of their city, and programmatic and ministerial outreach to the world. I embrace Washington National Cathedral as all of these and more, and I am deeply grateful for the hospitality and generosity that allowed me to gain a new perspective on our national and local calling.