When Major Pierre L’Enfant, the French-born architect and engineer, conceived a plan for the capital of our new nation in 1791, he envisioned that somewhere in the city there would be what he called “a great church for national purposes.” Such a church came into being when the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation was chartered by Congress a century later. The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, also known as Washington National Cathedral has been living into L’Enfant’s vision ever since – but not without a certain ambivalence. It’s about the ambiguous mission of this cathedral, its vocational dilemma, really, that I want to speak this morning. The topic is of more than parochial interest, I think, for a similar vocational ambivalence is found across a wide swath of the American religious scene today.
* * *
Without doubt, the monumental size and magnetic beauty of the completed cathedral and its unparalleled location overlooking the capital of the most powerful nation in the world magnify and enhance the original idea of “a great church for national purposes.” But a great church is more than an impressive building. Over time, two specific and fundamental purposes have emerged out of L’Enfant’s grand vision. One role is pastoral, the other is prophetic.
Pastorally, the Cathedral is uniquely positioned to gather the nation together at times of celebration or sorrow. Prophetically, the Cathedral’s freedom from congregational constraints enables it to be an open and safe space for the exploration of new ideas and the expression of cautionary or critical words to those in power and to the culture in general. The medium of television now extends the reach of these twin purposes as never before. Such large tasks are daunting, however, and fraught with the lurking dangers of triumphalism and self-righteousness.
Two recent Cathedral events bring the pastoral-prophetic tension into sharp focus. A week ago Friday, the day after the inauguration of President George W. Bush, the Cathedral hosted an ecumenical prayer service on behalf of the nation and the new administration. This was the fifty-fifth such service in the history of the country. In recent years a number of them have been held here. Heightened fears about security, evident in all the other inaugural events this year, turned the service into a ticketed and carefully controlled event, making it less of a public occasion than the Cathedral prefers. In the past the Episcopal Church has been semi-humorously described as the Republican Party at prayer. Although the Church is far more diverse these days than it once was, on this particular occasion the old description seemed to hold. In any case, the event was an important expression of the religious community’s pastoral concern for the strength and integrity of the nation and the nation’s leadership.
* * *
On Martin Luther King Day, five days before the Inaugural Prayer Service, the Cathedral presented a program called “Soul Force.” The title was extrapolated from one of Dr. King’s principles: “Instead of physical force,” he said, “we should use soul force to change the world.” The program addressed the problem of pervasive violence among young people in the District of Columbia, as well counterproductive violence in international relations. As part of the day, we invited the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker social action agency, to bring its “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit to the Cathedral. The exhibit demonstrated the human cost of the war in Iraq by placing along the north aisle of the nave more than 1300 pairs of combat boots to mark the number of American soldiers killed in the war, and a large pile of ordinary shoes to mark the deaths of countless Iraqis. Whether or not one is a pacifist, which I am not, the exhibit’s prophetic message was powerful in terms of shedding light on the personal price being paid for a war that has sharply divided the nation and the world.
The question for Washington National Cathedral—and indeed for the entire Christian church—is how to keep the two sides of its fundamental mission in balance. Although the analogy may be imperfect because of its paternalistic overtones, the dilemma is not unlike the relationship of a parent to a child. How does one balance nurture and support on the one hand with essential discipline on the other? To what extent should the church’s prophetic vocation override its pastoral concern? When should pastoral instinct ameliorate righteous judgment? Today’s gospel reading may help us unwrap these enigmas.
Rome levied two kinds of taxes on the Jews. A property tax was on the books, but it only affected a limited number of land owners. The other levy was a broad gauged head tax on every individual, payment of which clearly signified submission to Roman authority. The coin especially minted for this purpose was the silver denarius, an amount equivalent to a day’s wage. It bore the likeness of Caesar, who the Romans considered to be divine. This particular tax carried a double whammy. It offended the religious sensibilities of the Jews (there is no other God but Yahweh) and it stirred up the nationalistic yearnings of a conquered people.
The question about the propriety of paying the head tax was meant to put Jesus on the spot. If he said it was permissible, he could lose his popular appeal to pious Jews and ardent nationalists. If he said it was not permissible, he would get in trouble with the Roman overlords, who were suspicious of this charismatic rabbi anyhow. It was a classic no-win situation for Jesus.
Characteristically, he responded to the question obliquely. He asked his interrogators to show him a coin. He didn’t seem to be carrying money himself, perhaps because of the idolatrous nature of Roman coinage. Seeing the proffered denarius, but not touching it, Jesus asked whose likeness was on it, though he of course knew full well. They told him it was Caesar, which prompted one of our Lord’s most memorable and enduring pronouncements: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” [v. 21]
This group of Pharisees and Herodians, Matthew tells us, were “amazed” at this response. “Confused,” “perplexed” or even “thoughtful” may be apt descriptions too, for Jesus laid down an uncomfortable challenge. Whether one is a Jew in the first century or a Christian in the twenty-first century, each individual must make a personal determination about the interplay of sacred and secular, faith and culture, religion and politics.
To be clear, what Jesus was not suggesting is that there are impervious spheres in God’s economy: a political realm concerned with the ordering and governance of society and a spiritual realm concerned with the personal morality and the inner life of religious people and institutions. History has shown us how disastrous this bifurcation can be. Nazi Germany, where established Christianity, for the most part, abdicated its prophetic role, is but one example. In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who formed Jesus theologically—and are meant to form us too—everything belongs to God, exists by God’s grace, and stands under God’s judgment. So while some authority devolves upon human instrumentalities for the ordering and well-being of God’s people, and should therefore be honored, in the final analysis all things do in fact belong to God and are to be governed by the standards of God’s Kingdom.
* * *
So the gospel teaches us that all authority in what we might call “the secular world,” including the political realm, is ultimately under the authority of God. That places those who are called to speak and act in God’s name under a huge burden. In my year and a half as vicar of the Cathedral, I have come to understand and appreciate how this great church for national purposes manages to bear that burden. I think it offers a paradigm for other churches and for individual Christians as well.
The key, I believe, rests in the definition given to the Cathedral by Bishop Henry Yates Satterlee, the first Bishop of Washington, who took L’Enfant’s vision and brought it into concrete reality. Or should I say limestone reality? Taking his inspiration from the prophetic tradition, from words of the prophet Isaiah echoed by Jesus in the cleansing of the temple, Satterlee declared that his cathedral would be “a house of prayer for all people.” That enduring motto defines the Cathedral’s receptivity to the contributions of new ideas and insights from many sources and its continuing commitment to prayerful discernment in all things. From this distinctive stance, I believe it is possible to cast a critical eye on the current scene with integrity, as long as prophetic vision is sharpened by a spirituality that is grounded in humility and dependent upon the continual guidance of God.
* * *
In actual practice the pastoral and prophetic tasks of this cathedral are far from separate. They are intertwined. To attempt to engage in one without the other would diminish the dreams of L’Enfant and Satterlee. The inauguration last year of the new Cathedral College, gives us an enlarged capacity to engage clergy and lay persons in thoughtful reflection on how to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to bear on a troubled world. But the College does not live in isolation from the pastoral life of the Cathedral. All who lead and participate in its programs also inhabit this house of prayer and are formed by it.
The pastoral life of the cathedral is carried out through a regular round of daily worship that totals more than 1800 services each year, through the Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage, which invites people into a deeper level of spirituality, and through the welcoming embrace of a very creative visitors program. These nurturing and renewing aspects of our work do not exist for their own sake, but rather to energize participants so that they may become prophets in their own way and make a difference for good where they live and work.
Tomorrow I complete my work as vicar of this cathedral. As I leave, I do so with this conviction: Insofar as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul is truly a house of prayer and discernment and is truly open to all people and to new possibilities under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then I am confident that it shall continue to grow into God’s vision of what it means to be a great church for national purposes.