If you walk under the massive dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, you will find a marble tablet on the floor beneath honoring Sir Christopher Wren, the building’s great architect. The inscription in Latin says, “Reader, if you seek his memorial, look around you.”
Today we gather to give thanks to God for one of the giants of this Cathedral’s life, Dean Francis B. Sayre, Jr. There are many heroes in the history of Washington National Cathedral’s first hundred years, both the well-known clergy and lay leaders, and the often unknown builders and workers, worshipers and volunteers, who have made our life what it is today. But Dean Sayre’s twenty-seven year tenure has in many ways left a permanent and in many ways defining legacy. “If you seek his memorial, look around you.” Look at the arches of this nave, at the splashing colors in the stained glass windows, at the soaring height of the central tower. They are Dean Sayre’s memorial.
There was something strange, almost surreal, about hearing of his death. For the nearly four years that I have been Dean, I have heard people of a certain vintage talk about Frank Sayre as if he had retired yesterday. They would speak in almost hushed tones. “Dean Sayre used to wear his hard hat every day around the construction site.” “You know, Dean Sayre marched in Selma.” “You know, it was Dean Sayre who worked out the iconography for so many of those triforium stained glass windows.” “Dean Sayre loved to rattle the cages of those politicians downtown.” “Nothing was going to stop Dean Sayre from finishing this Cathedral.” So for all the years I have been here, Dean Sayre was both absent, living in his beloved Martha’s Vineyard, and strangely present. In some ways, thirty years on, he still walks the aisles of this Cathedral.
Frank Sayre was a builder. His years as Dean saw more major construction than at any other time in the Cathedral’s history. He was a visionary, an imaginer, a designer. He was a brilliant iconographer, weaving the images and symbols of the Christian tradition into the stone, metal, and glass, to tell the great story of the faith. During his tenure the nave grew from this first bay all the way to the west end. He installed the bells, for which some of his neighbors such as Walter Lippman across the street cursed him publicly. He oversaw the creation of half of all the stained glass, including the great rose window and the much-loved space window.
Frank Sayre was well known to have argued with Bishop Angus Dun over whether to press on to finish the nave first or instead to complete the central tower. The practical thing would have been to get the nave completed, then worry about the decorations. But Dean Sayre believed that if they did that, the tower would never get built. And he was convinced that the inspiration of the great tower would ensure the nave’s completion. It was a risky call, but Frank Sayre never seems to have played it safe on much of anything.
But for all the glories of stone and glass he left behind, Dean Sayre was a builder in another, equally enduring way. He defined what it means for this Cathedral to offer a public voice to the nation. From the earliest days of his ministry to his last, he was a tireless spokesman for social justice, compassion, and for responsibility and honesty in political leaders. He used this Canterbury pulpit with the enthusiasm and moral fierceness of a Jeremiah or an Amos. In 1953, only two years into his deanship, he publicly condemned the McCarthyism sweeping the Congress and the country, and for that the post office delivered thousands of angry letters addressed to “The Red Dean of Washington.” He challenged the District of Columbia on segregated schools well before 1954. He publicly criticized the crusades of Billy Graham for ignoring the social dimension of human sin. He took a year’s leave of absence from the Cathedral to serve as chaplain with a combat unit in Vietnam and returned as a vocal critic of the War. In late 1973 he led an anti-war march from the Cathedral to the White House and soon after hosted Leonard Bernstein and the National Symphony performing Haydn’s “Mass in a Time of War.” He traveled to South Africa to oppose apartheid. This Cathedral as we know it now was profoundly shaped by Frank Sayre’s strong public voice on the issues of the day. The commitment today in this Cathedral to addressing the public issues of our day carries on that legacy.
In an interview in the Washington Post, Dean Sayre said, “Whoever is appointed the dean of a cathedral has in his hand a marvelous instrument, and he’s a coward if he doesn’t use it.” Sayre was no coward, and he knew how to use it. As one news reporter put it, there was “no better way to support a good cause than to get the Dean of Washington Cathedral behind it.”
It didn’t hurt that this grandson of Woodrow Wilson, born in the White House, came from a world of pedigree and privilege. After theological school he served as a Navy Chaplain in the Second World War, which seems to have connected this son of the ruling class with the lives of ordinary people. Frank Sayre was a big man physically. He was imperious, his friends would say, no nonsense, utterly convinced he was right, tireless in pursuing his agenda.
The gospel lesson we heard a few moments ago is the right one, especially for a Navy man, a story of a boat on the sea, a storm that terrifies, and a Lord who can be trusted in any storm to carry them through and says, “Peace! Be still!” Frank Sayre seemed to have a preternatural courage and confidence in the face of adversity, whether that be the financial storm that hit the Cathedral in the 1970’s or the political storms of three decades that consumed his interest and passion. Frank Sayre had the confidence of someone who genuinely trusted the Lord of the storm to sustain him.
His children will tell you what I gather many others realized, that the secret to Dean Sayre’s success was Harriet, his beloved wife. Harriet created a gracious life in their home on the Close that provided the rest and respite Frank needed for his ministry. The Sayre children grew up accustomed to seeing the full range of the human condition coming in their house for a meal. Sometimes a homeless man and a presidential candidate would land there at the same time. Harriet, the children agree, was essential to Frank’s ability to be who he was.
When Dean Sayre announced his retirement, letters began pouring in expressing gratitude for his remarkable ministry. I want to close by reading you some words written by journalist Hugh Sidey:
You may retire. But you will never leave the city. The cathedral is a physical monument to the grace and force of your character. But it is only the reminder of the deeper meaning that you brought to Washington, the nation. You brought reason and beauty and hope in what may have been the most difficult years of this century.
When I come to work down Wisconsin Avenue every morning and see the cathedral I always feel a little better. It presides over the entire city, anchoring all those other institutions to some higher purpose.
There is no way to measure or weigh or price what you have done. But I have pretty good instincts down inside and I am as certain as I have ever been that without your voice and your mind and your heart the blacks would not have come so far, the turmoil of Vietnam would have been greater and longer, the fragmentation of this city more pervasive.
As a matter of fact, your monument stands without a cathedral—you are a great and good man. But I also am profoundly grateful that the cathedral guides me along my way every day.
There is no way to measure or weigh or price what Frank Sayre has done. If you would see his memorial, look around you.
Thanks be to God for Frank Sayre. May light perpetual shine upon him.