Greetings to you in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ! This morning the Cathedral continues its celebration of Cathedral Day, an event begun yesterday with festivities on the Close, providing an opportunity for our Cathedral friends and neighbors to gather on this most sacred piece of land in all of Washington. Cathedral Day is a time to remember the past, embrace the present, and prepare for the future work and ministry of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, the Washington National Cathedral. As the eighth bishop of Washington and currently serving as dean of this, the sixth largest cathedral in the world, I welcome you to your Cathedral, and I embrace it also as the mother church of the 94 congregations and 46,000 souls who comprise the heart of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.
The great stone seat, known as the Glastonbury Throne located in the sanctuary of the Cathedral is the cathedra or “teaching seat” of the bishop of Washington and also serves as the cathedra of the current Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold. The cathedra was carved in 1900 from 20 hand hewn stones taken from the ancient Glastonbury Abbey in England and given to this Cathedral, symbolically connecting it to its ancient Anglican, Episcopal roots as a great cathedral within the Anglican Communion.
January 6, 1893, marked an important date in the life of this Cathedral for it was on this day, by an Act of Congress of the United States, that the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation was established. The foundation is still very much in existence today and has become an exciting body that represents the work and leadership of the National Cathedral School for Girls, Beauvoir Elementary School, St. Alban School for Boys, the College of Preachers, and the Cathedral, all of which are located on the more than 50 acres of land that make up this beautiful Cathedral Close.
It is important to understand that the Cathedral we worship in was indirectly made possible by the leadership of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and its bishop, William Paret, who divided the overly large Diocese of Maryland in half, thus creating a second diocese named after the first president of the United States. Bishop Paret took to heart the vision of Major l’Enfant, the French architect. Under the direction of George Washington, l’Enfant designed the new Federal City to be named after the first president. A part of this new city was to be a great church for national purposes. Bishop Paret, like l’Enfant, envisioned Washington becoming a significant new world center that needed its own great church. And so the Diocese of Washington was born. And after an unusual 11 ballots cast, Henry Yates Satterlee in 1895 was elected its first bishop. Even then the clergy of the diocese were a tough bunch when it came to voting and expressing their opinions about the new diocese and its first bishop.
Since altars have always been at the center of all religious, worship experiences, even before this Cathedral was built, it possessed a very special altar given in 1901. 12 large blocks of marble taken from the very quarry that provided marble for Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem were given to the Cathedral Foundation and crafted into an altar that is still today the Cathedral’s main altar, located in the sanctuary. The altar literally represents the very first building stones given in an international effort to build this great Cathedral and link it forever to the Holy City of Jerusalem. It is the opinion of this bishop that this significant symbolic gift to the Cathedral link it and all of us to active engagement in seeking a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine and using our broad influence and resources to bring peace as well to the conflicted, war-torn Middle East.
Cathedrals beyond being spectacular in their architectural style, size, and beauty derive their very identity from the Latin word “cathedra” or teaching seat of the bishop. Unfortunately in modern times, bishops are seen less and less connected to their cathedrals as other diocesan duties claim their time, especially Sunday visitations to all the congregations in the diocese. But this bishop chooses to challenge such contemporary history and thinking and will be far more actively involved and present in this great Cathedral.
The reason for such a change in Episcopal priorities is based on my love for cathedrals and the significant role that they should play in the great cities that they serve, the countries in which they reside, and the positive ethical and moral influences that they can have on an ever shrinking global community. This Cathedral, unlike parish congregations has a unique, national role to play in the lives of the people who make up the diversity of a new American culture; a culture less defined by community and more negatively impacted by the deconstruction of the healthy concepts of community and extended family. This Cathedral will engage itself in being a relevant, open, risk taking, hopeful place for the growth and enlightenment of the human soul in the twenty-first century.
In writing about his vision for the building of a great national cathedral, the first bishop of Washington, Henry Yates Satterlee believed that the two great commandments, loving God with all one’s heart soul and mind, and loving one’s neighbor as one’s self were core theological principles that must be lived into and taught as the center point of cathedral life. The Cathedral, he wrote, “must be an ongoing beacon of unceasing prayer and praise.” Jesus called upon the Temple of his time to be a House of Prayer For All People. Bishop Satterlee took the words of Jesus and amplified them as the phrase that still defines the life of this great Cathedral today.
Bishop Satterlee recognized the very nature of Washington as a transient town of statesmen, politicians, and government workers who had few civic and religious roots planted in the District’s turf. Who would raise the moral and ethical issues that impacted the District, its permanent citizens, and the general population of America affected by Washington decision-making? Bishop Satterlee believed that the Cathedral must act as the conscience and moral compass of the Federal Government, the District, and the nation. He is quoted as saying: “If there is one city where religious impressions need to be strengthened and religious principles upheld, it is in the Capital of our own country.
Satterlee saw that the Cathedral must also become a great global missionary center as well as a great center of teaching and learning, especially directed to the young. He also believed, as did those who preceded him in the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages, that cathedrals really belonged to the common folk. In the Middle Ages cathedrals were known as the “palaces of the poor,” a direct response to the opulent castles and living arrangements of the kings and princes of the time. Bishop Satterlee believed that this must also be true of the new Cathedral in Washington. Money and the financial influence of a few people should not direct or modify the principles of Cathedral life, outreach, preaching, and its ministry.
As a sidebar to the influence of the Cathedral and the role of the Episcopal Church in the formation of the new nation, Presidents George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, and Thomas Jefferson were all Episcopal churchmen. Likewise Benjamin Franklin and 34 of the 56 signers of the Constitution of the United States or 2/3’s of the signers were connected to the Episcopal Church in some way.
As a free church, not beholding to the government and fiercely standing as a reminder of the true separation of church and state, Bishop Satterlee said: “Cathedral preachers will be free, like Christ in the Temple, to rebuke class sins, the political sins, the national sins of the people; free to stand forth to denounce corruption, unpatriotisms, or immorality, whether in a dominant political party or in the highest rulers of the land. Think of the tremendous moral power of a great cathedral preacher who dares from the pulpit of a free church in a free state, to hold up the mirror of Christ’s pure Gospel, with its high ethical standard before the eyes of those who neglect the responsibilities their country has laid upon them, or who forgot that public office is a public trust. All great prophets of the Bible rebuked the national sins as a moral disease, which honeycombs the life of the people. Dante is gone but do we not need to make more room in our American Church for the prophetic office?” As the bishop of Washington and one whose teaching seat is located in this great Cathedral, I will continue to sustain the experiential theology of my predecessor Bishop Satterlee and lift up his vision of a free church, in a free state, living into the historic legacy of the great cathedrals of the world. Here in this Cathedral, the Gospel will be preached and not compromised.
Bishop Satterlee, a convert to the Episcopal Church from the Dutch Reformed tradition, was a theologically orthodox, conservative Christian who wrote and preached what many today would call a radical theology. Yet his theology is timeless and should challenge the very mission and outreach of this Cathedral as it embarks on a new course in the twenty-first century. It is not a comfortable journey and as the earliest disciples attested, it is not easy to be a follower of Christ. The world as we know it today is not all tied up in a neat little bow with no problems to address, no issues to confront and no controversies to embrace. For as Bishop Satterlee knew full well, to be a great cathedral during challenging times requires great vision, prophetic leadership, sound preaching, and a willingness to make some people uncomfortable if the Gospel is to be current and engaging in a culture and world and that presents so many challenges that threaten the very future of the global community.
As the search begins for a new dean to take on the leadership of this Cathedral, so must those charged with the search be aware of the foundational history of Washington National Cathedral. None of us who recognize how the past shapes the present must ever forget the names of Paret, Satterlee, Dunn, Sayre, Perry, and Walker to name a few of the greats who have lead this Cathedral by their courageous example. Their memories and the writing of Bishop Satterlee should prompt all of us in Cathedral leadership positions to ask the following: What are the goals of this Cathedral as it encounters the great domestic and global challenges of the twenty-first century? Who will name them? What is the Cathedral’s vision for doing the hard work of Jesus in the local community, the diocese, and the world? Can the Cathedral risk being a truly prophetic voice at a time when prophets are disdained and when justifiable criticism of public servants and politicians has become politically incorrect? These are some of the questions that must be at the center of the ministry of this Cathedral as they were from its very beginning.
As a Cathedral Chapter and Foundation we must also come to terms with brand new ways to fund and finance the great work and ministries that must come from this Cathedral at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We have grown too accustomed to relying on the hard work of the many members of the National Cathedral Association. There must be a renewed effort to link the Cathedral with its own diocese and its Episcopal roots nationally, even as we live into being a “House of Prayer for All People.” New ways of seeking appropriate financial support for the Cathedral from across the nation must be found to make new programs and ministry happen. If we are to continue to be a House of Prayer for All People, we will need the financial help of all the people to do the good work begun here in this sacred place.
Washington National Cathedral although Episcopal and Christian by design must also be a “crossing place” where the sacred and the secular meet in a holy and mystical union known by the very real presence of the God of all creation. This crossing place must truly be non-denominational, broadly ecumenical, and uniquely interfaith based for there are many streams that all flow into the one river of consciousness and lead to the true presence of the Godhead!
Cathedrals have historically been centers of sanctuary and safety and today as our nation and the world move into the uncertainties of the twenty-first century, this Cathedral must embrace the challenges of change and the impact of the great social and cultural diversity of our time with a new openness. It must be an organic body of sacred prayer, intense listening, and discernment where God’s voice can be heard over our own too often shrill voices. This Cathedral, if it is to continue to impact the pilgrims who seek its light and enlightenment must be a promised place of lively and oftentimes controversial discourse centering on the important and critical issues of our time. Oftentimes these are issues that affect all of us and either threaten or affirm who we are as the children of God.
This Cathedral must truly live into an ethos known as “common ground” where people who may be deeply divided and alienated on issues of broad religion, theology, doctrine, human sexuality, ministry, mission, denominational tradition, social, moral and ethical concerns can come together for dialogue and patient, respectful sharing and where it is possible to raise up a common, respected vision of God’s love for all persons. We must continue to be a Cathedral where diversity is respected, encouraged, and protected and where fear of offending will not determine how one preaches the word of God and interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ. All who enter this Cathedral either as pilgrims or faithful supporters must understand that you are free to be who you are and what God intended you to be. This Cathedral is truly a holy place where diversity is sacramentally united in the divine mystery of common prayer, sacred listening, healing, reconciliation, and God’s unconditional love. May God strengthen us for the days ahead and the journey before us!