As I made the 12-hour flight back to Washington from Iran this past September, I reflected on the American hikers’ nearly two years in captivity that I had struggled to end. The journey to free these prisoners came as an exhilarating if unexpected conclusion to my almost 10 years as a bishop, and I gave thanks to God for my role in their release.
I owe my participation in those successful talks, in part, to a stubborn, inspired group of patriots and churchmen who decided more than a century ago to place a great “church intended for national purposes” high on a hill overlooking the nation’s capital. Over the course of 83 years, these founders of Washington National Cathedral built what is today the sixth-largest cathedral in the world—and its work has only expanded since completion in 1990.
As a convener in the work of reconciliation, a prophetic voice of human-rights advocacy, and a tireless seeker of that “peace which passeth all understanding,” Washington National Cathedral has developed a global reach. This work got a particularly strong boost seven years ago, when the Cathedral made the decision to establish its Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation. Under the leadership of the Reverend Canon John Peterson, the Cathedral reached a level of international prominence that it had never experienced before.
This prominence has enabled the Cathedral to engage in vital work for the world’s physical and spiritual health under the moral imperative to transcend darkness.
The Cathedral has hosted a conference of world religious leaders for the United Nations. It has worked with First Lady Laura Bush on malaria prevention in Mozambique and on global HIV/AIDS prevention with numerous organizations. It has sustained programs on dialogue between the three Abrahamic faiths, developed pilgrimage programs to the Diocese of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and hosted the first-ever Christian-Muslim Summit last March. It has sponsored the important “Breakthrough” Women, Faith, and Development Summit to end global poverty, and it has participated in the unending search to broker peace in the troubled Middle East.
Despite its great success as a global presence, as well as a national house of prayer for all people, the Cathedral faces challenges to its mission to be the spiritual home for the nation. On August 23, a rare earthquake that struck the East Coast severely damaged the Cathedral’s exterior and closed the building to the public. The damage to structurally important stonework will take millions of dollars to repair; the effort to stabilize and assess the damage has cost well in excess of $1 million.
The national work of the Cathedral serves the capital region and the American people in times of celebration and crisis, our moments of collective joy and sorrow. The Cathedral was the site of the funerals or memorial services for nearly all 21 presidents of the United States since 1893. Washington National Cathedral held a prayer service to mark the beginning of President Obama’s presidency as well as President Bush before him. On September 14, 2001, in what President Bush called “the middle hour of our grief” the National Cathedral brought the American people together to grieve and reflect on the 9/11 attacks. Ten years later we still gathered the nation: despite the closure of our iconic building, we once again rang the twelve-ton Bourdon bell to mark the moments of each attack and helped Americans of all faiths to heal. The Cathedral continues to host interfaith prayer services, concerts, and cultural events to commemorate important events in our history.
The Cathedral safely reopened on November 12 for the consecration of my successor, Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde. But all of us who are connected with the Cathedral will need to work together to repair the damaged fabric of this landmark and national treasure. The Cathedral’s important domestic and global ministry must continue, too—and this effort will also require the generous support of many: the volunteers, visitors, pilgrims, and financial supporters who have been with us from our late nineteenth-century beginnings through the journeys of today.
My wish is that everyone who has a passion for the possible will help us restore this beacon of hope so that it may continue as an agent of the human spirit.
Just as the young hikers who were freed in Iran, so hundreds of thousands depend on the freeing spirit of the Cathedral and its work in a weary—too-often violent and broken—world.
The author is the retiring eighth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and interim dean of Washington National Cathedral.