National Cathedral opens worship space to free classes and more to boost profile, coffers

When Congress authorized the creation of Washington National Cathedral in 1893, it envisioned a national spiritual home. Decades later, it became a setting for presidential funerals, sermons by the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and worship services for epic national tragedies such as Newtown and Sept. 11.

But would it have thought of tai chi and yoga mats?

Seeking to transform the historic institution’s mission and heighten its public profile, the cathedral’s leaders recently removed the thousands of chairs usually in its 10-story Gothic worship area for a week of unconventional events in a suddenly changed empty but dramatic space.

On Monday night, the nave was filled with dozens of people in socks after a lesson by a tai chi master with a silver sword. On Wednesday, a chorus will perform an unusual 40-part song while walking across the marble floor (cathedral officials call this “extreme polyphony”). On Friday, the soaring space will be open for an all-night vigil and be stocked with yoga mats and meditation cushions.

As mellow as it all sounds, the week-long public program — “Seeing Deeper” — is part of a highly orchestrated drive by the nation’s second-largest cathedral to remake itself and survive in an era when religious institutions are struggling. And what’s more institutional than a huge cathedral?


Chairs are cleared from the majestic nave of the National Cathedral on Monday to make way for a week of activities. The space will be open to the public for events such as tai chi exercise. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Washington National Cathedral, one of the Episcopal Church’s three major U.S. cathedrals, was already forced to halve its $27 million budget in the mid-2000s because of falling revenue before an earthquake in 2011 caused damage tallying an additional $26 million. Although it is now in the black, it must raise its roughly $13 million annual operating budget as well as the remaining $19 million for earthquake repairs.

About 65 percent of the revenue that funds Washington National Cathedral’s annual budget comes from donations; the rest comes from the endowment in addition to earned income from concerts, tourism and programming.

This month, for the first time, officials began charging a $10 admission fee for walk-up tourists to help fill the gap created by the decline in donations. By making better use of the cathedral as a public space, officials hope to significantly boost large individual and corporate donations — with a long-term eye toward boosting the endowment.

“I think our future, in terms of funding the cathedral, is attracting major donors, like all big cultural institutions,” said the Very Rev. Gary Hall, the cathedral’s dean. “And major donors are interested in innovative, transformative stuff, not just maintaining a building to be a tourist attraction.”

The innovations are taking more than one form. For one, the cathedral’s leadership is attempting to expand the site’s role as a local and national destination for conversation around faith in public life. Over the past year, officials have stepped up efforts to use the institution’s location in Washington — its central tower is technically the city’s highest spot — to influence public-policy debates on topics including gay equality and gun control.

And its officials also are seeking to make the cathedral more of a community gathering place. This, said Hall, was the role of cathedrals centuries ago, when the buildings were busy with art and policy debate. Hence, this week of “Seeing Deeper.”

“I want to skateboard down it — or have a paper airplane contest,” Hall, a tall, white-haired priest, said Monday as he watched about 100 people practice tai chi in the football-field-long, rectangular nave.

Protestantism, he said, made religion “too mental . . . not enough experience. You see a cathedral, but you don’t see anything being done with it. I’m trying to get this place back to its roots.”

Experts say cathedrals across Europe and the United States have had to remake themselves as religious affiliation has become much looser and financial models built on membership have broken down.

Long ago, many European cathedrals removed their chairs and now commonly use their spaces for events ranging from corporate parties and arts awards ceremonies to events that can attract youths, such as “rave masses,” where drugs are forbidden but loud music, dancing in bikinis and light shows are encouraged.

San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, another of the nation’s major Episcopal cathedrals, recently began an artist-in-residence program, starting with noted playwright and actor Anna Deavere Smith. The program boosts the cathedral’s profile, and it is able to charge for some events to boost its coffers. The cathedral’s open space also features 600 people doing yoga on Tuesday nights and a large indoor labyrinth.

Washington National Cathedral’s budget was impacted by its 83-year construction, which proved to be a focused, attractive project for which to raise funds. But donations fell when people were asked to give for routine overhead. Also, the cathedral has to spend money to make money. This week, for example, events were free to the public, although participants can leave donations. But the hope is that the investment will pay off by attracting major donors and by better meeting the needs of a growing contingent of Americans who are spiritual but not religious.

“If we’re going to be robust and relevant, we have to be much more present programmatically than we were in the last decade,” Hall said Monday.

He considers events like this week’s part of that.

“In my experience over the years, where people come together is in prayer practices,” Hall said. “It’s easier to have interfaith collaboration about that than at the doctrinal level. If I get people together and say, ‘Let’s talk about God,’ we’ll get an argument. But if I say, ‘Let’s all pray together and experience the divine together in our own way,’ people can enter that in a much more creative and less-judgmental way.”

The question is how to balance the national and even global issues with attracting the attention of Washington’s busy population — one that’s accustomed to places that don’t charge entry fees. The Monday night tai chi class and a recent weekend forum on guns, for example, didn’t draw more than a few hundred people to the huge nave.

But people’s reaction to the cathedral’s unusual massive space has been striking.

“To me, a class is church,” said Conal O’Keefe, 35, an educator who was part of Monday night’s tai chi class. “A religious space is one that’s inviting and asks for quiet. And this is that.”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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