Rows of pastors and priests, imams and rabbis offered prayers for President Obama at an inaugural worship service Tuesday, their diverse depictions and requests of God seeming to embody the challenge of unifying an America divided on everything including the role of faith.
“To many Americans, we feel like a house divided that cannot stand. We find ourselves divided and desperately longing to find common ground,” the Rev. Adam Hamilton, leader of a 16,000-member Methodist church in Kansas, said in his sermon to Obama and 2,200 invited guests at the inaugural prayer service at Washington National Cathedral. “This may be, this bringing together of our country, a more important issue than anything else we face.”
The tradition of a prayer service for newly sworn-in presidents goes back to the start of the country, and since the 1930s most of the services have been held at the cathedral. They have become increasingly interfaith over time and have included national clergy from the Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh traditions. For the first time, the 23 faith leaders included an openly gay clergy member: the Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson, moderator of Metropolitan Community Church, a Christian denomination that focuses on outreach to the LGBT community.
After the drama and pomp of the inauguration ceremony and the let-loose vibe of Monday night’s inaugural balls, the prayer service — even in the cavernous neo-Gothic cathedral in Northwest Washington — felt almost intimate, with three rows of faith leaders seated on a dais a few feet in front of the first pew, which held the president and first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Biden and his wife, Jill Biden.
On the dais were some of the United States’ most prominent clergy, people who represent some of the country’s largest faith communities. In one row, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Catholic archbishop of Washington, was seated next to Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, head of the Episcopal Church, who was seated next to Archbishop Demetrios of America, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America.
Several prayers were offered, dramatically, from the center of the nave. Imam Abdullah Khouj, from the Islamic Center of Washington, gave a traditional call to prayer in Arabic just after Cantor Mikhail Manevich of Washington Hebrew Congregation intoned a prayer in Hebrew.
Obama was offered a quilt of prayers to a God described using different names and personalities. Wuerl gave a reading describing humanity as “afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair.” National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson called to “faithful God . . . you are gracious, O lover of souls.”
Yet leaders of organized religion are distinctly aware of the challenges of reaching a changing America. The fastest-growing faith group in the country consists of people who say they are religiously unaffiliated.
Hamilton, the Methodist minister from Kansas, seemed made for this time, this president; he has written on embracing “the gray” area and calls himself a “passionate centrist.” His sermon was a plea for the shaping of some shared priorities, ideally — to his mind — ones revolving around “a deep and abiding faith in God.” It tried to forge U.S. history to scriptural history, weaving the story of Moses seeking freedom for Hebrew slaves with the poem on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .”) and with the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Hamilton leads one of the biggest mainline Protestant churches in the nation, but in his sermon he noted that America’s pews are filled with deeply divided people.
Many “congregations often don’t know why they exist, nor do they have a compelling picture of the future that unifies them. Sadly, this feels true of America today,” he said.
Because of high security, guests at the service had to arrive an hour or two early. By midmorning, the ornate nave looked like the merger of a Washington political gathering and a conference of notables from the clerical community. Heads of think tanks, in sober suits, mingled with clergy from every imaginable faith community wearing a variety of colorful robes and head coverings, from the white wrap of the Bahai to the Jewish yarmulke.
Among the political heavyweights were Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, House
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D).
The cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal Church in the United States, is often chosen to host memorial services and events honoring prominent U.S. leaders from across the political spectrum. But the cathedral’s leaders have made news in recent weeks by taking progressive social stands.
The Rev. Gary Hall, the cathedral’s new dean, announced in December that the cathedral would begin hosting same-gender weddings, and he also has taken up the cause of gun control in the wake of last month’s Newtown, Conn., school shootings.
Inaugural prayer services have been held consistently at the cathedral since 1933, with the exception of those after the inaugurations of Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1997.
Clinton chose Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic black church in downtown Washington, as the site for his prayer services. The Obama family worshiped at Metropolitan on Sunday.
Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.