Washington National Cathedral ponders sale of rare books

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2010

Over the past two years, economic hard times have loomed as large at Washington National Cathedral as the Gothic spires that grace the city's skyline.

The cathedral has slashed its budget from $27 to $13 million, outsourcing its gift shop operation and shuttering its popular greenhouse and its continuing education college for clergy. Three rounds of layoffs have reduced the staff from 170 to 70, including, at the end of this month, the cathedral's conservator and the liturgist who oversaw the April memorial service for civil rights pioneer Dorothy Height.

Then news came this week that the cathedral, visited by every U.S. president since Theodore Roosevelt laid its foundation stone in 1907, was considering selling off part of its rare books collection, probably worth millions. Cathedral officials said the potential sale of the books is a separate matter from its ongoing budget difficulties. But they acknowledge that they no longer have the staff and resources to care for such a vast collection, which includes volumes donated by Queen Elizabeth II and Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie and a Dutch Bible that was the first written in modern language.

The officials are in discussions with the Folger Shakespeare Library, which, with its internationally known conservation department, could possibly better preserve the fragile pages and make the tomes available to scholars.

The cathedral's chief operating officer, Kathleen Cox, said the possible book sale, as well as measures such as eliminating financial support of a global poverty program, is an attempt to refocus on the cathedral's core mission as a "church for the nation" and tourist attraction.

Nearly 400,000 visitors a year take in the massive building's stained glass, carved gargoyles and a central tower that soars 30 stories, its top the highest point in the District. President Woodrow Wilson is interred there, and the cathedral has hosted the funerals of three other presidents: Ronald Reagan, Gerald R. Ford and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"We are and should be a church for the nation, a symbol of the role of faith in our country," Cox said.

She said she expects the cathedral, which doesn't receive any federal or Episcopal Church funding, to end the fiscal year June 30 with a balanced budget, thanks to the deep cuts, $11 million in fundraising that is running ahead of projections and a 5 percent draw into the cathedral's $50 million endowment fund.

"This year has been really solid," Cox said. "With the right staff and prudent changes, we have done well."

Even so, the cathedral's dean, the Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, sent out an anxious fundraising appeal this month, asking for $500,000 by June 30 to forestall further cuts and repair winter storm damage. Despite the letter, cathedral officials said they think no further cuts will be necessary.

Cox said the cathedral needs to do a "better job of telling our story," especially to the younger members of its growing congregation of 800, who could be potential future supporters. The average age of cathedral donors is 71, according to one estimate.

The cathedral's struggles mirror those going on in many congregations, said the Rev. Stuart Kenworthy, rector of Christ Church, Georgetown.

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