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Senate Is Chaplain's Congregation

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  • By Hamil R. Harris and Bill Broadway
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, January 30, 1999; Page B10

    A former Hollywood preacher has been opening President Clinton's impeachment trial with prayers carefully crafted to fit the historic deliberations.

    Each day at 1 p.m., the senators rise from their desks as Senate Chaplain Lloyd John Ogilvie enters the room behind Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who presides over the trial.

    "The Senate will convene as a court of impeachment," begins Rehnquist, standing aside as Ogilvie takes his place behind the judge's desk. "The chaplain will offer a prayer."

    The chief justice and senators then bow their heads in silence as Ogilvie's sonorous baritone fills the room, calling on the Divine Being to guide the proceedings.

    "Gracious God, our Rock of Ages in the sifting sands of our times, You are our stability and strength," Ogilvie intoned on Jan. 19, the morning of Clinton's State of the Union Address. "You have placed a homing spirit in our hearts. Make us restless to return to You."

    Two days later, the Presbyterian pastor prayerfully observed: "In this impeachment trial, we have learned again that really listening over a prolonged period of time is hard work. Often it is difficult to hear what is being said because of differing convictions. Dissonance causes discordant static. . . . Thank you for the commitment of the men and women of this Senate to serve You and our nation by accepting the demanding responsibility of listening for and evaluating truth."

    And he began this week's hearings with these words: "Bless the senators with the assurance that Your work, done with total trust in You and respect for each other, will not lack Your resources. Surpass any impasse with divinely inspired solutions."

    "Amen," the chief justice, a Lutheran, says after each prayer.

    In numerous Supreme Court cases, Rehnquist has favored reduced restrictions on church-state relations, including the return of some form of prayer to public schools.

    During his brief command of the Senate floor, Ogilvie treats the Senate--55 Republicans and 45 Democrats--like one big congregation. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisles say they love it.

    "I think it helps us focus and realize that as we render our thoughts, we have a higher purpose," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), a Roman Catholic.

    Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who also is Catholic, called Ogilvie's prayers "fine Presbyterian exhortations." And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Baptist, noted that "anything that gives us a tone of conciliation and Christian love is good."

    "I think he is wonderful," said Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), a Protestant, as he rushed onto an elevator to make a recent impeachment session.

    Asked whether Ogilvie's prayers might offend non-Christians, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is Jewish, said: "I am a person of faith, I believe in God and I believe his prayers are helpful."

    Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who also is Jewish and has been a senator since 1982, called Ogilvie's prayers "much more contemporary than we are accustomed to" because they sometimes make reference to specific turmoil in the Senate. "But you know we can use all of the help we can get . . . I think he is unipartisan."

    The appearance of nonpartisanship is important to Ogilvie, who said he has refused most requests for interviews during the trial for fear of being presented in an improper light.

    "In all my conversations with senators on both side of the aisle, they are all deeply concerned to do the best thing for America," he said in a telephone interview. "I just feel that it is my responsibility to encourage the senators to seek God's guidance and direction on how they resolve this."

    Ogilvie, 68, was nominated in 1994 by then-Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), to succeed retiring 14-year Chaplain Richard C. Halverson. He was elected the 61st Senate chaplain in January 1995, joining a tradition of chaplains in the Senate and House that dates to 1789.

    One of Ogilvie's most famous predecessors was the Rev. Peter Marshall, memorialized in the book and film "A Man Called Peter." As Senate chaplain from 1947 to 1949, he was noted for his sense of humor and his ability to get members to rise above personal battles for the good of the nation, according to Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who has written a history of the Senate chaplaincy.

    "Since we strain at gnats and swallow camels, give us a new standard of values and the ability to know a trifle when we see it and to deal with it as such," Marshall, a Presbyterian, prayed on a day that promised heated debates on some minor issues.

    Over the years, the chaplaincy position has been attacked by a variety of people, including atheists, who argue that the job has no place in Congress, given the constitutional separation of church and state. Pragmatists say the money--more than $400,000 a year in salaries and office expenses for both chaplains--could be better spent.

    Ogilvie said his $118,400-a-year job goes far beyond offering daily prayers before legislative sessions and providing pastoral guidance to about 6,000 Senate staff members and employees. He also holds weekly prayer breakfasts, conducts Bible studies and convenes prayer groups. He frequently is called on to perform weddings, funerals and memorial services.

    "I come with a clear conviction that it is my responsibility to be pastor to the senators in helping them in their relationship with God, their discernment of God's will," he told The Washington Post after his appointment.

    Ogilvie, who is married and has three children and four grandchildren, came to Washington from California, where for 23 years he was senior pastor of Hollywood's 3,500-member First Presbyterian Church. He also had a nationally syndicated radio and television ministry, "Let God Love You," a program he ended because officers of the Senate are prohibited from such activity.

    A popular guest preacher in evangelical circles, he travels frequently on weekends. When in town, he often worships at National Presbyterian Church on Nebraska Avenue NW. He said he also enjoys attending some of the predominantly black Presbyterian churches in the Washington area because of the music and spirited services.

    "Black congregations know how to worship," Ogilvie said. "In Los Angeles, I was very close to the black community; they were very kind to me."

    Ogilvie has published 44 books and has edited and written for a 33-volume series of Bible commentaries. Those who visit his tiny office in the Russell Senate Office Building often get free copies of his books.

    "Leadership," Ogilvie said, "is a lonely role."

    In the Senate this week, it looked as if being chaplain is equally lonely. He sits through Senate sessions on a long, red leather bench near a side door and, according to his aides, rarely leaves.

    "I believe that part of my responsibility is to be an intercessor for the senators and to sit there and pray through the proceedings," Ogilvie said. "I pray in their offices in the hallway. I prayed with a senator before [Monday's] proceedings."

    Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a heart surgeon who is also a Presbyterian, said he and Ogilvie have developed a special relationship because of the healing nature of their professions.

    "He has been a real anchor . . . to pull people together spiritually from both sides of the aisle in a way that could not be accomplished any other way," Frist said. "His prayers serve as a stimulus to each of us to gather strength to stay disciplined in our own thinking."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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