The word "national" is a bit tricky, but I have no trouble with the National Auto Repair, the National Enquirer or the National Shrimp Congress. Nobody supposes those are anything much in the nation's life.

I do not even have very much trouble with the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, though the phrase "national shrine" is a bit pretentious considering most Americans have no idea what the immaculate conception is, but at least most people can figure it's a Catholic project and let it go at that.

But I do have trouble with "National Cathedral," a highly ambiguous and misleading (and incorrect) name for the Washington Cathedral (Episcopal) on Wisconsin Avenue. "National Cathedral" does not identify it as an institution of the Episcopal Church, and some may suppose it is nonsectarian or governed by doctrinally neutral boards, or may even suppose this is the national cathedral once contemplated by Pierre L'Enfant, or may think the government has something to do with it, or may wonder if it has some standing such as Arlington National Cemetery (or Cemetary as it is called in the phone book).

It has no standing whatever as a national institution, any more than the National Enquirer, a newspaper that specializes in surreal blather to the delight of almost everybody.

Since the cathedral was established at the turn of the century it has opened its doors to all, but then that is true of all churches, probably, and it has gone out of its way to hold services with ministers or rabbis or priests of other denominations, but if push comes to shove the Episcopal Church, and not the others, has the say in how it operates.

Woodrow Wilson is buried there and he was a Presbyterian, and this week a memorial service was held for Secretary of Commerce Baldrige, a ceremony that could take place in the cathedral regardless of his religious affiliation.

But these things do not make the thing national. If they had had the sense to name it for St. Alban, instead of for St. Peter and St. Paul, it would have been called St. Alban's, but the general public can hardly be expected to call it the cathedral church of St. Peter and St. Paul, so some people started calling it either Washington Cathedral or National Cathedral. There are various cathedrals in Washington, however, so its position as an Episcopal outfit should be given somewhere in its name.

For a few years people were careful not to call it the national cathedral, but lately I have seen a number of references to it as "national," most recently in connection with Secretary Baldrige. Recently a spokesman for the cathedral "explained" that either "National" or "Washington" was correct, but this was probably an effort to be polite to whoever asked, and like many other efforts to be polite to the heathen was an error.

Even in colonial times, when the Episcopal or Anglican Church dominated the most powerful colony, there were Americans who balked at supporting that church. Presbyterians, Catholics, Baptists and no telling who else failed to see the rightness of being obliged to support the church. And in the earlier English revolutions, schisms and successions, it became fairly clear even to the obtuse that people get in a lather about religion and suppose it is their duty to stigmatize, penalize or kill people of other religious notions.

The founders of the republic therefore went to some pains to forbid the establishment of a national church. It is because "national cathedral" sounds too much like "national church" that the term should be carefully avoided.

True, there is also some ambiguity in such outfits as the National Shrimp Congress. One is not sure whether it pontificates to the nation on seafood, or is a humane society for the painless slaughter of shrimp coast-to-coast, or whether it is a fraternal club of newspaper columnists or a subdivision and social organ of, say, Republican members of Congress.

But the ambiguity is not important, since no matter what it is it does not ignite deep passions in society at large. But religion does. For this reason the federal government does not and should not touch the cathedral with a 10-foot insulated pole. Any term that even smacks of official status in the nation should be avoided.

You hear people say nowadays that tolerance often means no more than a willy-nilly acceptance of one thing being as good as another and that this is wrong. It is argued, rather deviously, that a strict and austere insistence that the government stay out of the religion trade is unfair or wrong. Thus some people want public money given to support Catholic enterprises -- whether they are called tax subsidies or some other fancy term -- and others want tuition credits to sectarian schools in the South that were devised to keep out blacks. Still others would like to see some church given a real, if unofficial, precedence by the government, as by having chaplains of a particular denomination, or benedictions at official occasions given by the clergy of one sect.

There was a time when at Christmas, say, it was automatic for the airwaves to be dominated by festival services of the Episcopal Church, presumably because the liturgy was particularly beautiful in those days and the choirs were better than average and made a better show than a service from, say, a small church in Alabama where everybody sang off key and they didn't have enough torches.

Even so, I thought that was a bad idea, and in the fullness of time so did the broadcasters, and now you can get all kinds of stuff at Christmas. And while we're at it, my main objection (at least publicly) to the television evangelists has been that, because of the greed of broadcasters, these informal denominations and free-lancers had come to dominate the airwaves, presenting a very poor spectrum of religion in a medium that is, after all, the gift of the public.

But one thing at a time. Today's sermon is quite simple, really:

Stop calling it the National Cathedral, damn it