He has counseled Presidents and walked with kings and queens. Over the past 27 years he has, he is convinced, nudged history a notch or two in a more humane direction.

But the achievement the Very Rev. Francis B. Sayre Jr. seems proudest of is this: he built a cathedral.

Actually, the Washington Cathedral was well under way when Sayre came as dean more than a quarter century ago, and a fair amount remains to be completed when he retires, on his 65th birthday, on Jan. 17.

Nevertheless, as he is encouraged to recall for a visitor, it is the cathedral which dominates his reminiscences.

". . . To take this beautifully designed, exquisitely designed building in '51 (the year he became dean - then only one transept and one choir, and very little of the adornment done - to take that and move it to where it is today, to 60 per cent of the whole thing completed, and not just the building itself but every little detail in it . . . "THe sentence, like the cathedral itself, stands uncompleted as he struggles to communicate the complexities and the wonder of the task.

"As chairman of the building committee and as chief iconographer," he continued, it has been his responsibility "to plan what goes into every window, every carving. What shall it say? What's the story it shall tell? How can it be alive and not just a catalog? And how can it respect the integrity of the artists, who are very different, and yet have to fit into one harmonious whole.

"The diplomacy of that alone," he continued, "I hope you understand, is an enormous job - diplomacy between artists and donors who have their own ideas."

In the American Episcopal Church to which the Washington Cathedral is related, only two other cities - New York and San Francisco - have cathedrals comparable to the one here.

In a denomination that become increasingly sensitized to the needs of the poor, there are many who maintain that cathedrals are luxuries which Christians, if they are to be true to their faith, no longer can afford.

Rather than piling stone on stone, these forces maintain, the church should spend its resources to relieve the misery of the ghetto. In response to this sentiment, New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which is located on the edge of Harlem, a decade ago indefinitely canceled plans to complete its structure.

Dean Sayre, on the contrary has maintained that cathedrals can play a significant role, beyond the confines of their own walls, a role that parish churches cannot play.

"I have felt that the cathedral was as instrument in some sense beyond the confines of the church as an institution - an instrument that could be effective (in the nation's capital) in the political center - in the arena of politics and public decision and welfare." he explained.

One of his political forays of which he is most proud occurred shortly after he arrived at the cathedral, in the era of the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Communist hunts. "Joe McCarthy was attacking the rule of law and suborning our basic form of democracy, government and integrity," he said. "I am proud of the fact that I was able to use the cathedral as an instrument of first breaking that thing open. The first attacks on McCarthy were first made right here (at the cathedral) by (Bishop James) Pike and (Methodist Bishop G. Bromley) Oxnam," and by Sayre himself, he said.

The statements from the cathedral pulpit, he continued "led, I've been told, to courage being summoned up in the political arena. But it began here. I claim that."

The attacks from the pulpit, he explained, were followed up by other tactics. "My style of ministry is as much behind the scenes as it is out front," he said. It isn't enough just to talk about McCarthy; that only opens up the package."

Dean Sayre was associated, he recalled, with attorney Abe Fortas "and a couple other lawyers" in assembling the dossiers of the victims of McCarthy.

"On the legal side their defense was organized by the lawyers but on the moral side their encouragement was organized by me," he said.

During the Army-McCarthy hearings, the dean made it a practice, he said, to "get in touch with most of the people involved," telephoning them with "a little encouragement" every morning before they went to face the relentless grilling by McCarthy.

Dean Sayre also is proud of his involvement in the civil rights struggle. "I was very close to Lyndon Johnson in a pastoral way. I was deeply concerned with and related to his effort at that time to get that (civil rights) legislation," he said.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to fellow Christians to join in the famous march from Selma to Montgomery, "I organized my staff to be part of that," Dean Sayre recalled. "We had four clergy then. Two of us went to join the march while the other two went to Capital Hill to lobby. After two or three days - the march lasted for six days - we exchanged places."

Then on Sunday, all four mounted the cathedral's pulpit together and recounted their experiences. "It's easy to discount the voice of one individual," he said, "but when the report came from all four, shoulder to shoulder, it was in some depth."

The cathedral also became a focus of opposition to the Vietnam war, which Dean Sayre recalled, "was very often the subject of my sermons."

But he added, "the pulpit was not the only cutting edge" against the war. There were marches on the White House led by the dean and a man he had brought to Washington as his assistant, now Bishop John T. Walker.

"The witness against the war was not just from the pulpit," he recalled. "It was with my life, my colleagues' lives and everything we could muster through this institution."

But it was "at a cost," he recalled. "It alienated a lot of people who wouldn't think of being caught dead giving a nickel to this cathedral to this day."

Dean Dayre's espousal of social and political causes at times strayed from the traditional liberal lines. On Palm Sunday, 1972, he outraged Jews and many Christians as well by characterizing the Israelis as "oppressors of Jerusalem" in their treatment of the city's Arab population.

Sayre, the grandson of Woodrow Wilson, spent four years as a chaplain in the Navy during World War II.

He also served as college chaplain at Harvard and Radcliffe while he was assistant minister of Christ Church in Cambridge, Mass.

In a sense, the young Sayre drifted into the ministry. "I finished college (Williams) in the depression - 1937. There were hardly any jobs for any of us," he recalled. His college philosophy and political science majors, "left me without a satisfying orientation as to the meaning of my life - what I wanted to do with it - of the world, mankind, what is it all about."

He decided to enroll in Union Theological Seminary in New York, to study under theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich - "to see what these guys had to say."

The experience, and especially the encounters with his fellow students - "all these pious Joes who were going right ahead into the Methodist ministry or something" - depressed him even further.

Far from providing the longed for meaning to his life, the year at Union Seminary only increased his spiritual malaise, and at the end of it, "I was undone; I was shattered," he recalled. "Then unexpectedly and just as it (the year) ended, that marvelous thing happened to me that is now described by the phrase 'born again.' I was in despair. I was way down - a Good Friday sort of experience. Then, the meaning of the Resurrection came to me one day sharply, beautifully."

Episcopalians, at least that segment of the denomination with which Dean Sayre identifies, are not as much at ease with the 'born again' experience as more evangelical Christians, and he discusses his own experience with some diffidence. "I don't think I've ever told any (reporter) about it before," he said. And he still does not talk easily about it.

It happened to him just at the time he faced the task of writing a paper for one of his religion classes. "I had said that any paper I could write on the subject of religion would be a hypocritical thing. But part of the experience of being born again was that I wrote that paper one night, pfffft, just like that . . . Something just cascaded out of the Holy Spirit through my spirit."

He still has the paper and gets it out to read now and then. It has, he said, stood the test of time.

Despite his own satisfying and meaningful life in the church, Dean Sayre believes the ministry as a profession has slipped seriously.

"I have with some exaggeration said that I am in an obsolete profession," he said. "The world's opinion of the ministry and the minister's role in that world has utterly changed since that springtime when I was called to be one. Then it was near the top; it was ranked with the medical profession and the legal profession as a live option to college students.

"Now," he believes, "it's dropped down to something that draws from the lowest tenth of each college class into the ministry."

The dean's own standards for the segment of the church for which he is responsible - the cathedral - has never lagged. In both personnel and the art and craftsmanship that have gone into its building, he has always demanded the finest.

In recent years, the push to finish a major portion of the cathedral in time for the Bicentennial, has left the place saddled with a whopping $11 million debt which has forced drastic measures on the cathedral.

Virtually all building activities are now stopped; slashing economies were instituted in the operating budget early last year; and last month eight artisans, including one 20-year veteran, were reluctantly let go.

Was the dean troubled to leave a legacy of debt behind him?

He answered emphatically, "No! Not in the least. It was right that we did it. It would have cost three or four or ten times as much to build this cathedral later if we'd been overcautious; it never would have been finished. Of course it was right to do it."

A debt, after all, he reasoned, is "only dollars. Plenty of dollars floating around, but there's only one cathedral like this."

The craggy faced dean has only a few days left in his beloved cathedral, but he denies - perhaps too vigorously - experiencing any special poignancy in his daily rambles through the place.

"I go through every day," he admits, "But I have for 27 years."

Then the brave front slips a bit. "But I love this cathedral and I can cry very easily if I want to . . . because the human story is in every stone - the tragedies, the hopes, the loves, the thanksgivings of human beings in their finest side of life is embodied in their gifts which turned into a stone here, a carving there . . .

"I walk through here and it's just like living with a cloud of - well, with the fellowship of the saints."

But it is the visitors - more than a million a year, he says - to his cathedral that really give him his daily fix. "They come in here, all wrapped up in their privacy like they do on F Street," he says. "They come in here and they walk through that door and even if they've been here before, it doesn't matter; they come in here and - Ahhhhhhhhhhh," he exhales a mighty sigh that wafts away all tensions and woes - "It's something that you can feel in their eyes and in themselves and tha's when I come along and they're opened up and they want to talk."

When growing vandalism forced the cathedral to lock its doors at night, the tiny Holy Spirit Chapel, with its own outside entrance, was made available 24 hours a day.

"There's always somebody in there sitting, thinking, praying - God knows," the dean observed. "If I'm down - discouraged or anything - I go and I sit down outside that chapel, and when they come out I don't say boo to them. Who am I to interrupt? But they may say boo to me. Then we have a talk."

In March, Dean Sayre begins a new career as associate director of the Washington-based think tank that bears his grandfather's name - the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He will continue some ties with the cathedral - as a consult-and as dean emeritus. But it will not be the same.