The Rev. Nathan D. Baxter announced his resignation yesterday as dean of Washington National Cathedral, one of the country's most influential churches, effective June 30.
Baxter, 54, made the surprise announcement at a scheduled meeting of the cathedral's senior staff, said the Rev. Alan Geyer, canon for ethics and public policy, who attended the meeting.
"This is an ideal time for me to conclude my deanship," Baxter read from a letter addressed to "Dear Friends." "Together we have accomplished much of what I had set out to do, and I now want to explore new opportunities and challenges."
Baxter, selected as the cathedral's chief administrator in 1991, said in the letter that a new capital campaign, as yet unscheduled, and a centennial celebration in 2007 make this an appropriate time to find a new dean. He did not elaborate on his plans or reasons for resigning, and a cathedral spokesman said Baxter was not available for an interview.
Geyer, a friend who has worked at the cathedral for a decade, said he has "intimations of what an enormously taxing and exhausting job" the deanship is.
As dean, Baxter is chief executive officer and chief priest of the cathedral, which is the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. The dean also heads a staff that oversees such departments as worship, music, development and outreach.
"The cathedral is one of the most visible pulpits in the Episcopal Church and most always is viewed as a bully pulpit," said James Solheim, spokesman for Episcopal headquarters in New York. "One speaks down Massachusetts Avenue to the corridors of power. The choice of a new dean has incredible national and international import."
John Bryson Chane, who was installed last year as bishop of Washington, called Baxter "one of the finest preachers" in any church or denomination who had "elevated the cathedral to an extremely high national presence."
Chane said that Baxter told him of his decision Jan. 12 and that "it came as quite a surprise." Losing Baxter as a colleague "is a great personal loss," the bishop said.
"It is a very demanding job, very much like the job of bishop," said Chane, who previously served as dean of the Episcopal cathedral in San Diego.
John Shenefield, chair of the cathedral's governing board, said a search committee will be appointed to provide Chane with a list of candidates to replace Baxter. The bishop will submit his choice to the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, the congressionally chartered body that operates the cathedral and four schools on its grounds, which will vote on the candidate. Chane is president of the foundation.
The search process will begin soon, Shenefield said. "It would be great" to have a new dean by the beginning of Advent, he said.
Since Baxter's arrival in fall 1991 as the seventh dean, the cathedral has planned and conducted its largest capital campaign, created a Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage, established a resident girls' choir and started a scholars program to benefit public high school students in the District.
His tenure was distinguished by a number of major national services held at the cathedral, including the funerals of Thurgood Marshall and J. William Fulbright; visits from a variety of world leaders, including the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu; and the nationally televised Service of Prayer and Remembrance after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.