THE DAYS ARE pretty much gone when the great cathedrals could pay historic roles in the artistic lives of communities - as in the Kapellmeister tradition, which gave us, among others, Johann Sebastian Bach. Washington, though, is a remarkable exception. In fact, no other American city has been blessed with such a concentrated wealth of church music as that provided over the last 38 years at Washington Cathedral by Paul Callaway, who retires this fall as organist and choirmaster.

When Mr. Callaway arrived in 1939, the cathedral had had an organ for only two years and this city's cultural life was provincial, to say the least. Mr. Callaway set out with singleminded dedication to rectify this condition. He had inherited the boys' choir. He added the men's choir. And, within two years, he had founded the Cathedral Choral Society, inaugurating it one day with no less a blockbuster than Verdi's Requiem. Since then Mr. Callaway and the society have given us just about the whole range of works for large-scale chorus and orchestra - and commissioned more, from composers like Gian Carlo Menotti and John LaMontaine. As our critic Paul Hume wrote at the 25th anniversary of Mr. Callaway's appointment. "He has brought us year after year more of the world's masterpieces of music than any other man. And he has done so in a manner worthy of the masterworks he has presented." In addition to his cathedral duties, he took on the conducting duties of the Opera Society in its first decade and still conducts the company from time to time. In addition, he now directs New York's summer Lake George Opera Festival.

We are going to miss hearing Mr. Callaway's majestic Bach or Buxtehude soar out to the cathedral's farthest nichest at morning prayer and evensong - though Mr. Callaway's replacement, his longtime associate Richard Dirksen, could hardly be worthier. It is our good fortune, nonetheless, that Mr. Callaway will retire, at 68, only from his daily responsibilities; he will continue with the Cathedral Choral Society concerts.

When Mr. Callaway arrived in Washington 38 years ago, he set to work in a half-finished cathedral whose grand scale was just becoming apparent. In the ensuring years Herr Kapellmeister Callaway has made music to match the nobility of the cathedral's unfolding proportions.