President Clinton offered a "prayer for the new millennium" on behalf of the nation during services yesterday at Washington National Cathedral, giving thanks "for the promise of the new century" and asking divine guidance "in helping us to make the most of it."
Clinton was accompanied by his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also read parts of "Prayers of the People," the communal petitions offered at each worship service. Nearly 900 people, including six Cabinet members, filled the cathedral, which was decorated with boughs of pine and red poinsettias.
The Clintons had attended funerals and Christmas Eve services at the imposing, hilltop cathedral in Northwest Washington, seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. But yesterday was the first time any president had taken an active part in services there, cathedral spokesman Bob Beckett said.
"It's important and appropriate for us to have the president at the first Eucharist of the millennium, and we feel his presence fulfills a symbolic role that the cathedral fills as a house for prayer for all people," Becker said. Clinton is a Baptist but often attends services at a United Methodist church.
The 11 a.m. Eucharist service opened with Clinton and his wife joining the procession of clergy and choristers, all singing "The First Noel," down the cathedral's main aisle.
Clinton, dressed in a black suit, and his wife, attired in a wide-striped, blue and purple suit, sat in the left front pew beside Mary Ellen Baxter, wife of the cathedral's dean, the Very Rev. Nathan D. Baxter.
Baxter sermonized on religious tolerance. "If there is anything we have learned in the years since the birth of Christ, it is that there is no world peace without peace among the religions," he said.
"We must expand the sense of who is in God's family beyond our own religious identities," Baxter added. "We must grow beyond any bigotry or arrogance that keeps us from loving and respecting others as God would have us to do."
After the sermon, Clinton and his wife were escorted to a wooden lectern on the left of the sanctuary behind the altar where they alternated reading the communal prayer petitions written by cathedral staff.
The final petition was Clinton's own, which echoed the millennial themes preached in religious services around the nation yesterday. It said in part:
"Dear Lord, as we awaken to this second morning of a new millennium, help us to remember that all we are and all we do begins with you, for whom a thousand years are but as yesterday when it is passed, and as a watch in the night.
"So we begin this jubilee year in humility. . . . For me and my family, I give you thanks for good health, good fortune, and the opportunity to serve the American people.
"We thank you for the amazing grace you have shown in getting us through and beyond our individual and collective sins and trials. Through the darkest hours of the 20th century, the shameful trauma of racial oppression, the pain and sacrifice of war, the fear and deprivation of depression, when all we could do was walk by faith, it was your guiding light that saw us through. . . .
"Finally, we thank you for the rich and wonderful diversity of human life with which you have graced this planet, and ask you to give us the strength and wisdom to give up our fear, distrust and hatred of those who are different. . . .
"Help us now to accept at long last the enduring truth that the most important fact of life is not wealth, or power, or beauty, or scientific advance, but our kinship as brothers and sisters, and our oneness as children of God. This, Holy Father, is our prayer for the new millennium."
Clinton and his wife then shook hands with clergy around the altar and with a few members of the congregation seated in the right front pew. Both received communion following the Eucharist prayer offered by the Rev. Canon Frank M. Harron II.
"It was beautiful and heartfelt," Kimberly Collinsworth, 33, of Los Angeles, said of the president's prayer. "And it meant a lot to me, to give us hope and peace and that we should love one another and help each other out."
CAPTION: After reading prayers, the Clintons are escorted from the lectern at Washington National Cathedral by its dean, the Rev. Nathan D. Baxter, right, and verger Stephen Lott.