The Washington National Cathedral, which has long been a gathering spot for symbolic national events, has found itself in the middle of controversy over whether Christians who oppose Donald Trump’s rhetoric should participate in his inauguration.
The day after the inauguration, the cathedral will also host an interfaith prayer service, following its tradition for many inaugurations in the past century.
The inaugural participation has raised questions about the role of the cathedral, the historic home of the Episcopal Church, which has grown increasingly liberal in recent decades, including in its support of same-sex marriage, even as it has continued in its role as the nation’s spiritual home, hosting the funerals of prominent Americans and memorial services during national tragedies.
The Rev. Gary Hall — who was dean of the cathedral from 2012 through 2015, opening its sanctuary to same-sex weddings and a Muslim prayer service — is among the critics who oppose the cathedral’s role in the Trump inauguration.
“I think the faith community should be a center of resistance against Donald Trump’s vision in America,” Hall said, adding that he believes any participation in the inauguration legitimizes Trump.
He believes the cathedral, which has suffered financial problems, was likely worried about offending potential donors.
The decision for the choir to participate in the inauguration was made by the current dean, the Rev. Randy Hollerith, an Alexandria native hired last year in part for his fundraising prowess after serving as priest of St. James Episcopal Church in Richmond.
Hollerith said the choir will be singing three or four pieces, but they have yet to confirm which ones. He believes some members may have decided to opt out of singing but didn’t have any details on how many.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, extended the invitation to the cathedral to participate. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir will also be performing.
Hollerith said he believes that the inauguration is a celebration of the nation and of the office of the president, not necessarily of the specific individual holding the office. Details of the prayer service should be released in the next few days, Hollerith said.
“I have great respect [for] those who disagree,” Hollerith said. “I understand their concerns. … We want to model the kind of dialogue it’s important to see within our nation.”
The Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, said that while she recognizes people’s criticisms, she sees the choir’s participation as a way to honor the peaceful transition of power and to signal that “God is still with us, the nation is still strong.”
“While we also recognize the need for protest and the need for justice, we don’t see those as contradictory,” she said.
Trump asked that there be no preaching during the interfaith service, she said. “This is not the occasion that we will use to address particular issues of policy or concerns we might have about the direction he’s taking the country.”
The scriptures and the prayers, Budde said, will include clear directives about Jesus’s command to love your neighbor.
“There’s a lot of guidance and even prophetic truth in simply gathering and setting your sights to sacred texts in how we’re to live as a society,” she said. “We will then get more specific about how we’ll engage in public life when the situation calls for it.”
An Episcopal church in California is taking a different tack, removing Trump’s name from the part of the service in which the congregation prays for the president.
“We are in a unique situation in my lifetime where we have a president-elect whose name is literally a trauma trigger to some people — particularly women and people who, because of his words and actions, he represents an active danger to health and safety,” Mike Kinman, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., blogged.
Budde said the cathedral will not follow suit. “I believe in naming things and naming people,” she said. “I can appreciate their position, but we will name his name.”
Cathedral leaders worked with Catholic Cardinal Donald Wuerl to propose prayer, worship and music across religious traditions for the inaugural prayer service, and members from the transition team sent a list of faith leaders Trump wanted included. Hollerith said that they have been collaborating with Bill Greener, who is a longtime GOP political consultant who worked on Trump’s campaign.
The 110-year-old cathedral, which is the second-largest cathedral in the country and was chartered by Congress, has hosted several interfaith prayer services since President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inauguration in 1933. During President Richard M. Nixon’s inauguration in 1973, the cathedral held a protest, drawing more than 10,000 people, according to the Harvard Crimson.
Members of the Episcopal Church appear divided over the decision to play a role in Trump’s inauguration, with some supporting the cathedral’s decision to host the prayer service while believing that the decision to allow the choir to participate crossed a line.
It’s one thing to pray for the president, said Kara Slade, an Episcopal priest and interim co-director of Duke Divinity School’s Anglican Studies, who supports the service. It’s another thing for the choir to participate in the secular act of the inauguration.
Slade believes the Episcopal Church’s role in the inauguration causes confusion over religious symbolism. “Is Christianity about baptizing power? Is it about lending approval to the status quo?” said Slade, who is a doctoral candidate at Duke. “I think it risks a confusion of the language of the church, the language of the gospel and the language of the secular state.”
Others felt that the cathedral’s participation makes sense given the church’s call to spread the gospel and pray for those in leadership.
“This is not a coronation, and I don’t think we should treat it that way,” said Ryan Danker, a church historian at Wesley Seminary.
It’s not about Trump, but it’s about the Constitution playing out during a transition of power, Danker said. “The National Cathedral holds a place in the national conversation, where they can call the president to be prayed over, to be blessed, to be reminded of the gospel, and I think they should not miss that opportunity,” he said.
The Rev. Michael Curry, who is the Episcopal Church’s first African American presiding bishop, will not attend the inauguration or prayer service because he will be traveling in Ghana, according to Budde.
Trump’s “movement” is contrary to a “Jesus movement” Curry has been preaching about, wrote popular author and Episcopalian Diana Butler Bass in a statement that circulated on Facebook.
“The ‘optics’ of this service will functionally punish any Episcopalian who in good conscience resists Trump by normalizing ecclesial support of him,” she wrote, calling it a slap in the face to local clergy.
In a statement on Thursday, Curry did not take a position on the cathedral’s inaugural participation and a spokesman for the denomination referred questions back to Hollerith and Budde, but Curry’s statement urged Episcopalians to pray for Trump. Curry noted that the black church he grew up in prayed for leaders “who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights.”
“We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we marched on Washington,” he wrote.
Curry said they prayed for “those who hated us. And we did so following the Jesus, whose way is the way of unselfish, sacrificial love. And that way is the way that can set us all free.”
Trump, who identifies as a Presbyterian, plans to follow tradition and attend a private family church service at St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House the morning of the inauguration.