Would George Washington have recognized the prayers, or the service, held yesterday at Washington’s National Cathedral?
The morning service featured approximately two dozen clergy of various faiths (the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have slightly different figures).
It was a notable display of civil religion –and I’m wondering why it didn’t get more and more in-depth coverage.
Reporters covered the story in sharply contrasting ways.
The Los Angeles Times led with who was included:
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrived at Washington’s National Cathedral this morning for a prayer service that traces its origins to the inauguration of President George Washington.
Obama carries on that tradition today with a notably diverse group of religious leaders. The invitation-only service includes nearly two dozen clergy who represent, in their views and background, the theme of inclusion that Obama stressed in his campaign and in his inaugural address.
The sermon will be delivered by Rev. Sharon Watkins, president of the Disciples of Christ in North America, the first woman to play such a role in the inaugural religious ceremony.
The other clergy will present separate readings and prayers. They include Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America; Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America; and Rabbi David Saperstein, executive director of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell, a well-known African American pastor from Houston picked by former President George W. Bush to lead his inaugural prayer service four years ago will be participating as well.
The Washington Times story zoomed in on who wasn’t in the sanctuary :
Four Episcopalians and three Jews lead the list of religious figures selected to give sermons, prayers, Scripture readings and blessings at the National Prayer Service at the Washington National Cathedral.
The invitation-only service Wednesday morning, to be attended by the new president and vice president plus members of Congress, the Supreme Court and hundreds of foreign diplomats, will be built around themes of “tolerance, unity and understanding,” according to a press statement released Friday.
Several groups, including Buddhists, Seventh-day Adventists, the Salvation Army and Mormons, were left out entirely.
Watkin’s sermon, with its personal charge to the new President, probably deserved more coverage than it got, too. Her lively delivery and impassioned words form an interesting contrast with President Obama’s inaugural address. Here’s a link.
Another, more general perspective on the service was provided on Indystar.com.
I really wish that the reporters covering the service had given readers more details about the tradition of the prayer service. According to the Los Angeles Times, the post-inaugural lovefest dates back to an 18th-century Congressional mandate.
The national prayer service traces its origins to a congressional proclamation delivered three days before George Washington took the oath of office in New York City.
It directed that the president, vice president and members of Congress “proceed to St. Paul’s Chapel to hear divine service.”
Given that St. Paul’s Chapel was Anglican/Episcopal, the service probably was some variant on one of the denominational prayer services. Here’s a little background from the National Cathedral website.
Was the original consciously designed to include clergy of other faiths? I tend to doubt it, for multiple reasons.
But then I remembered a story about Bishop William White, Pennsylvania’s first Episcopal primate. White is alleged to have walked the streets of this fair city with a rabbi on one arm, and Catholic priest on the other. So perhaps the theme of “inclusivity” was not born yesterday.
Photo of arches in the Washington National Cathedral used under a Wikimedia Commons license.