Washington “National” Cathedral

I love it. It’s a great space. I worked there for three years.  We shouldn’t be spending federal money to repair it.

But according to the Los Angeles Times, Mayor Vincent Gray is seeking 15 million dollars in Federal Emergency Management funds to help the Cathedral make the repairs needed after an earthquake rocked the limestone perched high above our nation’s capitol.

Why not?

One: the separation of church and state

Far too many interpret the freedom we allow for religion as freedom from religion.  But using federal funds to repair the great lady is going too far in the opposite direction.  To single out any religious institution — even one that hosts “great national occasions” and the funerals of notable leaders — creates a dangerous precedent.  The only place to draw that line is between the civic and the religious world.

Two, non-Christians should not be expected to pay for a distinctively Christian and Episcopal space

The Cathedral’s official name is the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and Saint Paul and it includes the seat (or cathedra) of both the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church and the Diocesan Bishop of Washington.  The structure itself, inspired by Gothic architecture has two messages: (1) There is a God. (2) You are not.  And the stone image of the resurrected and glorified Christ high above the main altar makes a pretty definitive statement about who that God is.

Non-Christians, agnostics, and atheists should not be expected to pay for its repair.  That doesn’t ever make sense in a country that observes the division of church and state and it makes particularly little sense in a time of financial exigency — though the latter is plainly a secondary consideration.

Three, it’s not good for the Cathedral, the denomination, or the church in general to receive this kind of aid

The church has always been better off when it has been forced to articulate its message without crafting alliances with governments and politicians.  By definition, the Gospel (and, by inference) the church has a message that has its own inner logic and a very different vision of the world.

Historically, the church has observed two means of articulating that message.  One, championed by the Anabaptists, insists on a radical disengagement or a posture over against the rest of the world.  The strength of that vision lies in its simplicity and clarity.  Its Achilles heel is the potential for rigid self-righteousness and self-imposed irrelevancy.

The other vision, which is more commonly the one championed by many Catholics and Protestants is one of engagement.  Its strengths include the ability to speak knowledgeably to realities of daily life.  The Achilles heel of that view is the danger of being co-opted in ways that make it impossible to hear an authentic word from God that is not compromised by subtle alliances with “the princes of this world.”

It is not good for the Cathedral or the church to have this kind of help.  You can get tired of telling visitors that “Washington National Cathedral receives no money from the federal government,” but that’s a good thing.  And the gift of the kind that the Mayor proposes has social and intellectual strings attached that no church can afford, unless it has lost interest in its God-given mission.

And therein lies an issue that every ecclesiastical institution should ask itself…Is the church simply one civic organization among others, or is it a body of people called to serve the purposes of Christ in the world?

As much as I love the Cathedral, I’ve long thought that the only sense in which it can really be a national cathedral is to serve the purposes of Christ in ministering to the residents of the nation’s capitol.  The rest of what attaches to that name is deeply seductive and of a piece with the Achilles heel of an understanding of the church that values engagement.

Try as it may, the Cathedral cannot engage the whole country because its purposes are not (and should not be) one and the same as those of the United States.

  • It does not have chapels for other religions, a mosque, or a synagogue.
  • It can sponsor interfaith services, but if it fails to do that from a distinctively Christian stance, it has already subverted the effort to foster genuine, interfaith dialogue.
  • What happens there is of little or no interest to the people of Kansas City or Los Angeles (unless it happens to be a “state day” at the Cathedral).  And contrary to obsessions fostered by life inside the Beltway, life in our nation’s capitol is as likely the occasion for frustration to the rest of country, as it is an occasion for fascination.
  • And, perhaps, most important of all, it cannot serve a mission that is meaningfully the mission of every church, if it loses its capacity to speak with a distinguishable voice that is — however falteringly and imperfectly — the voice of God.

On that score, the inability of the Cathedral and the denomination to make the needed repairs suggests that something else might be broken as well.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.