Where’s the religion at Washington’s National Cathedral?

Where’s the religion at Washington’s National Cathedral? January 16, 2014

The financial difficulties facing the Washington National Cathedral were the subject of a local news item in the Washington Post this week.

The basic story line is valid: “cathedral short of cash seeks creative ways to generate income.” But as  GetReligion editor tmatt observed in an an impromptu story conference, this piece had journalistic “holes you can drive a ’60s VW Microbus through… .”

The few errors in Anglican polity found in the story would likely distress only the perpetually aggrieved, but the real difficulty is that the Post declined to ask or explore the question: “why?”

It assumes the worldview of the liberal wing of mainline churches, making this the measure of all things religious. By not asking “why” this story could just as well be written about the troubles facing the local symphony orchestra or art museum.

I was hesitant in taking this story, however, as my theological sympathies are not with the cathedral’s leadership. The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Diocese of Washington’s cathedral, last year told the Post he was a “non-theistic Christian.” The Aug 1, 2013 story in the Style section penned by Sally Quinn quoted him as saying:

Jesus doesn’t use the word God very much,” he says. “He talks about his Father.”

Hall explains: “Where I am now, how do I understand Jesus as a son of God that’s not magical? I’m trying to figure out Jesus as a son of God and a fully human being, if he has both fully human and a fully divine set of chromosomes. .?.?. He’s not some kind of superman coming down. God is present in all human beings. Jesus was an extraordinary human being. Jesus didn’t try to convert. He just had people at his table.”

It is the glory, or the curse, of Anglicanism that the ranks of its clergy contain men and women who think this way — and others who see this as nonsense.

The divide is not merely local or new — in 2009 I interviewed the Argentine leader of the Anglican churches in southern South America and he told me that meaningful debate between left and right was not possible. He and his conservative colleagues from Africa, India and Asia believed the leader of the American Episcopal church was “not a Christian” as they understood the term.

The disdain does not go one way. Liberal American and English Anglicans have described the theological and intellectual worldview of their third world confreres as being one step above witchcraft.

The split between left and right, liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists — none of these terms adequately describes the combatants — did not arise in 2003 with the election of a “gay” bishop in the Episcopal Church. While there have always been factions within the Anglican world for centuries — high/low, Evangelical/Anglo-Catholic — the latest Anglican wars began in the 30s and hit their stride in the 60s.

Fights over women clergy, premarital sex, abortion, euthanasia, contraception/family planning, divorce and remarriage, pacifism, the revision of the Book of Common Prayer, Vietnam and the civil rights movement and its various permutations of race, gender, class, ethnicity and sexual orientation have been debated ever since.

The temptation I faced was to cloak my criticisms of the underlying issues in the story with the cover of discussing proper journalism and write about bad religion rather than bad journalism. Hence, my reluctance to jump on this story.

What then is the GetReligion angle? What holes are there in this story through which I may drive my VW microbus? The lede states:

When Congress authorized the creation of Washington National Cathedral in 1893, it envisioned a national spiritual home. Decades later, it became a setting for presidential funerals, sermons by the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and worship services for epic national tragedies such as Newtown and Sept. 11.

But would it have thought of tai chi and yoga mats?

The article describes a program of events and activities designed to bring people into the cathedral. The story then moves to context:

As mellow as it all sounds, the week-long public program — “Seeing Deeper” — is part of a highly orchestrated drive by the nation’s second-largest cathedral to remake itself and survive in an era when religious institutions are struggling. And what’s more institutional than a huge cathedral?

Washington National Cathedral, one of the Episcopal Church’s three major U.S. cathedrals, was already forced to halve its $27 million budget in the mid-2000s because of falling revenue before an earthquake in 2011 caused damage tallying an additional $26 million. Although it is now in the black, it must raise its roughly $13 million annual operating budget as well as the remaining $19 million for earthquake repairs.

And then moves to a discussion of the dean’s plans to raise income and attendance and to be a voice for progressive values in Washington.

What is missing from this story, though, is a nod to the reasons for the cash shortfall — apart from the occasional earthquake and economic downturn.

The article makes this assertion:

Experts say cathedrals across Europe and the United States have had to remake themselves as religious affiliation has become much looser and financial models built on membership have broken down.

But we do not hear from the experts. Is this true for all cathedrals, or just Episcopal ones? How is the Catholic cathedral in Washington doing? How are other Episcopal cathedrals handling the new faith environment Dean Hall describes in the piece? These questions should have been raised, or at least acknowledged.

Where are the facts and figures about the Washington National Cathedral’s attendance and income? They are easily found on the national Episcopal Church’s website. It reports “pledge and plate income”, the amount of money the cathedral (whose formal name is the Cathedral of SS Peter & Paul) collected from its parishioners has grown from $400,000 p.a. in 2002 to $2 million in $2012.

At the same time Sunday attendance grew over the last ten years. The figures for Dean Hall’s first year in office have not been published, but should not the story have spoken to these issues.

And, have the Anglican wars played a part in the cathedral’s financial problems? While the amount of money generated by those worshiping on site has grown, giving to support the cathedral from the wider Episcopal world has fallen off. Why?  The article states fundraising was easier for the cathedral when it sought to finish construction — an 82 year building campaign.

Could the cathedral’s whole-hearted adoption of the progressive religious and political agenda have anything to do with the little old ladies in Alabama cutting back on their gifts? The article does not ask this question.

As written, the article could have described the problems facing any graying urban institution. Swap out the names and you could recycle this as a story about an art museum, library, orchestra, ballet or other worthy cultural institution. Perhaps the real story here is that the Washington National Cathedral is not seen as a religious institution by the Post but as a temple of ethical culture?

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19 responses to “Where’s the religion at Washington’s National Cathedral?”

  1. My son and his wife lived a few blocks away from that Cathedral until recently. We visited and I bought a book there back in 2012. Glad to have made the tour. Regarding yoga mats, the very evangelical Methodist church a few miles away from where I now live has a yoga class.

  2. It is a beautiful church building which is a shame because the denomination to which it belongs is rapidly being paganized. The head of that church is a strange, bitter harridan who is not a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word. The fish indeed is rotting head first. This is the same denomination that would rather sell church buildings to Muslims than to separating Anglican congregations who would hold on to the traditional Christian faith. I’ve enjoyed Washington Cathedral as architecture but it is actually a terrifying metaphor for what happens when a church loses what is most important.

  3. I lost interest in the NatCat a number of years back (before I jumped the Tiber), when I read that the Dean, having decided that all “Abrahamic” religions were sisters under the skin, substituted one of the readings with a selection from the Koran. “Decide this day”, and I did.

    • There’s really not much to say. Journalists like that kind of church, they are not going to look into the real issues. The only purpose of the article was to get the Cathedral more money.
      It is very sad, but we don’t expect anything from the media anymore.

      • I think you hit the nail on the head that this was an article written to help fundraising. Although if they really wanted to mobilize those who do not realize there is anything in the US beyond the bend of the Potomac, they should have mentioned the alienation of those Episcopalians in Alabama.

  4. I glanced at the article in the dead tree version. I did not see a link here for the on-line story to read how the cathedral is becoming an oversized community center. All the other links are to other articles, not the WP article that’s the subject matter.

  5. I would have liked to read the article Fr. Conger would have written.
    Isn’t it interesting that the article left out all of the interesting questions that would have made a really good article? Modern journalism is flat and uninteresting precisely because they have too many sacred cows. None of that “relentlessly inquisitive journalist” stuff. Only “Are you on our side?” If the answer is “yes” then the machine spits out a puff piece. If “no”, then demonization begins.
    I suspect the purpose of the article was not to provide understanding. Rather, the only purpose was to advertise the fact that the Cathedral needs money. A simple attempt to support the kind of religion the media likes to see. That is, “non-theistic Christianity”
    About that growth in income from 2002 to 2012. I recall seeing graphs on the website for the Episcopal church. The charts combined membership and total income. In the last 15 years or so, it showed membership strongly declining, while income went up and up and up. And I mean way up.
    How could that be? The only things I could think of is that either 1) they started appealling to the ph.d. types they like to brag about, and therefore each person gave a hell of a lot more. OR 2) Somebody had bought themselves a church.
    Now that is an interesting concept. Given their stances on things, and their seeming deaf ear to the people in the pews, and their wiillingness to say and do things that are complete nonsense, it would be interesting to see exactly where their money really comes from.

  6. Anglican denominations have changed over and over and back and forth for centuries. First high-church then low-church then back to High-Church now maybe no-church. Often on the bleeding edge (2 Tim 4:3) itchy ear changing of morals and doctrines with the wind nothing should be surprising about what is written.

  7. My family visited Washington several years ago and went to see the so called National Cathedral. We found an impressive building, but found it also cold and lacking in any sense of spirituality. It is not really a Christian cathedral, but is only a museum of neo-Gothic architecture. It is sad that its owner, the Episcopal Church has rejected traditional Christianity to surrender to political correctness.

      • What part of “love thy neighbor:” have they rejected????
        It would seem the whole first part of ” loving God first” from
        which the rest follows necessarily. Otherwise loving the
        neighbor becomes self-serving at best.

        • I suggest you read the poem “Abou ben Ahdem” by the 19th C English poet Leigh Hunt. It is short, but to the point.

  8. But George, the key money hole is right in the middle of the story, not to mention the roof: repairs from earthquake damage have been a huge cost. I know people here want WNC’s money problems to stem from their leaders’ bad theology, but while 2012 showed a sharp ASA drop that’s just one year, and P&P has held up.

  9. I was an Episcopalian and used to take my Sunday school kids on tours of the National Cathedral. My favorite anecdote was this. The docent noted that the capstones of the nave represented the Apostle’s Creed. I said,”So if you remove the capstones the whole building would come crashing down?”. The docent laughed and said,”Yes.” I looked at my Sunday school kids and said,”There’s an important lesson there.” The irony was completely lost on the docent. We eventually gave up and toured Mount St. Sepulcher near Catholic University, which requires a little explaining of Roman Catholicism but isn’t quite the theological minefield that the National Cathedral bookstore can be.