My wife and I concluded a ramble up the Blue Ridge Parkway with two days in Washington D.C./Alexandria, Va., including the opportunity to worship at the Washington National Cathedral where many American presidents begin their tenure and are later memorialized in death.
The Cathedral, a congregation in the Episcopal Church USA, is an anomaly of sorts: the United States has no national church and separates politics and faith. Yet most Americans recognize the important role of religion in both private and public life, and this cathedral, sixth largest in the world, comes as close as any congregation in our country in fulfilling that role.
We arrived early, unsure how long it would take to drive from Arlington to the church. Thus we had ample opportunity to walk through the beautiful Bishops’ Garden and to stroll through a tastefully appointed and well-stocked book store and gift shop. As the service approached, we found good seats near the front of the sanctuary for the 11:15 a.m. service, assisted by a friendly usher who jokingly told me he was a former lobbyist. I resisted remarking that lobbyists may be in special need of repentance.
Taking our seats – still well before the worship hour — a vicar was giving a congregational report to the members and I couldn’t help but grin to hear her talking about their pledge campaign and their need to close the gap on a funding deficit. Familiar language, indeed.
The cathedral’s need for funds is quite dramatic due to the same earthquake that damaged the Washington Monument a couple of years ago. The tremors damaged the congregation’s stonework and the finials, causing structural damage to this great church. Stonework weighing tons spun like a top on the church’s pinnacles and heavy limestone crashed to the ground. It will take years for the congregation to recover from this disaster.
The vicar closed her announcements by reminding the congregation that they were the body of Christ and inviting them to a pot luck picnic the following Sunday after the worship service … an announcement that could be heard in the smallest south Georgia congregation.
Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson presided at the Eucharist and the Rev. Cameron Partridge, chaplain at Boston University, became the first transgender priest to preach at the Cathedral. Dean Gary Hall of the Cathedral had invited these servants of the gospel to support the GLBT community’s Pride Month. Every seat was filled and journalists roamed the balcony.
The service was stirring from beginning to end. The choir sang beautifully, the congregation enthusiastically participated in the familiar hymns “O Jesus, I Have Promised” and “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord,” the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was meaningful and the gospel was preached with authority and authenticity.
I left the service impressed that so elements of the service were similar to those of south Georgia churches, but also aware that it will probably be way too long before these two evangelists – and their particular message – will be welcomed in a typical Georgia congregation.
Creede Hinshaw, of Macon, is a retired Methodist minister.