(Christian Century Blog) National Cathedral–A simultaneously religious and civil institution?

Allahpundit is obviously right about the ceremonial deism part. And I’ll be the first to admit that this strange American habit is bad for church and state alike.

But it’s absurd to suggest that the National Cathedral is only “nominally Episcopal.” It’s the seat of the Bishop of Washington, who leads a large diocese. It’s the seat of the presiding bishop as well. A whole lot of people worship there each week, at services that would be hard to mistake for blandly nondenominational….

…the construction of the cathedral was a joint effort between the Episcopalians and civil authorities. It’s an institution that has long had both a sectarian function and a secular one.

Read it all.


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13 comments on “(Christian Century Blog) National Cathedral–A simultaneously religious and civil institution?

  1. C. Wingate says:

    Correct link to blog entry is here.

    It’s the tail end of the post that really should catch people’s attention:

    Every so often someone floats the idea that the best path out of the culture warring over same-sex marriage is to deal directly with the singular way the institution of marriage defies the American tradition of separation of church and state. Some pastors have stopped performing weddings, instead offering blessings to couples, gay or straight, and leaving the marrying to the civil authorities. Conversely, some people have called for civil unions available to all couples, gay or straight, with the government no longer making any official use of the word “marriage.” The goal is roughly the same: break apart the tangle of claims on the word “marriage” in order to deal separately with the real issues, both legal and religious, underneath. The difference is who gets to keep the word.

    In the past I’ve found a lot to like in these arguments. Equality under the law is important. So is religious freedom (the actual kind, not the euphemism-for-opposition-to-contraception kind). And so is the separation of church and state. Words? Maybe not. Let’s do this!

    Except that we never, ever will. Because marriage isn’t just another word. It’s a word that’s incredibly important to a lot of people—including many who have long been unjustly excluded from its public meaning. And in terms of lived reality, it’s artificial to speak separately of two kinds of marriage (contra Allahpundit’s criticism of Hall for speaking politically about religious marriage). Whether or not religious and civil marriage should have much to do with each other, clearly they do.

  2. Br. Michael says:

    Well the Bishop is only nominally Christian, a perfectly normal state of affairs for an Episcopal Bishop.

  3. C. Wingate says:

    The whole thing that excused the “sherry and knives in the vicarage” thing was that it was done behind closed doors.

  4. Cennydd13 says:

    Oh, the cathedral is Episcopal, alright, but whether or not it’s still a Christian cathedral is debatable.

  5. jamesw says:

    And in terms of lived reality, it’s artificial to speak separately of two kinds of marriage

    And yet, I strongly suspect, that no matter how many court cases the homosexual lobby wins, and no matter how many jurisdictions are coerced into legally recognizing same-sex “marriage”, the public will always distinguish between real marriage between a man and a woman, and gay “marriage.” I believe that even those members of the public who ardently advocate for gay “marriage” will still ultimately make this distinction in their own minds.

  6. Dan Crawford says:

    The National Cathedral has provided valuable support for over 100 years to American’s ruling oligarchy. It is fundamentally a secular institution with a religious veneer.

  7. C. Wingate says:

    Honestly, Mr. Crawford, you sound like a Marxist.

    Look, however much people want to snark about the cathedral (and believe me, there’s plenty to snark about) at heart the cathedral runs now as a really big parish church which happens to have imposed upon it a lot of tourists and the need to provide services for a lot of occasions not tied to parish membership, plus its regular use as a concert space (which I would point out happens to regular parishes too, just not as often). Fundamentally, it’s a big church. Even back when it had this weird extra-parochial status it operated that way. Saying that it’s a secular institution, that it’s debatable whether it is Christian: this only invites the far more pointed and accurate identification of everyone attached to ACNA as a schismatic. Whatever you think is wrong about their attitude towards the faith (and again, there may very well be plenty to attack) it has never in my experience been the province of high-church Unitarianism or any of the other deep theological heresies. They have been politically liberal for a long time, but since one could just as well attack neocon attitudes about war and economics as unChristian, I don’t see where that gets us.

    One could very well step up to the question of whether an Anglican church in this country should serve the kind of “national church” purposes that the cathedral provides, such as all those quasi-state funerals that the Catholics won’t do because the deceased wasn’t their kind. But I don’t see that happening here. It’s just another occasion to say uncharitable things about the neighbors, stepping as close to bearing false witness as can be managed, sometimes stepping over the line out of sheer carelessness.

    Nobody really wants to step up to the difficult part either, which is that the disentanglement of religion and state in marriage is unavoidable unless the church is willing to give up all claim on the institution. Given that the city now recognizes homosexual marriage, it is unsurprising that the cathedral is going to offer to provide them, and that it will bless those made by the civil authorities. I think that Jamesw is right and that people will likely continue to view these marriages as a different category, and as I said in my analysis of the same-sex union rites, the scripture lessons at least are probably going to enforce that, given that most of the conventional marital lessons presume that marriage is fore-ordained in the separation of Eve from Adam. But perhaps the more telling feature of this is that they did not offer such unions/marriages until the state authorized them. Marriage may be ordained by God, but it also, necessarily, belongs to the community as a whole.

  8. Charles52 says:

    Isn’t there a parish church adjacent to the cathedral? Is it gone, absorbed into the cathedral, or is my memory from 1981 false? The charts don’t show membership numbers until 2007.

    Indeed, marriage does belong to the whole community. It is a natural good, not only a theological good. As I understand it, clergy are deputized to act for the state (the whole community) as a convenience: the social act of marriage can be effected simultaneously with the marriage understood by the religious community (e.g. the sacrament of matrimony for Catholic and Orthodox). If the state demands (and it eventually will) that all deputized agents, including clergy, effect all civil marriages that come them, the convenience may be lost; which may not be a bad thing.

  9. C. Wingate says:

    St. Albans sits practically in the shadow of the Cathedral, and has an ASA of around 400, so it’s a big parish of itself; and the St. Alban’s School also has a chapel on the grounds (I think NCS uses one of the cathedral side chapels). I think the reason why the cathedral itself was converted to a regular parish was that with 1600 people showing up each Sunday there was a huge block of people who didn’t belong to any parish but who were cathedral regulars.

  10. Charles52 says:

    C. Wingate – yes, I was remembering St. Albans. Thank you… I can sleep tonight!

  11. Sarah1 says:

    RE: “Saying that it’s a secular institution, that it’s debatable whether it is Christian: this only invites the far more pointed and accurate identification of everyone attached to ACNA as a schismatic.”

    No it doesn’t “invite” anything of the sort. Nor of course is it “accurate” to identify people who leave organizations whose faith is not theirs as “schismatic.”

    Silly random assertions from C. Wingate, but perfectly expected.

    RE: “They have been politically liberal for a long time, but since one could just as well attack neocon attitudes about war and economics as unChristian, I don’t see where that gets us.”

    Sure — political liberals can attack conservative views about war and economics as “unChristian” as they please. And conservatives yawn just as much as the political libs yawn when conservatives point out they’re libs.

    And all of us understand that. The politically liberal actions of the Cathedral merely mirror and spring from their particular, customized gospel, and that’s fine.

    Also expected and ordinary.

  12. Sarah1 says:

    Charles52 — good news about St. Albans. It’s plummeted in its ASA from 600 in 2001 to 400 in 2011.

    Oddly, its giving has also declined quite dramatically — often that remains flat as parishes decline as those remaining try to make up the difference in the short term.

    No question that St. Albans — and the Washington Cathedral — is hurting in comparison to the “good old days” when Episcopalians were unaware of the particular custom little gospel that certain parishes were promoting.

    This is all to the good, and it will be interesting to see how much farther St. Albans declines in the coming decade. Hard for me to believe that there won’t remain a nice group of political liberals vaguely interested in something liturgical and vaguely-spiritualish on a Sunday, so I’d expect it to trundle forward, with its wings increasingly clipped.

  13. C. Wingate says:

    I am uninterested in bandying words with you over schism, Sarah; your words condemn you as far as you cheer on divisiveness.

    And the truth is that St. Alban’s has, in some sense, been a liberal place perhaps from its foundation. It was once the case where there was a sense, among the upper classes, that they had an obligation to the less fortunate, and especially so to those impoverished or confined to ghettos by their race or to the house by their sex. That sense saw expression all over the major institutions of the church. And in those bygone days there was no need to appeal to trinitarian or Christological heresies to buttress faith in the need for charity or the will to make a nation in which such charity was civil policy.

    I must confess that my knowledge of the rectors of St. Alban’s is similarly dated. In changing parishes some thirty years back, I also changed dioceses, and mostly these days I hear about things on Mt. St. Alban’s in the newspaper, since I haven’t gotten a copy of Cathedral Age in a couple of decades. The ruling oligarchy I see now, however, has little use for charity or indeed any sense of noble cause. Nor does the cathedral represent them; indeed, it seems to me that the rhetoric of the cathedral, for as long as I can remember, has very much sounded like the voices of those who understand, in their heart of hearts, that they will not be heeded by the ruling classes. And it gave them confidence, in their own church establishment way, to say things whose absurdity was to be ignored, and to call for actions which they did not have to risk implementation of. I have called them on that many times over the years. But that said, the cathedral and its adjunct parish are not the crazy-eyed, EDS-like places that crazy-eyed conservatives make them out to be.