Earlier tonight, a group of Muslims gathered in the National Cathedral for a prayer service. This is noteworthy because the cathedral is Christian, and because some figures on the Christian Right (the list of names was depressingly predictable IMO) objected to a Christian church welcoming people praying to what we Christians believe is a false God. And they’re right, to a point. The National Cathedral was designed by George Frederick Bodley, a leading architect of Anglican churches at the time, and it’s under the governance of the Episcopal Church.
But it’s also not strictly sectarian, either. According to the National Cathedral’s webpage, “The Cathedral is a spiritual resource for our nation: a great and beautiful edifice in the city of Washington, an indispensable ministry for people of all faiths and perspectives, and a sacred place for our country in times of celebration, crisis, and sorrow.” These are the words chosen by the cathedral’s own governing body to describe their mission. They also quote the famous description of Pierre L’Enfant, the architect who planned the layout of Washington DC and initially set aside space for “a great church for national purpose.” And they make quite a lot in their history of how the group founding the cathedral was chartered by Congress and the charter was signed by a US president (Benjamin Harrison). This isn’t some denomination buying up a plot of land and building a church as a wholly private affair.
When I first heard about the plans for the prayer service, I was a little concerned. I’ve been to the National Cathedral, and while it never felt particularly sectarian to me, the architecture and art is definitely that of a Christian church, and I’ve always been uncomfortable with people using space consecrated to a Christian God to worship Someone else. I don’t view it as respectful to Christians or Muslims, to act like there’s no difference there. Then again, even in my church we had interdenominational services when different Christian denominations (and other religions) wanted to come together to mark some event. We had the baccalaureate service there every year because we had the biggest sanctuary in town. (For those not familiar, it’s a church service honoring the high school graduates, usually held the Sunday night before the graduation ceremonies; it was attended and involved speakers who weren’t UMC, and I’m almost certain on a few occasions they weren’t Christian.)
At the end of the day, though, that’s the Episcopal Church’s problem. The people planning this prayer service doubtlessly know that church’s teaching on consecrated space and ecumenicism much better than I do. And religious freedom’s a glorious thing. No one’s forcing them or pressuring them to host the service as far as I can tell, and just like conservative churches have the right to practice more conservative views of their religion and teachings than I’d like, more liberal churches are free to use their space and influence in the way they see fit. And while I was initially uncomfortable, the thought of Christians making space for Muslims to pray in the same room where we’ve commemorated the deaths of presidents is really kind of beautiful.
I’m usually a bit cautious about those labels, conservative and liberal Christianity, because the words really don’t seem to apply. As Fred Clarke pointed out a while back, it suggests a unity between different kinds of conservative and liberal faith expressions when it’s not there at all (if conservative Calvinists and Catholics and Jews hold the same positions on political issues, it will usually be for very different theological reasons), and also because what’s sometimes called liberal theology is really liberationist theology, a distinct strand of Christian thought that grew out of Catholicism in Latin America back in the 1950s and 1960s, and is pretty heavily influenced by Marxism. A good number of progressive Christians, especially those who work with poverty (including yours truly), are influenced by liberationist Christianity, but not all left-leaning Christians are liberal Christians in this sense, and just like with the Right, people may be liberal or progressive by their society’s standards coming from all sorts of different theological backgrounds. And they may not always be comfortable with what one another think or do, the same way a Calvinist and a traditionalist Catholic might not always see eye to eye outside of political issues.
[/Marta’s philosophical theology digression. Hey, the tickets are free…]
Anyway. In this particular case I think the labels actually are quite appropriate, because the people who are particularly bothered by this do seem to have a fairly political view in mind. One of the criticisms that I’ve seen discussed most often is Franklin Graham’s Facebook status, and at the time I’m writing this at least the top comments are mostly about how shameful it is that America’s church isn’t just for Christians, how we were founded as a Christian nation, etc. The other bit that springs to mind is the story of the (again at the time I’m writing this) unnamed heckler who interrupted the service by screaming “America was founded on Christian principles. Leave our church alone.” Again, this seems driven more by a political vision than a theological one, by this image of “us” as being Christian.* It seems very important to her, and a good number of other people, that this is a national church but also a distinctly Christian one. That there’s no contradiction in being a church for all Americans and being one that’s only open to Christian worship. And that’s a combination that’s threatened if Muslims can use it to pray to their god as well.
(*Though to be fair here, I really don’t know her motives. I’m speculating. She could be an Episcopalian, she could have a more personal connection to that denomination or this church in particular, and she may object in the same way some Christians were uncomfortable with their individual church giving space to the boy scouts after they allowed openly gay scouts. It may not be driven by broad politics. It just seems like that, with the language she used and the way it’s been covered.)
I think that’s the real crux (no pun intended) of the issue for me: this idea that the church can be exclusively Christian and also “a great church for national purpose.” Taking “church” in the broader way the IRS uses it here, as a house of worship Christian or otherwise. You can be a sectarian church, even a specifically Christian church, or you can be the place where all Americans come together to worship or pray or otherwise engage with the sacred – but once you have Americans who aren’t approaching God (or whichever god they pray to) in the Christian way, you can’t both e a gathering place for all Americans and only open to Christian religious practice. I just can’t see a way it works out that way. I mean, suppose we had someone we wanted to mourn as a nation but who was Muslim. Suppose Obama actually was, or (may that day come soon) we elect an honest-to-goodness Muslim president. It would certainly be fitting we hold a service to honor him in the National Cathedral. That’s where we’ve honored other national dignitaries. But would a Christian service be at all appropriate? Or if we had a civic leader, a well-resected voice like Rvd. King, who was invited to speak at such an event but he was Muslim and he wanted to offer words of solace and encouragement pulling on his own tradition and that couldn’t be allowed from the pulpit because it was a distinctly Christian space, would we still say this is a space where the whole nation can come together?
I don’t think so. And that seems the real danger of people making the kind of objections they do. It takes away the possibility of us coming together as more than just Christians or Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or whatever. We can’t say, This has affected us as Americans and we will pray and sing and mourn (or celebrate, etc.) as Americans, together. As a Christian and an American, that seems the much more dangerous threat than a group of earnest Muslims praying in a space where its theological guardians said they were on board with that. To be honest, the thought of someone taking that sincere worship and interrupting it to make what seems like a political point is much more offensive to me.
Because, honestly? At the end of the day, we have a lot of churches in this country. Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian, ones that are so inclusive it seems they’ve lost all definition and others so restrictive you’re not really welcome there unless you can trace your family’s been members of good standing in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, for at least three generations. What we don’t really have is a space where we can be spiritual as Americans and as the whole spiritual community of America. That’s why, even though I was a bit hesitant at first, I think at the end of the day I’m moved more by the beauty of Muslims praying to their God in a distinctly Muslim prayer service but in a space where we’ve also memorialized presidents. That’s just so American (and so Christian, too, welcoming the sojourner who dwells within your gates), and it’s really very good.
PS – If you’re ever in DC, do check out the cathedral. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, Take the Red line out to Tenleytown, and then take any of the 30-series buses going south for about a mile and a half. (Or walk, the walk’s nice as well, if a bit long.) When I lived in Washington and had the time I’d sometimes go out for the Evensong service in the late afternoon and then walk around with the setting sun shining through the stained glass, and it really is something.