January 25, 2013

Space to Reflect: The 57th Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service at Washington National Cathedral

Outside Washington National Cathedral the morning of the 57th Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service. Credit: NewsHour, Flickr

Outside Washington National Cathedral the morning of the 57th Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service.

Every four years, when the country gathers to inaugurate a president, some of the nation’s most historic buildings take center stage. From the Benjamin Latrobe-designed St. John’s Church where the First Family attends a morning service, to the White House where the President meets with his successor or the leaders of Congress, to the U.S. Capitol where the Chief Executive takes the oath of office under a magnificent dome largely completed during the darkest days of the Civil War -- our nation’s peaceful transfer of power occurs in and around stately buildings that are cherished witnesses to history.

And the inauguration ceremonies end the following morning at yet another historic building -- Washington National Cathedral -- where the nation’s secular and religious leaders gather for the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service.

I have attended many different services and ceremonies beneath the Cathedral’s soaring vaults. I remember Evensong services in the great choir where I heard young trebles sing a Pie Jesu that lifted the congregants -- all twenty of them -- to another level of grace. The sanctuary worked surprisingly well as a backdrop for this intimate gathering. But when the sanctuary is filled to capacity with thousands of guests and visitors gathered in common cause, the transformative power of the Gothic structure atop Mount St. Alban becomes self-evident.

The Obamas and Bidens sing the National Anthem at the Inaugural Prayer Service. Credit: Washington National Cathedral/Donovan Marks
The Obamas and Bidens sing the National Anthem inside the National Cathedral.

What do historic spaces such as the Cathedral -- where National Trust president Stephanie Meeks and I were privileged to attend the 57th Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service last week -- have to offer that other buildings do not? Washington National Cathedral, like any important historic building, reminds us that our lives are built on the shoulders of those who came before and that we have a responsibility to those yet to come.

When the Children of the Gospel Choir sing the traditional spiritual Way Over in Beulah Lan’ and we think of those who struggled to see beyond this time and place, their voices rise and linger in a building that holds a piece of lunar rock in the Space Window. Beautifully sung calls to prayer from the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions remind us that the Cathedral was built as a House of Prayer for all people, not just the privileged and powerful. When The Reverend Adam Hamilton of Leawood, Kansas, builds a sermon around the emancipation story, the Walter Hancock statue of Abraham Lincoln bears silent witness to those who have made great sacrifice for the good of the nation.

These special places cannot serve the nation without the love, care, and support provided by countless stewards. Last year the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Washington National Cathedral a National Treasure to help those stewards recover from the damage of an unexpected earthquake and develop a vision forward for the preservation of this magnificent landmark. It was clear again on the morning of the prayer service why we need historic places such as Washington National Cathedral.

The Rev. Dr. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock sends forth the congregation. Credit: Washington National Cathedral/Donovan Marks
The Rev. Dr. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock sends forth the congregation.

During the service, The Reverend Dr. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock, Senior Pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, asked everyone to join hands for the final prayer in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He did so in front of the pulpit where King gave the last Sunday sermon of his life. In that sermon, King said, “We must all learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we will all perish together as fools.”

Throughout the weekend of the inauguration of a president, Washington’s historic buildings reminded the country that we have often disagreed and even fought as a nation. However, these buildings also speak to the fact that we have come together more often than not to focus on the ideals that make us Americans.

In the extraordinary, and yet also humbling, space of Washington National Cathedral, Dr. Warnock’s final prayer called us again to those ideals: “Let us recommit ourselves this day to one another and to the work of building together the beloved community. May God transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of the human family. And through us may all the families of the earth be blessed."

Learn more about our work to restore Washington National Cathedral on SavingPlaces.org.

David J. Brown served as Executive Vice President and Chief Preservation Officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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