The Episcopal Church’s Washington National Cathedral is under fire for agreeing to lend its space—and its choir—to the inaugural festivities of President-elect Donald Trump, with members of the liberal denomination chiding leaders over the decision.
Earlier this month, the Washington National Cathedral announced that in addition to hosting its traditional interfaith prayer service the day after the inauguration, it will also allow the church’s Choir of Men, Boys and Girls to participate in Trump’s official ceremonies.
ThinkProgress has learned that, at the request of the president-elect, Saturday’s prayer service will not include a central preacher or a customary sermon—unlike similar services held for President Barack Obama.
But as the Washington Post reported, the announcment has perplexed and frustrated many within the Episcopal Church. Leaders of the often overtly liberal “mainline” denomination have long participated in campaigns to protect rights of LGBTQ people, Muslims, and immigrants—groups who have been targeted by Trump and his supporters.
“I think there is a real difference between praying for the president and endorsing the president. This will have the effect of legitimizing his presidency, which is something I don’t think the Christian community should give him.”
Among the most prominent critics of the move is Gary Hall, the former dean of the Cathedral who left his post there in 2015. He said he would not have chosen to participate in the inauguration were he still in charge of the historic sanctuary.
“I am just so sad that the Cathedral wasn’t able to say no to the president-elect,” he told ThinkProgress. “I think there is a real difference between praying for the president and endorsing the president. This will have the effect of legitimizing his presidency, which is something I don’t think the Christian community should give him.”
Hall said he believes Trump “violates any possible norm of Christian faith and practice” and argued that participating in his presidential inauguration contradicts the example of Christ.
“I think we’re just at a watershed moment in American Christianity in our relation to the state as a culture,” he said. “I would not have held the inaugural prayer service, nor would I have allowed the choir to sing because the positions Trump has taken are so inimical to the gospel. I know it has been our tradition to do it, but this is a really different kind of candidacy and presidency—and it’s a time, really, for the church to be the resistance to this kind of authoritarianism instead of legitimizing it by allowing it to use the symbols of Christianity.”
Indeed, progressive faith leaders have been among the loudest voices decrying Trump both during and after his election, with his rise triggering a resurgence of the “Religious Left.” A number of faith leaders — including coalitions that include Episcopal Churches — have spoken out against his rhetoric, policies, and political appointments ahead of his inauguration.
Still, the Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, released a statement on Thursday saying she saw the choice to participate “as a gift,” adding, “at a time when emotions are raw, we hope to offer a few moments of spiritual solace and the healing gift of transcendent beauty.”
In a separate interview with ThinkProgress, Budde did not appear overly comfortable with the decision. She said she understands why people “are so mad,” and noted that she has spoken out against Trump’s rhetoric and still plans to host a “house full of people” coming to Washington to protest his inauguration. Nevertheless, she stood by her choice.
“This transfer of political power, yes it’s about a particular person, but it’s also about all of us,” she said, adding that choir members will not be required to attend. “It’s the highest symbol of the democratic process in our country. Regardless of how we feel about the man who fills this office, and how he got there …I don’t want to rob the country of that.”
“I don’t want to overly defend it, because I get why people are so mad.”
“I’m trying to create a church where we actually speak to people who see the world differently than we do,” she added. “I’m trying to build a broader church, a broader platform, to begin to influence the people we have had no way to be in conversation with.”
Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry, head of the Episcopal Church in the United States, also released a statement backing the Cathedral. He concluded: “Should we pray for the President? Yes!”
Yet such defenses have failed to persuade many Episcopalians. When Budde posted her statement on Facebook about the decision to participate, comments were laced with palpable frustration.
“To positively choose to sing at the Trump [inauguration] is to make a positive statement that hundreds of other groups and individuals refused to make on the grounds that it would mean supporting the insupportable,” wrote Laura Talley Geyer, referencing the lengthy list of performers and artists who have refused to perform for Trump. “Now, of all things, the Episcopal Church is going to do so? This is not the church I know.”
Deb Ramsey-Moor, another commentor, agreed: “You are symbolically performing for money changers in the temple.”
Mainline theologian Diana Butler Bass has also been especially critical of the move on Twitter.
— Diana Butler Bass (@dianabutlerbass) January 11, 2017
The controversy mirrors similar discord within the far more conservative Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose Mormon Tabernacle Choir also agreed to perform for Trump. Many Mormons have been deeply critical of Trump, and several devotees decried the church’s participation. One choir member even resigned in protest rather perform for the president-elect.
But the participation of the National Cathedral—which hosted an anti-Islamophobia march in late December—is arguably far more surprising, especially given that the institution played host to a concert in opposition to Richard Nixon’s inauguration in 1973.
What’s more, Episcopal churches were among the numerous religious groups targeted by people claiming to be Trump supporters after his victory on November 8. Although Trump himself occasionally attends services at an Episcopal congregation in Palm Beach, Florida, the Spanish-language sign of another Episcopal church outside of Washington, D.C. was defaced with the words “Trump Nation. Whites Only” shortly after his election.
“You are symbolically performing for money changers in the temple.”
Budde, who spoke at the defaced church shortly after the incident, said she believed Christians should both decry such behavior and offer orisons for their leaders.
“You pray for your leaders and you protest for justice,” she said.
Most Episcopal clergy contacted by ThinkProgress said they were conflicted about the decision, and some voiced passionate disagreement. But many declined to comment on the record—including those who have spoken forcefully against Trump and his policies. Some others, such as Bishop Gene Robinson—a fierce LGBTQ rights advocate and the first openly gay bishop elected in the church—said they could see both sides.
“We will all need to find a way to witness the Gospel of Jesus who commands us to care for and love the most vulnerable and marginalized—which the president-elect has shown little evidence of believing, opting instead to praise ‘winners’ at every turn,” Robinson told ThinkProgress, noting he won’t be participating in any of inaugural events. “For some, that will mean resisting all cooperating with inaugural activities…for others, in the spirit of Jesus’ command to love even our enemies, it will mean maintaining contact with the new president-elect in hopes of building a relationship which holds the future promise of change.”
But for Gary Hall, clerical reticence is part of the Episcopal Church’s historic affiliation to the Church of England, where clergy double as political figures.
“I think for the Episcopal Church, one of our problems is that we are still the vestiges of an established church tradition,” he said. “I think at some point establishment Christianity… has to decide if it is a faith community or if it is a venue for American civil religion.”
UPDATE: On January 17, the current Dean of the Cathedral Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith issued a new statement defending the decision to participate in inauguration festivities. He insisted the Cathedral and its choir are not “celebrating the President-elect,” but rather “want to model for him, and the rest of the country, an approach to civility.”
“Let me be clear: We are not singing for the President. We are singing for God because that is what church choirs do, and we are singing for our country because that is what this Cathedral does at important moments in our national life,” he wrote. “More importantly, we are engaged in this Inauguration to remind people, if even in a modest way, that God’s reconciling love is present and at work during this time of deep division and anxiety.”
But Rev. Robert Harvey, Rector of the Episcopal church in the Washington diocese whose sign was defaced with “Trump Nation Whites Only” shortly after the election, told ThinkProgress he does not fully agree.
“I endorse the prayer vigil the next day after the inauguration,” he said. “But I think it’s a mistake, frankly, to have choristers sing at the inauguration. I believe it gives tacit approval of Trump’s racism, misogyny, and the hateful speeches he has given during his campaign.”
“I think it’s a mistake,” he repeated.