Nave or Navel? National Cathedral Goes Off Deep End

Robert Knight

1/21/2014 12:01:00 AM - Robert Knight

The Episcopal Church-run National Cathedral in Northwest Washington, D.C. has hosted many events in its storied history, from Martin Luther King’s final Sunday sermon before his assassination, to U.S. presidents’ state funerals.

Last week, it was the site of “Seeing Deeper,” a five-day exploration of “expansiveness, immediacy, and insight.” Before we get into that, here’s a brief history.

In 1791, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who laid out the capital city, included space for a “a great church for national purposes.” The original site now houses the National Portrait Gallery.

A century later, on Jan. 6, 1893, Congress granted a charter signed by President Benjamin Harrison for the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia. The foundation stone was laid on Sept. 29, 1907 at a ceremony attended by President Theodore Roosevelt, and it took 83 years to complete the world’s sixth largest cathedral.

In 1990, master sculptor Frederick Hart also completed his 20-year work on the Creation Sculptures, which adorn the main façade. The magnificent series includes Ex Nihilo (out of nothing), The Creation of Day, The Creation of Night, Adam, St. Peter, and St. Paul.

Like the rest of the liberalized Episcopal Church, the cathedral is bleeding parishioners and donors, so it is now resorting to charging $10 for tours.

Less spiritually uplifting than the Creation Sculptures but eerily appropriate is the gargoyle in the shape of Darth Vader on the northwest tower. You can get a Darth Vader T-shirt in the online gift shop, which at one time was selling Darth Vader bobble heads. Seriously.

Last week, the cathedral, which has already celebrated same-sex “weddings,” jumped the shark.

“You see a cathedral, but you don’t see anything being done with it. I’m trying to get this place back to its roots.”

So said the Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the cathedral, who is quickly turning the place for the nation’s most solemn occasions into Flip Wilson’s Church of What’s Happening Now.

Don’t believe me? Try this snippet from the Washington Post:

‘“I want to skateboard down it — or have a paper airplane contest,’ Hall, a tall, white-haired priest, said Monday as he watched about 100 people practice tai chi in the football-field-long, rectangular nave.”

That’s right. The nave -- the heart of the church leading to the altar. They took out the seats to stage activities including yoga sessions during five days of “Seeing Deeper.” I wonder if they have given thought to renaming the nave as the “navel,” as in contemplating one’s own?

The cathedral’s website promised that “written prayers, yoga mats, zafu meditation cushions, poetry, and mandalas to draw and color” would be “available as reflection tools.”

For those unfamiliar with Eastern religions, you use a zafu during a zazen (sitting) meditation session. Mandalas are geometric patterns representing the cosmos, and are used in Hinduism, which has thousands of gods, or in Buddhism, which is godless.

I’ve been searching the New Testament for support of Rev. Hall’s assertion that the cathedral’s transformation into a multipurpose center with mandalas would fit into Jesus’ ministry, but so far, no luck.

Many great cathedrals now house heretics, but the physical majesty of these buildings at least preserves a sense of holy ground where people can contemplate the awesomeness of God and the condition of their souls. Now, even that’s been compromised.

Of course, real ministry is found in the heart, not in particular structures. Jesus warned us not to confuse showy religious practices with true repentance and love for God. And, although Jesus might feel more at home in humbler environs than a cathedral, He preached at times in the grandest building of His 33 years on Earth – the Temple in Jerusalem.

But can you envision Jesus of Nazareth converting a cathedral into a handy gym for alternative religions and “public-policy debates on topics including gay equality and gun control?”

The Very Rev. Hall seems able to do so: “If I get people together and say, ‘Let’s talk about God,’ we’ll get an argument. But if I say, ‘Let’s all pray together and experience the divine together in our own way,’ people can enter that in a much more creative and less-judgmental way.”

Translation: Don’t let Jesus and the Bible get in the way. In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no man cometh unto the Father but by me.” That doesn’t leave much room for the kind of spiritual smorgasbord we’re seeing now in Western nations, especially across the pond.

As the Post informs us, “Long ago, many European cathedrals removed their chairs and now commonly use their spaces for events ranging from corporate parties and arts awards ceremonies to events that can attract youths, such as ‘rave masses,’ where drugs are forbidden but loud music, dancing in bikinis and light shows are encouraged.”

Please don’t bring this up at the National Cathedral’s next vestry meeting.