A multi-part question generated by the Ford Funeral, "Why is the National Cathedral in the Anglican Communion? What is the history? Was the president an Episcopalian?"
The apparent answer would be that the Washington National Cathedral is in the Anglican Communion because it is a cathedral of the Episcopal Church, which is a constituent member of the Anglican Communion. I think the real question has to do with why the "National Cathedral" is Episcopal? Why is a building of our denomination used for national events? The answer to that is a little more complex.
In 1791, when congress selected the site for Washington D.C., Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant was employed to lay out the city. Included in l’Enfant’s plan was a church, “intended for national purposes, such as public prayer, thanksgiving, funeral orations, etc., and assigned to the special use of no particular Sect or denomination, but equally open to all.” That original site is where the National Portrait Gallery is. Of course, this was a difficult sell. Could the American government, forbidden to establish any kind of state religion, actually build and maintain a church? A sticky situation, considering that many of the founders were deists and not really interested in a Christian church.
A congressional charter was granted to the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia on January 6, 1893 under the signature of president Benjamin Harrison. Part of the charter was a stipulation that the church be available for events at any time requested by the President of the United States or the Mayor of the District of Columbia. The foundation stone was laid on September 29, 1907 in a ceremony presided over by President Theodore Roosevelt and the Bishop of London. Cathedral services began in the undercroft chapel in 1912 and have continued ever since. The cathedral was completed in September, 1990.
The cathedral is distinctively American in flavor, including the flags of all 50 states and a window that celebrates space flight with a piece of moon rock in the middle. There is also a gargoyle on the exterior in the form of
Darth Vader, the winner of a elementary school design contest. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last Sunday sermon from the National Cathedral pulpit before his assassination.
So why did the Episcopal Church get the charter and why does it continue to work over 100 years later?
First of all, you need to understand that the public perception of the Episcopal Church has changed over the last several decades. At one time, the Episcopal Church was considered the gold standard(1) of protestantism. Eleven presidents have been Episcopalians (Most recently G. Ford and HW Bush) and many of the captains of industry, most notably JP Morgan. I heard an article read on our local public radio station the other day from the 50s suggesting that if you were denomination-shopping and you wanted to get ahead socially, that the Episcopal Church was the way to go.
An article from the San Diego Union-Tribune speaks to the change in the church,
Peter W. Williams, a professor of religion and American studies at Ohio's Miami University, said the Episcopal Church “changed, beginning in the 1950s, from an inclusive establishment mainline church into . . . a more socially prophetic church willing to take edgy stands on social issues.”
So the question of why we got the charter is answered by the history. We were once a liturgical protestant church that took few social justice stands and attracted the rich and powerful. Although there has never been an official "American Church," the vintage Episcopal Church was darned close. National funerals, etc. demanded an understanding of ceremony that very few Protestants had, and anti-Roman sentiment at the time would have prevented the Roman Catholic church from being consulted at all. By granting the charter, Congress could insure that there would be a church that could be used when needed, but would not be funded or officially endorsed by the United States government, thus honoring the Establishment Clause.
Why does it continue to work?
It has to do with the best of those descriptors from the quote above, "Inclusive." Due to our non-dogmatic and ecumenical nature as a denomination, it has been very easy for the National Cathedral to function as a "House of Prayer for all people." Ministers of all denominations have taken part and preached at National Cathedral services, and Jewish and Eastern Orthodox congregations have used various chapels as temporary worship spaces. When a national event occurs, the National Cathedral has pre-arranged contingency plans in place. Episcopal liturgy blends well with military ceremonial, making state funerals seamless.
I have a personal love for this place, having gone to seminary "inside the beltway" and spending many hours there at various functions. It speaks to me as a powerful symbol of what the Episcopal Church represents - beauty, grace, and an openness to all. It can be argued that the change in our church from being the "Establishment" church to one more interested in social justice is the core problem with many of the issues our church faces today. My experience is that many people long for the days when being Episcopal meant being among the rich and powerful. The church that winked at the early 20th-century robber barons is gone.
One has to wonder if the sounds of Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermon permeated the walls in some way, transforming the walls of this heart of Episcopalianism to living stone.
(1) "She did, however, believe in Heaven because it was a ladylike place with pink clouds, harp music, and a man to open the door, but most of all she believed in that Chivas Regal of Protestantism, the Episcopal Church." - From "Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady" By Florence King
This blog entry inspired a sermon, "A Cathedral of Compassion," which is available on the AskThePriest Podcast.