Exit the National Cathedral dean, after only three years (but lots of edgy headlines)

Terry Mattingly looks at the Washington Post’s coverage of the resignation of Dean Gary Hall

As a rule, it’s almost impossible to understand news in the Episcopal Church, and the global Anglican Communion in general, without understanding that these events are affected by trends and decisions at the local, regional, national and global levels.

So a tiny diocese in New England elects a noncelibate gay male as a bishop and there are revolts in the massive, growing churches of Africa and Asia, creating problems for the leaders of the giant but fading Church of England, which tries to figure out how to cope as the U.S. Episcopal Church goes rogue, while American leaders struggle with waves of local lawsuits, linked to all of this doctrinal warfare, from coast to coast.

This makes for complex news stories that are hard to cover in, oh, 600 words or so.

In that context, recent events at the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington – better known as Washington National Cathedral – are relatively simple and localized. While the cathedral looms large over the nation’s capital, it has relatively little power at the national level and is almost irrelevant at the global level (unless it creates controversy that draws attention, perhaps by holding Islamic prayer services).

Thus, the decision by the cathedral’s dean – the Very Rev. Gary Hall – to step down after only three years is, first and foremost, a local Episcopal story. As noted in an unusually long news story in The Washington Post, the fact that the cathedral is increasingly become a local institution is part of the problem.

The cathedral has a nearly-unique structure – a small congregation (about 1,400 members), a smaller group of attendees, often tourists (about 1,100) and a reliance on a handful of major donors, tourists and grants for its budget. Of its annual budget of around $13-15 million, only $1 million comes from members, Hall said. Its place in American religious life is unique as well. The second-largest cathedral in the country, it is the seat of the Episcopal Church – a small but prominent Protestant denomination — and was chartered by Congress.

Cathedral leaders say this past year was one of the institution’s best for fund-raising and that Hall has charted out a future game plan that is widely agreed upon. But his exit leaves D.C. with one less colorful character and exemplifies that institutional American religion is not totally stable.

First, let’s look at that statement that Washington National Cathedral is the “second-largest cathedral in the country.” The second largest in terms of size or in terms of membership?

Let’s assume that we are talking about physical size, at which point National Cathedral is the second largest Episcopal cathedral, after the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, a massive structure that has never been completed. Is National Cathedral physically larger than that other ecclesiastical structure seen in the Washington skyline, the Catholic Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception? I have heard people argue both sides of that question.

In this story, the most crucial fact is that Washington Cathedral’s congregation and support base is shockingly small, compared with hundreds and perhaps thousands of other churches of various stripes across the nation. In this context, the fact that the doctrinally and politically liberal Hall was highly successful in raising his church’s profile in a certain edgy niche of the Washington establishment – a rich and prosperous one, however – appears to be part of the problem.

There are two dominant voices in this piece – Hall and the omnipresent, unattributed voice of the Post itself.

This is appropriate because of the many personal ties between the cathedral (correction: I should have said the local Episcopal establishment) and the Post team, two institutions that appeal to very similar flocks inside the Beltway. However, Hall and his staff are allowed to describe the cathedral’s financial problems using their own facts and language, with no criticism from outsiders on the left or the right. There are no specific references, for example, to strategic decisions involving massive, expensive parking garages or dealings with the Soper Trust Fund.

Here is a sample of that lofty, vague language:

While Hall had only been at the cathedral for three years, he elevated the profile of the financially-strapped church at lightning speed through his outspoken activism on topics like gay rights and gun control. The attention the patrician-looking Californian drew prompted debate about how political clergy should be, particularly at a unique house of worship often seen as “America’s church” because it hosts president’s funerals and communal spiritual services for national events like Sept. 11. Some also questioned whether the institution was becoming too New Agey in recent years, narrowing its scope.

The cold reality that the cathedral needs to raise tens of millions to survive embodies how much has changed since the iconic house of worship was first approved in the 1890s, a time when mainline Protestantism was America’s public religion, the faith of the elite, a group no one could conceive would eventually have trouble paying its bills.

But in the last few decades, mainline Protestantism has shrunk in size and stature, as has institutional religion overall – and few places represent that more than the soaring Gothic cathedral. The culture of American fundraising has also changed and the cathedral’s core donors are in their 80s, Hall said.

As you would expect, Hall and his cathedral do have their critics.

For the most part, these voices are represented in the Post story by anonymous summary references or hinted at with phrases such as “Cathedral-watchers.” Readers are left with the impression that these critics only exist on the doctrinal right, which I find rather hard to believe in light of the complex and at times fractured nature of the liberal Episcopal establishment.

Nevertheless, the Post is to be commended for quoting, by name, one articulate critic on the doctrinal right. Yes, contrast this with a recent New York Times piece on the cathedral’s financial problems, which at times resembled a press release. From the Post piece:

Jeff Walton, who directs the program on Anglicanism … for the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy, said the cathedral is becoming too narrow with programs focused on contemplative spirituality and left-leaning politics. He noted that while it is accustomed to prominent attention, its regular congregation doesn’t even qualify as a megachurch.

“If they are only projecting that they are for white, upper-class liberals who live in Northwest (D.C.), that’s the only audience they will reach,” Walton said. The financial model of the past – wealthy givers around the country who were committed to regular institutional giving – can’t be relied upon. “If it can’t be supported by the local community it will continue to struggle.”

In other words, niche audiences lead to niche finances. The question that is only vaguely addressed in this piece is whether the world of liberal Protestantism faces demographic issues that are uniquely threatening, even when compared with other major American church bodies that have suffered much smaller rates of decline. As I have noted before, most veteran religion-beat journalists are aware that the Episcopal Church has declined from about 3.6 million in the glory days of the 1960s to about 1.8 million today.

The thesis of the Post piece seems, to me, to be that National Cathedral needs to push on and please its doctrinal, political and financial base (once again, rather like the Post). But there are questions about this approach.

Please ask yourself this question as you read the following passage, which is quite remarkable, located near the end of this hard-news, as opposed to analysis, story: Who is speaking? Where are the attributions for these statements?

Cathedral-watchers disagree about whether the type of programs Hall brought in helped give the place energy and relevance or went too far from tradition and instead watered down its brand.

Mainline Christianity has been shrinking in recent decades, but all of institutional religion is struggling to deal with the lack of commitment by young Americans – including financially. Massive Episcopal and Catholic cathedrals are uniquely facing questions about how you fund buildings at a time when it’s trendy for religious communities to ditch buildings altogether, and when our most popular spiritual figure – Pope Francis — gets accolades primarily for his talk about simplicity.

How do you stand for “America’s church” when America isn’t sure what it wants in a church? How do you promote civic religion when the entire relationship between church and state is being renegotiated?

Who is speaking? One can only assume that this is the omnicient voice of the Post itself.

Reprinted with the author’s permission from GetReligion.

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