Episcopal leaders address church’s part in Trump's inauguration

Presiding Bishop, Washington Bishop, Cathedral Dean see role as urging unity, prayer

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jan 12, 2017

Clergy lay hands and pray over President-elect Donald J. Trump Sept. 21, 2016, at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/ REUTERS

[Episcopal News Service] The involvement of Washington National Cathedral and its choir in the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Donald J. Trump has stirred concern in parts of the Episcopal Church.

The Cathedral Choir accepted an invitation to perform during the musical prelude to the Jan. 20 inauguration ceremony. That prelude begins at 9:30 a.m. EST. The actual ceremony is scheduled to start at 11:30 a.m. The program is here.

The cathedral confirmed three weeks ago that it would once again play out one of its traditional roles in U.S. life by offering Trump and the nation a chance to come together in prayer. The invitation-only 58th Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service will take place at 10 a.m. Jan. 21, the day after Trump is sworn in as the 45th president.

After news of the choir’s participation prompted a deluge of comments on social media as well as emails to officials involved, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Diocese of Washington Bishop Mariann Budde and Cathedral Dean Randolph Hollerith all issued statements on Jan. 12 addressing those concerns.

“We all know this election has been contentious and there are deep feelings being felt by Episcopalians on all sides of the issues,” Curry said in his statement. “We recognize that this election has been contentious, and the Episcopal Church, like our nation, has expressed a diversity of views, some of which have been born in deep pain.”

Acknowledging that there has been “much discussion, and some controversy” about the appropriateness of the cathedral hosting the traditional prayer service, and of one of its choirs singing at the inauguration, Curry said that those issues raise “some basic Christian questions about prayer.”

“When I pray for our leaders, why am I doing so? Should I pray for a leader I disagree with? When I pray, what do I think I am accomplishing?” is how Curry described the questions.

The presiding bishop said the practice of prayer for leaders is “deep in our biblical and Anglican/Episcopalian traditions.”

Curry said that tradition of prayer means Episcopalians are praying that “their leadership will truly serve not partisan interest, but the common good.”

“We can and, indeed, I believe we must pray for all who lead in our civic order, nationally and internationally. I pray for the president in part because Jesus Christ is my Savior and Lord,” he said. “If Jesus is my Lord and the model and guide for my life, his way must be my way, however difficult. And the way of prayer for others is a part of how I follow the way of Jesus.”

Construction on the 58th Presidential Inaugural Platform continued Jan. 4 on the west front of the U.S. Capitol. Photo: Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies via Facebook

Prayer is both “contemplative and active,” Curry said, adding that people who pray should both listen to God, and serve and witness to the world in the name of Jesus.

“We participate as followers of Jesus in the life of our government and society, caring for each other and others, and working for policies and laws that reflect the values and teachings of Jesus, to ‘love your neighbor,’ to ‘do unto others as you who have them do unto you,’ to fashion a civic order that reflects the goodness, the justice, the compassion that we see in the face of Jesus, that we know to reflect the very heart and dream of God for all of God’s children and God’s creation,” he said.

Hollerith replied to questions about the choir’s participation in his statement.

“Our choir is singing at the inauguration to honor the peaceful transition of power that is at the heart of our democratic government,” he said. “Let me be clear: We do not pray or sing to bless a political ideology or partisan agenda, regardless of the man (or woman) taking that sacred oath of office. We sing to honor the nation.”

The dean said choir members are not required to participate in what he called “part of our call to serve as a spiritual home for the nation.”

“In our bruised and polarized country, we hope the gift of our music can help remind us of our highest ideals and aspirations as one nation under God,” he said.

Budde said that “while I do not ask you to agree, I simply ask you to consider that we, too, acted on spiritual principles.

“Those principles, while they may seem to conflict with yours, are also essential for the work that lies ahead.”

The first principle, she said, is that Episcopal churches “welcome all people into our houses of prayer.”

“Welcoming does not mean condoning offensive speech or behavior; it does not mean that we agree with or seek to legitimize,” she said. “We simply welcome all into this house of prayer, in full acknowledgment that every one of us stands in need of prayer.”

The second principle, Budde said, is that “in times of national division, the Episcopal Church is called to be a place where those who disagree can gather for prayer and learning and to work for the good of all.”

Saying she is “alarmed by some of Mr. Trump’s words and deeds and by those who now feel emboldened to speak and act in hateful ways,” Budde said. “I believe in the power of God to work for good, and the capacity of our nation to rise to our highest ideals.”

Episcopalians and others have also questioned whether the cathedral ought to host the customary prayer service for the incoming president on the day after the inauguration.

Beginning with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inauguration in 1933, presidential inaugural prayer services have taken place at Washington National Cathedral, which calls itself a “house of prayer for all people.” That tradition has been more recently consistent since President Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985. The exception was President Bill Clinton, who chose Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, the historic black church in downtown Washington, for both of his inaugural prayer services. The cathedral has also been the location of funeral and memorial services for nearly all the 21 U.S. presidents who have died since the cathedral’s founding.

“At a time when emotions are raw, we hope to offer a few moments of spiritual solace and the healing gift of transcendent beauty,” Budde said. “We also want the nation to know that we are still here, as people of hope. While the inauguration is a civic rather than a religious ceremony, it is also an occasion for prayer and an opportunity to offer the balm of beauty.”

Budde previously said she would participate in that service, as is traditional for the bishop of Washington which includes the District of Columbia and four neighboring counties in Maryland.

Curry has asked Bishop Suffragan for the Armed Forces and Federal Ministries James “Jay” Magness to represent him at the prayer service because the presiding bishop will be leading a pilgrimage of reconciliation to Ghana, a commitment he made more than a year ago.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story indicated that the Washington National Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys is scheduled to participate in the inauguration’s musical prelude. This story was updated at 11:15 EST Jan. 13 to clarify the fact that the entire cathedral choir is participating.


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Comments (210)

  1. Martin Dickinson says:

    It’s a tough call. I was at evensong the day after the election and I could see many shedding tears for the position we are now in as exiles in our own land. I was present when Bishop Mariann said the would invite the new president to take part in the cathedral inaugural prayer service despite her deep misgivings. I’m a member of this congregation and it is my home place of worship. I think Bishop Michael’s statement is eloquent, and I agree with him. Since the election I have been reading Gandhi’s Satyagraha. The Gandhian way is to respect your opponent and deal with him/her straight on while adhering as a practitioner to Truth and principle. Bishop Mariann, Bishop Michael and Dean Hollerith are going forward courageously in this way. We do not know what lies ahead. Let’s stand on our principles and go forward with dignity and trust in our belief. According to Gandhi, hate is not the enemy. Fear is the enemy.

  2. Martin Dickinson says:

    It’s a tough call. I was at evensong the day after the election and I could see many shedding tears for the position we are now in as exiles in our own land. I was present when Bishop Mariann said she would invite the new president to take part in the cathedral inaugural prayer service despite her deep misgivings. I’m a member of this congregation and it is my home place of worship. I think Bishop Michael’s statement is eloquent, and I agree with him. Since the election I have been reading Gandhi’s Satyagraha. The Gandhian way is to respect your opponent and deal with him/her straight on while adhering as a practitioner to Truth and principle. Bishop Mariann, Bishop Michael and Dean Hollerith are going forward courageously in this way. We do not know what lies ahead. Let’s stand on our principles and go forward with dignity and trust in our belief. According to Gandhi, hate is not the enemy. Fear is the enemy.

  3. Hunter P Silides says:

    Please, someone in that prayer service: slip in the Minor Rite of Exorcism….

    1. Kilty McGowan says:

      It would be appropriate as we understand the Clintons and Obamas will be there and they surely need that service. While the exorcists are at it, they should go to the Whitehouse and perform a cleansing blessing.

  4. Dear Bishop Budde:

    I write you respectfully and lovingly as a fellow Episcopalian and member of the body of Christ.

    I respect your explanation of the rationale for the prayer service and the choristers but I also respectfully disagree with the latter element of participation. Here is why: Anything that legitimizes this man and his administration per force normalizes his behavior and normalizes all that brought him and his associates to the nation. It normalizes and complicity accepts his racism, misogyny, xenophobia, hate and corruption.

    The spiritual principle underlying the prayer service that we welcome all into our house of prayer is indisputable. It is indeed at our core, as is the notion that our church is a place of prayer for those with whom we disagree. And those principles lift the prayer service above normalizing this person and his administration no matter how strongly some of us feel about this election.

    But those principles do not accrue to the choristers accepting an invitation to entertain. That is very different from the traditional spiritual role that our National Cathedral plays in the peaceful transition of power in our democracy. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports, the choristers will join performers such as Jackie Evancho and some of the Rockettes as part of the inaugural.

    “The inauguration and its related events are distinct from a Jan. 21 interfaith prayer service in which Cathedral staff will take part, along with members of other faiths and Christian denominations,” the article states.

    There is no argument that Mr. Eckstrom’s statements properly justify the cathedral’s services. But the dean has erred in accepting an invitation at a secular event because joining with these other entertainers normalizes the person who will, no doubt, sully the office at is last breath of his oath. It would be an appropriate and welcome compromise to continue explaining the role of the service while withdrawing from the secular parts of the inaugural celebration and explaining how those reasons fit into rejecting his racism, misogyny, xenophobia, hate and corruption.

    I prayerfully beg you instruct the dean to withdraw the invitation as a sign that being an entertainer is tantamount to normalizing this ceremony.

    1. (The Rev.) Lisa Keppeler says:

      Well stated, George Schwarz.

  5. Grace Cangialosi says:

    I haven’t heard anyone say we shouldn’t pray for our new leaders, but I think an important point is being overlooked. The service does not require the presence of a choir, and I think it is highly inappropriate for the choir of Men and Boys to be part of the service. what message will the young boys in the choir take away from that experience? That the church is validating the views of a man that are completely at odds with the message of the Gospel? That it’s OK to show disrespect to women, to people of other faiths, to the disabled? For that matter, won’t many members of the general public get the same impression?
    As to the choir’s participation in the inauguration itself, I am at a complete loss here. That seems to be nothing more than a gratuitous performance outside of a church setting. How could that appear to be anything other than an endorsement of the new president and his policies/attitudes? What possible reason could there be for doing that?

  6. Michael Thorne says:

    Speaking truth to power is what a good Christian will do.
    Seeking the spotlight, to reinforce a sense of privilege is what a Pharisee will do.
    To sing, to attend, to provide beauty at a SECULAR and CIVIC event inaugurating a man whose repeated and flagrant and public actions are defiantly un Christlike is wrong.
    It is clear to me now that the National Cathedral is no longer a church in any real sense.
    It is now a beautiful setting for the reenactment of costume dramas and pageantry.
    Bells, vestments, choirs, stained glass, and soaring Gothic towers.
    Jesus will be found elsewhere in Washington.
    I am ashamed to be an Episcopalian

  7. Tom Bracewell says:

    It is inappropriate for a church choir to sing at a purely political event. This is America. We are not the national church, and this is not a coronation.

    I regularly pray for the state and for the President elect. I would gladly sing at the National Prayer Service. But as an individual and as a chorister I could not possibly bring myself to sing for this inauguration, especially in a choir robe. I would say no, not out of hate, but out of compassion.

  8. Daniel Smith says:

    Whatever happened to the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul? In this country we have no established church or religion. I see that the name Washington National Cathedral has replaced, even in official documentation like the website, the true and consecratory name of this holy space. As Episcopalians we pray for the leaders of the nations, as we pray for victims of injustice, war and civil strife, our armed services, the oppressed and the destitute, the mission of the Church, and those who have died. If we host a prayer service we should call this space by its correct name. We should also eschew sending our choirs to “perform” and “entertain” at secular festivities because practically no self-respecting talent will do so. Please do not let this happen.

  9. Michael Patterson says:

    It is regrettable that the National Cathedral is in a position where it is obliged to host the post-inaugural prayer service. At the same time, I recognize that it is right and proper to always pray for our national and local civic leaders, regardless of political affiliation or temperament.

    It is shameful that the leadership of the National Cathedral has chosen to allow its choir to participate in the upcoming presidential inauguration. On the outside, this appears to be a decision that only white people of privilege would make and attempt to justify. As a result, I have blocked the slick (and excessive) mailings from the development arm of the the cathedral in a tony suburb of D.C., inconveniently located away from the center of activity.

    With the headquarters of the Episcopal Church located in NYC, is there any reason why the Presiding Bishop’s cathedral cannot reside in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine? Perhaps, at the next General Convention, there should be a motion to move the installation of future presiding bishops from D.C. to NYC.

    1. robert hunter says:

      Mr. Patterson the upcoming service at the Washington National Cathedral will be an expression of American Christian Nationalism. As far as moving the Presiding Bishop’s Chair to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, a better suggestion for future P.B is that they may choose any Diocesan Cathedral as a P.B’s seat.

  10. Eric Bonetti says:

    As someone who is being shunned by my Episcopal priest after complaining about his questionable handling of parish cash management, financial reporting, HR and governance practices, I wish only that we really were as welcoming as we claim to be. Read about my experiences at https://is.gd/shunningchurch.

    #bobmalm #graceepiscopalalexandria

  11. I am so saddened by the response of so many congregants of the ECUSA who have expressed opposition to the use of the National Cathedral and the participation of the Cathedral’s Men and Boy’s Choir in the Inaugural Ceremony. It occurs to me that the very name, The Washington National Cathedral, reflects a significant mission of the Cathedral’s community, first by its named location, Washington, then by its service community, the Nation, followed by its description as a seat of Apostolic authority and its identity as a place of Christian worship.

    It saddens me as well that so many communicants, earthly members of the Body of Christ, are so much in the world that they can not see the corrupting influence of political partisanship on their spiritual life, that these children of God behave far more like those sitting in the Flavian Amphitheater’s seats than those prayerfully huddled together in prayer on the Coliseum’s floor.

    The Presiding Bishop’s comment…

    “We participate as followers of Jesus in the life of our government and society, caring for each other and others, and working for policies and laws that reflect the values and teachings of Jesus, to ‘love your neighbor,’ to ‘do unto others as you who have them do unto you,’ to fashion a civic order that reflects the goodness, the justice, the compassion that we see in the face of Jesus, that we know to reflect the very heart and dream of God for all of God’s children and God’s creation”

    …reflects his prayer, contemplation, and understanding of both the proper role of the Christ’s Church and the obligation of each of us who as Christians seek salvation through our personal profession of faith and desire to glorify God through godly works done in his name. If we no longer see the face of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the faces of all humans with who we share God’s creation, then our eyes are blinded to the truth of His teaching. How lost we are if we pick and choose to obey only those Words of the Gospel that comport with our beliefs, that comfort us, and ignore other Words which confound us, confuse us, challenge us and finally change us into Christians, followers of Jesus Christ.

    I can not find a single text, a solitary fact, not even one written instance of a Christian Martyr who called out aloud condemnation, hatred, or even displayed anger at the moment of their sacrifice. Indeed, they destroyed the State who oppressed them, murdered them, martyred them with kindness, forgiveness and an absolute belief and faith in love, the Love of God for us, and the Love He commands us to have for each other. + + +

    1. Kilty McGowan says:

      Bill Sullivan: Thank you so much for expressing that which so many of us are feeling. This is going to be a great event to welcome a man to be our president and who will rule from strength rather than weakness. He needs our prayers for the successful return of this country to the intentions of our founders.
      Those who have problems should recall much of the information about Mr. Trump came from those who had other motives such as losing their freebies, their government jobs and other notions that are invalid. If Mr. Trump had done half of what they have accused him of he would never have been the success he is.

      1. Daniel Smith says:

        Kilty McGowan: You reveal what you believe the successor to President Obama will accomplish: ” rule from strength rather than weakness”. The rule of the last monarch over our land, George III, ended with a revolution and abolishment of an established church. If the ceremonies of 20 January are your idea of a coronation, with the blessing of the Church legitimizing it, you and his kakistocracy are quite mistaken. The fact that he is the focus of these events is because all of those who support him do not care that he is a racist, a serial-adulterer, abusive to all who disagree with him, and unable to conduct a face-to-face conversation in a non-threatening manner. I hope you are satisfied with what you are calling down on our beloved nation, in the name of my beloved Church.

      2. Ruth Rocchio says:

        Oh my how we differ in our understanding of what evil is and whether or not we ought to accept it! Have the Episcopalians become practitioners of witchcraft with their prayer utterance? Jesus would throw the lot of us out of His temple, thanks for showing what the sad state of affairs Anglicanism has become.

  12. The Rev. Darren Miner says:

    I see the prayer service and the inauguration service as being quite distinct. I have no qualms about praying for the new president; Scripture calls us to do so. I do have qualms about the cathedral choir singing at his inauguration. I don’t think anyone watching will pick up on Dean Hollerith’s subtle explanation that the Episcopal Church is celebrating the peaceful transition of power and not the man Donald Trump. The National Cathedral is coming dangerously close to complicity with the principalities and powers of this world, IMHO.

    1. The Rev. Carol Henley says:

      Darren Miner: Very well said. By separating the two events and supporting the Prayer Service, we can actually elevate our commitment to prayer. To participate in the inauguration muddies the waters. In our Baptismal Covenant, at the core of who we are as Christians and Episcopalians, we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” I am ashamed of my Episcopal Church which is implicitly condoning the transfer of power to one who explicitly demeans and attempts to strip the dignity of fellow human beings. Pray? Yes! Participate in the Inauguration? No!

  13. Martha Richards says:

    I believe we need to look at the Choir participating in the inauguration as honoring the position of President of the United States (not necessarily the person). And remember, the Episcopal Church is part of the Jesus Movement and open and welcoming to everyone. We need to do the loving thing for all the people of this country.

  14. Louis Stewart says:

    There is little justification to glorify and give credibility to the coronation of a thug and sexual predator. Shame.

  15. Randy Hensley says:

    I do not support this decision by our church. There is nothing about this president-elect that is about peace. This decision is most definitely not about supporting a peaceful transition. I am tired of hearing that as an excuse. Non-violent, non-participation is also peaceful. More than anything our church should stand for love. This person being inaugurated almost never expresses love nor acts in love. Our church can quietly express our love by quietly but obviously not participating in a day raising unloving to a position of extreme power. And from a psychological perspective, this particular person being inaugurated, manifesting as he does, attributes of pathology, more than anything else, needs experiences of boundaries. Our church has just failed to provide boundaries.

  16. Mary Dotson says:

    This is a significant violation of the separation of church and state. There is no ethical way for any organization claiming legal religious status to participate in the inauguration of any elected official, even ancillary events. Certainly, we may pray in our communities for the well being of our nation–but our church organization (and facilities) should NEVER be part of the installation of a political leader. This is a serious ethical lapse. Please reconsider this and withdraw participation.

  17. Carolyn D. Larkin says:

    Think how this incoming administration could be changed if Trump was filled with the Holy Spirit and thus lived his life demonstrating “the fruit of the spirit “. This will be my prayer as I work to resist his message of violence and division,

    1. Lois Sivert says:

      Wow! This is passing judgement on someone whom nobody but God can read his soul. How do you know he is not filled with the “Holy Spirit” As I am witnessing all the “violence and division” that is happening every day against this man who hasn’t even been in office yet, I find that you people are responding out of hate rather than love. The person that wrote about King David and all his escapades yet led us to Christ is correct. How do you know that his Presidency will not be :the “fruit of the spirit”? Do you really believe all these accusations that are being spewed about him? I remember Herman Cain, who was running for President (I think 2012) and people literally destroyed him with all the lies and accusations. We are from the Atlanta are, where he lives, and there is no person alive, that has the morality and ethics this man has. Yet he withdrew his candidacy because of the unbelievable stress this place on his friends and family.
      I laud and praise the decision of the Bishop: he knew when he made this decision, he would literally be blasphemed for this.

  18. Maxanna Demko says:

    My Fellow Christians, Thank you, Busop Curry for your comments on the upcoming inauguration. I agree with you. We, as Christians, need to pray for our new leadership and our nation that all will be well. Always remember who is really in control, GOD. Pray that God will continue to bless this nation. We have been truly blessed by God to live in a nation where we are free to agree or disagree but we are all one as a nation. It is time for us to stand together united as one nation under God.

    1. Lesley Hildrey says:

      Being united looksvlike condoning him. We have to tread the line more carefully or one day the next generation will ask: “what did you do to stop this happening?”

  19. Maxanna Demko says:

    I meant BISHOP NOT BUSOP.

  20. Ellen OSullivan says:

    Bishop Curry talks about the power of prayer and I agree. But he does not mention why the choir is singing and I agree with others that this is very different. I am an Episcopalian lesbian who is scared and hurt by the statements and policies of the president elect. I am deeply anguished that the Episcopal church is willing to make a statement this way. So many other singers are not participating – this is making a statement that they do not agree with his policies of hatred and division. Bonhoeffer is my hero and he was one of the few willing to stand up to a dictator. We are caving and it leaves me heart broken.

  21. Sarah Glass says:

    Why are the leaders and many of the commenters conflating the prayer service with the inauguration performance? A pre-inauguration performance = political statement; inauguration prayer service = religious practice.

    The two are totally separate things! Having the choir perform as part of Inauguration Day festivities would seem to say “we want to be here because we support Trump politically”. This is what is making everyone upset. I haven’t seen any comments against the prayer service at the Cathedral. So why not just stick to the prayer service!

    Also, I’d be interested to know if the Cathedral Choir has ever before participated in the inauguration festivities before. Have they? And if the answer is ‘no’, then why do this now?

  22. Lesley Hildrey says:

    Sure, the new president is going to need all the prayers he can get! We must pray for him often. However, this service looks as if we are both condoning him and his extremist cabinet andhave given in on the fight we all know we must take up for basic human rights. I say: PLEASE DONT DO THIS!

  23. Karen Parker says:

    Whatever happened to “Judge not, that ye be not judged?” It is not our place as a church or individuals to judge. Mr. Trump has not yet taken office. When he does, our job will be to work for the good of all, ” with malice toward none and charity for all.”

  24. Dr. William A. Flint, MDiv, PhD says:

    Thanks Be To God! Yes, indeed pray for the nation and the President. Christians should at all times pray for all and seek to love all in the Name of God. Episcopalians have become a divided people because they have forgotten the principles of their Christian faith, The Episcopal Church has had so much internal turmoil in recent years from gay/transgender rights to this election. It may well be time for the Presiding Bishop to call us to repentance. I have always believed that Christians shared a personal relationship with Jesus that transcended all boundaries. After this year, I have to rethink my theology. I, like John Wesley, can say; I have felt my heart strangely warmed by the Presence of the Holy Ghost and I know I am a child of God. God’s validation is sufficient for my salvation. We are all sinners saved only by the Grace of God. Brothers and sisters don’t throw stones at Donald Trump, less you stumble and fall from God’s Grace. Look in the mirror and see your own sins and work to overcome them. Peace!

  25. The Rev. Joel Watson says:

    So we have Babylon he Great and his Whore. “And the busnessmen will weep…”, etc. The Rector of my Parish Church was sentenced by the president of the united stares to sweep the streets of Portsmouth, Virginia when he refused to pray for the president of the united states saying, “we do not live in the united states.” I will pray for the potus but NOT FOR “Our President!” He an the rich do indeed need our prayers.

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