My footsteps echoed in the marble chamber so I lifted my heels to keep them from hitting the tile floor. In the transept, the “great choir” was singing Evensong. The unaccompanied voices drifted through the nave like wisps of pure music, beyond words.
I was in the National Cathedral to attend an interfaith prayer service held in the War Memorial Chapel. The National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF) was beginning its annual conference this new way last Monday evening, and I attended as a visitor.
At the service, sacred scriptures were read by three military chaplains: a Christian pastor, a Jewish rabbi, and a Muslim muezzin. There were prayers and liturgical responses. There was also a meditation by a Christian professor-type, who talked about the three reasons that military chaplains are indispensable. To close, the three faith leaders put arms around shoulders and each gave a blessing from their tradition.
I was glad to be able to worship in this venue. The War Memorial Chapel is a significant location, bearing testimony to the unique relationship between our nation and its religious life. This is an Episcopalian place of worship, but one dedicated to be a house of prayer for all people. This was the place where the names of all 58,000 American soldiers who died in Vietnam were read — a service that spanned 5 days — as a prelude to the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in 1982. There is a National Roll of Honor housed in the chapel. Various works of art each bear history. Of particular note is the cross made from pieces of the Pentagon in the wake of 9/11.
As an outsider, and a “religious professional” it would be easy for me to point out some mis-steps of the experience.Outsider eyes always notice the inconsistencies and the just-missed. But I have no interest in being critical. Instead I cherish and applaud the good effort I experienced.
As I sat in the War Memorial Chapel, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a difficult undertaking freedom of religion is. What a perilous thing it is. What a crazy experiment that democracy itself has proved to be. No wonder it is so stressful for our nation. How can we expect to pass this “way of life” to the whole world — this vision of freedom and harmony — when no single faith group seems able to embody it?
I sit down to write about this experience a few days after it happened — and in the meantime news of a fracture within the Episcopal Church is in the news. The Anglican Church (worldwide) has sanctioned the Episcopal Church (United States) for the next three years, over disagreements about same-sex marriage. The news was shocking, and in hindsight, not surprising at all.
In truth, trying to stay in fellowship with people with whom you disagree is difficult. Religious precepts always feel fundamental, so to hold those precepts loosely enough to stay in dialogue is asking a lot of people. Maybe the only way forward is baby steps like the one I experienced Monday night. When a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim, arm in arm delivered a benediction in our nation’s Episcopalian “National Cathedral.”