Can the National Cathedral afford a quake?

As you may have heard, there was an earthquake in Washington, D.C., and other parts of the center-of-the-universe Northeast corridor. While people immediately started joking about the ratio between news reports and the actual damages (my personal favorite, here), the event has served up one major story (so far) for folks who cover the religion beat. I am referring, of course, to the stunning amount of damage at the highest point in Washington, D.C. -- the National Cathedral. Does this event have theological content (like, maybe, this act of God over in England)? Stay tuned.

But this much is certain: Journalists are going to be doing an unusual amount of coverage of ecclesiastical architecture in the months ahead. It is time for reporters to learn the difference between a "pinnacle" and a "finial," for example. Also, a cracked flying buttress is nothing to shake a stick at.

In light of the spectacular nature of some of the damage -- see some striking new pictures over at The Atlantic site -- I have been amazed that most of the solid coverage has been online and outside the Beltway, as opposed to a solid sidebar and graphics package at the Washington Post.

Unless I have missed something, the best story seems to be Dan Gilgoff's piece at, on the religion weblog. Here's the key round-up of the damage:

Three of the church tower’s four corner spires lost their ornate capstones, or finials, during the quake, and the building remained closed to visitors on Wednesday.

Called the "Gloria in Excelsis,” the cathedral’s central tower is the highest point in the nation’s capital, rising to a greater height than even the Washington Monument. Cracks have appeared in some of the cathedral’s flying buttresses around the apse, the area around the altar, though the buttresses supporting the central tower appear to be sound, the church said in a statement.

The cathedral’s mason foreman, Joe Alonso, said he is most concerned about any cracking in the cathedral’s vaulted ceiling.

“I just did a quick walk through the knave with my naked eye, just looking up at the vaulted ceiling,” he said in a video posted to the cathedral’s website. “I didn’t see anything just from the floor but that’s my big concern.”

This Episcopal Church facility is highly symbolic, of course, because of the cathedral's reputation as a “spiritual home for the nation.” However, in terms of news, the larger story is likely to center on efforts by the local diocese and the national church to raise money for repairs.

Why? Because of the financial struggles that surrounded the resignation of the Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III earlier this summer as the dean of the cathedral. As the Post noted at that time:

... (After) his first three years of rapid expansion, Lloyd and the church confronted the 2008 economic slowdown. Faced with a rapidly dwindling budget and endowment, he instituted several budget cuts, reducing the 104-year-old church’s staff from 170 to 70 and slashing its spending from $27­ million to about $13 million.

The church closed its popular greenhouse; reduced choir performances, lectures and classes; and outsourced its gift shop. It even hinted that it might sell its rare-book collection to the Folger Shakespeare Library, although in the end it did not.

His colleagues noted that Lloyd has led the organization back to firmer financial footing in the past two years, balancing its budget and returning its endowment, which had fallen by 25­ percent, to $67.6 million.

Now the parish has, literally, been hit by an earthquake. How big will the damages be? Who can pay the bills? These questions will eventually be asked.

While it is obvious that the damage at National Cathedral is a major story, I have been struck by the lack of coverage of the possible impact of this earthquake at the city's largest and, arguably, most important cathedral-sized sanctuary. I am referring, of course, to the massive Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which the Catholic hierarchy calls "America's Catholic Church."

What is the status of that soaring 329-foot campanile, or bell tower, next to the Romanesque-Byzantine sanctuary? At the moment, I can find nothing online -- in news or the wider web -- that even mentions this often-overlooked sanctuary.

I mean, how many Episcopalians are there in this country? That would be about 2 million and falling.

How many Roman Catholics are there in this country? That would be about 64 t0 68 million, depending on who is doing the counting and how they define who is and who is not a practicing Catholic.

Anyway, do the math. Someone should give the basilica press office a call. Anything shaking out there? Did any tiles fall out of the mosaics?

UPDATE: It appears that the embed code for the excellent National Cathedral video about the damage has been changed or disconnected. The video can be seen here. This still photograph is from the cathedral's home page.

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