Building and operating cathedrals has never been an easy or noncontroversial task. In recent years, several Episcopal Church dioceses have simply given up and closed the doors of their cathedral sanctuaries, often because of the decline of the congregations inside those buildings.
At the same time, far too many Episcopalians on the doctrinal left and the right have been lawyered up for decades, involved in lawsuits that are rooted in disputes about doctrine, but almost always end up focusing on property, buildings, trust funds and sacred assets.
It doesn't help if your cathedral is shaken by a literal earthquake, as well as the tremors of lawsuits and demographics. As most journalists know who follow trends in American religion, membership in the Episcopal Church has declined from about 3.6 million in the glory days of the '60s to about 1.8 million today.
This brings us to a recent New York Times story talking about the struggles to rebuild the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. -- both the earthquake-damaged sanctuary and the human congregation in its pews. Here are the crucial summary paragraphs that set the stage:
Almost four years after a magnitude-5.8 earthquake shook the site -- cracking finials and half a dozen flying buttresses and sending pieces of pinnacles tumbling hundreds of feet -- the National Cathedral is struggling to piece itself back together, physically and financially, even as contractors put the finishing touches on the $10 million first phase of repairs to the interior.
Before the earthquake damage, years of shortsightedness by church leaders, little known to outsiders, left the cathedral in need of millions of dollars in repairs and exposed to the worst of the 2008-09 financial crisis, when it had to cut its budget in half and lay off almost 100 out of its 170 full-time employees.
“That is not even a hemorrhage. That is a total collapse,” said the Rev. Howard Anderson, who from 2004 to 2008 led the Cathedral College, a widely respected continuing education center tied to the cathedral that closed during the crisis.
The cathedral is, of course, both a congregation with its own leadership and budget and the cathedral church of the highly symbolic, and doctrinally progressive, Episcopal Diocese of Washington. It is also the symbolic set of the national Episcopal Church. The bottom line: Episcopal leaders say they need close to $200 million to once again make the cathedral operation stable, on several levels.
The big idea for this piece is stated in this next chunk of text: In order to pull out of its funk, the National Cathedral (as well as the Episcopal Church and oldline Protestantism in general) needs to get more progressive and change with the times (no pun intended).
The financial setbacks have come as the cathedral struggles, like almost all mainline Protestant congregations, to find its footing in an increasingly pluralistic religious landscape.
“I think what we’re going through is the macro of what every other congregation in America is going through,” the Very Rev. Gary Hall, the cathedral’s dean since 2012, said in an interview in his airy cathedral office in late June. “The culture that produced mainline Christianity is giving way to a new culture, and we need to figure out how to align ourselves with that culture.”
In a very restrained passage, the Times team notes with favor that in the past year this sacred space has hosted its first Muslim Friday prayer rite, as well as a transgender priest.
This is, obviously, a big and very complex story. It is also rather obvious, with all of this red ink washing over the cathedral, that as Beltway folks like to say, in Nixonian or Clintonian passive voice, "mistakes were made."
But there are crucial issues in this piece that needed to be addressed with basic journalism: What were the key mistakes and how does the church's leadership avoid repeating them? Another crucial question: Has the struggle to build or preserve a congregation -- to keep the doors of the actual church open -- complicated efforts to protect and repair the building? Another question grows out of that: Have cathedral leaders used money raised for repairs to fund the over-arching work of the cathedral and its staff?
You can see hints of these questions in the following Times material about the roots of the current crisis. Read carefully:
The man who was supposed to find the answer was the Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, the descendant of a long line of Episcopal bishops and the head of Trinity Church in Boston. Mr. Lloyd was tapped for the National Cathedral deanship early in 2005 with the mandate to build the cathedral’s first permanent congregation. He sought to develop meaningful ties to the city and, fueled by money from a $15 million one-time bequest, quickly established a new Sunday forum series and special symposiums aimed at attracting new constituencies.
At the same time, much-needed repairs to the cathedral itself, estimated at $30 million in a 2011 report, went unaddressed.
Mr. Lloyd said the investments in new programs and staff appeared to be infusing the cathedral with new life by the fall of 2008.
Then the national economy went in the tank and Episcopal leaders "found themselves slashing budgets." How much? How deep? There were other negative trends, but the Times is not the place to read about them. In fact, while this piece features liberal Episcopal leaders questioning the decisions of other liberal Episcopal leaders, this piece includes zero commentary from the many cathedral critics in other streams of Anglicanism.
In other words, if this story focuses on debates about the recent past and the future of this cathedral, Times editors only let leaders on one side of the debate have a chance to speak.
What might voices on the other side of these debates have said, if offered a chance? Consider the following very harsh passage from a 2011 essay about the National Cathedral, printed at the conservative VirtueOnline site. This is long, but try to count the financial questions raised in this stuff:
In recent years, management decided to proceed with extravagant programs, even in the face of their waning support. The Washington National Cathedral has used its assets for operating costs for at least the past two years.
The Diocese of Washington has used the income from the Soper Trust for operating expenses since at least 2004. These formerly respected Episcopal institutions now appear to be sliding into financial disarray with their constant use of financial gifts and formerly dedicated money to survive and make expenses. Facts reveal the shifting and shaking funds moving from assets into immediate usage.
In its 2009 fiscal year, the Washington National Cathedral expenses exceeded revenue by over seven million dollars, even AFTER a nearly four million dollar transfer from "assets released from restrictions."
Not completely learning the lessons from this horrific year, in 2010, the Cathedral ran about a four million dollar deficit. It again covered this deficit with assets released from restrictions to make operating costs. (Washington National Cathedral 2009 and 2010 audits, pg. 5) After the August 23, 2011 earthquake, leadership appealed for money from the entire nation, yet the Cathedral acknowledged that any contributions could be used for operating costs, not only earthquake damage. The Cathedral's very existence seems threatened.
Wait. The Soper what?
There's more, of course, including anonymous sources whispering about a Protestant Episcopal Foundation loan -- $31 million worth of 30-year District of Columbia tax exempt bonds -- to build a giant underground parking facility. There's a lawsuit linked to the Soper Trust Fund. And more.
What's my point? Clearly, the cathedral has problems and faces challenges. Clearly, its leaders -- past and present -- are not in complete agreement about what happened and what should happen next. There are some cracks in the views inside this establishment.
You can see some of that in this Times piece. However, what you will not read in this piece are the questions and insights of National Cathedral critics OUTSIDE of the current liberal Episcopal ruling elites.
Now, please note that I am not saying that these critics should have dominated this piece. I am not even saying that the piece should have been 50 percent cathedral-staff apologetics and 50 percent criticism of the cathedral. I am saying that the Times team could have listened to some critical voices -- if editors even knew that they existed -- and investigated some of their questions and claims about the facts.
That's journalism, right? Based on what ended up in print, it doesn't look like the Times team was interested in the views of Episcopalians on the other side of the current cathedral wars.
IMAGE: Photo of earthquake damage; from the National Cathedral website.