I recently saw a photograph taken inside the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., during a prayer service for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. A somber congregation fills the pews. The glistening inlaid marble floor and the ornate statuary suggest reverence and formality. The gothic, 10-foot-high Canterbury pulpit rises up over the faces of the congregants. Within the pulpit stands President Bush.
The individuals in the pews do not appear well. It is too kind to say they look ambivalent. Many are black. Most are looking away. One or two have outright defiance etched in their faces.
That pulpit the president stands in was cut from marble taken from Canterbury Cathedral, the mother church of all Anglican Christians. It is adorned with the images of Venerable Bede, an 8th century Anglo Saxon Gospel translator; Archbishop Stephen Langton, a champion of the Magna Charta; and William Tyndale, the first English Bible translator. It was from this pulpit that Martin Luther King made his last public address. Anyone who dares mount the steps of the Canterbury pulpit had better know where he stands, and have something to say.
The image of President Bush standing in the Canterbury pulpit during a prayer service for Katrina’s victims may seem innocuous, but I find it both ironic and offensive.
It is ironic because of the disparity between the character of the man and the character of the office. Standing amidst the symbols and figures of the Anglican Church, President Bush shrinks in stature. He can’t have it both ways. He can’t go about with that “jes’ folks” thing he does most of the time, and then mount the Canterbury pulpit in the National Cathedral, and look like he is anything but out of his element.
I have a personal reason for my umbrage. I am an Episcopalian, an American Anglican Christian. The National Cathedral is the nation’s ecumenical house of worship, but it is also the seat of the Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States. To me as an Episcopalian, the occupation of that particular Episcopal pulpit, by the leader of an administration responsible for so much havoc in the world today, has more than a hint of sacrilege about it.
It is good that we gather to pray for Katrina’s victims. At such a time, the need and efficacy of the preaching and hearing of the Christian good news can hardly be overstated. But by this president? In the Bible we read how Jesus confronted the power structures that oppressed the poor and the powerless. His anger flared most hotly at the Pharisees. They did what He hated most. He called them hypocrites.
A full understanding of the complacence and misfeasance of the Bush administration contributing to the disaster in New Orleans is just beginning to be understood. For President Bush to appear in the pulpit at such a time goes in the general direction of a killer preaching at his victim’s funeral.
We call upon the president to speak at worship-full gatherings because we still believe in the largeness of the office. We cling to the arcane idea that our president ought to be capable of lifting us up with great thoughts, spoken greatly. We think of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy.
I grew up in the church. Being the son of a clergyman, I am passing familiar with the power of good preaching. The act defies the professional speech writer. It requires a genuine largeness of soul to discern the truth, carve it into vivid words, and speak it with conviction. You can’t buy that.
I have written before in these pages of the travesty that lately passes for presidential oration. I think we may not even remember very well what a great speaker can do for us. In our history there have been men and women endowed with this capacity, though they have been rare indeed. Their words have shaped our society, our hearts, and our nation.
It is said that by the time a man of any party reaches the White House, such is the sum of the compromises required to get him there that his moral authority is already corrupted. But realism is a cousin to cynicism. Let us be the optimists we Americans are reputed to be. Let us hold to our faith that one among us will soon come forward with such greatness of spirit that even the political systems now strangling the nation will be unable to stop him.
When that day comes, then we will see a president mount the Canterbury pulpit without a mantel of hypocrisy about his shoulders. His presence will add to the luster of Venerable Bede, Stephen Langton, and William Tyndale. His words will cohere with the teachings of the church. He will speak with uncompromised moral authority. Not only the pulpit, but the president too, will stand 10 feet tall.
Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife and three teenaged children. Chris can be contacted at email@example.com.