There has been much conversation and consternation among Episcopalians since the St. Louis (hooray!) Post-Dispatch broke the story that Choirs of the National Cathedral will sing at the inauguration of Donald Trump.
I have great respect for my colleagues at the National Cathedral. And I don't envy any of them, especially not now. The National Cathedral is a tremendous place that has chosen to intersect with civic life in our nation's capital, and in so doing it has taken seriously its role to serve as a kind of spiritual locus of the nation at times of national significance.
But in light of the decision to have the Choirs sing at the inauguration, I want to reflect on something for which I believe they fail to account: the inauguration itself is a liturgy.
At its center is that sacramental holy of holies, the oath of office (administered by a secular cleric in robes!). Then follows the homiletical inaugural address, the ritualistic ascension of the past president by helicopter, the eucharistic presidential luncheon, the processional to the White House, etc.
Then there are poems (if the inauguration is for a Democrat!). And of course the whole thing is surrounded by music.
It is a tightly scripted pageant of civic liturgy we see every four years, and it is meant to evoke a certain kind of feeling.
In a marvellous essay about worship the theologian James Alison draws a distinction between civic liturgies, like presidential inaugurations, and what he perceives to be "True worship."
Using the extreme example of a Nuremberg rally to help draw the distinction between the civic ("Nuremberg") liturgy and the "True" liturgy (the "un-Nuremberg"), Alison writes:
The liturgical organisers of the Nuremberg rallies knew exactly what they were doing, and did it remarkably well. You bring people together and you unite them in worship. You provide regular, rhythmic music, and marching. You enable them to see lots of people in uniform, people who have already lost a certain individuality and become symbols. You give them songs to sing. You build them up with the reason for their togetherness, a reason based on a common racial heritage. You inflame them with tales of past woe and reminders of past confusion when they were caused to suffer by some shame being imposed upon them, the tail-end of which woe is still in their midst. You keep them waiting and the pressure building up. All this gradually serves to take people out of themselves; the normally restrained become passionate, unfriendly neighbours find themselves looking at each other anew in the light of the growing “Bruderschaft”. Then, after the build up, the Führer appears, preferably brought in by means of a helicopter or airplane which has been seen from beneath by the gradually effervescing crowd, and before long, the apotheosis takes place, and he is in their midst.
(The whole essay is worth a read, now more than ever).
Alison's point is that civic worship is about getting people excited around a particular person for a particular purpose; it is "dangerous and dehumanising." On the other hand, the True liturgy of Holy Communion is actually supposed to be "boring" because there's nothing left to achieve. God has already won the victory! We're not supposed to "get" anything from Christian worship.
So yes, as the Bishop of Washington notes, the inauguration is "an occasion for prayer and an opportunity to offer the balm of beauty." And yes, as the Dean writes, "[m]usic is a precious gift that holds the potential to point our hearts toward something larger than the things that divide us."
But when music is used in the service of Alison's "Nuremberg", the "something larger" may be rather incongruous with the mission of the church.
Update: 13 Jan 2017, 2:12 p.m. Earlier today the Washington Post published a story called "Washington National Cathedral’s decision to participate in Trump’s inauguration is creating tension".
On Facebook, Diana Butler Bass laments:
For any of you holding out hope that this would be a "truth to power" moment, please note this line from the article:
"Trump asked that there be no preaching during the interfaith service, she [the bishop] said. 'This is not the occasion that we will use to address particular issues of policy or concerns we might have about the direction he’s taking the country.'"
Maybe it is time to stop being so naive and admit that Trump is creating his own religion reality show here? And that it is being legitimized by the Episcopal Church?
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