Some 2,200 guests filled the Washington National Cathedral on Tuesday morning for the inaugural prayer service, a tradition as old as the country itself.
The service is meant to provide a spiritual boost to the newly sworn-in president. Prominent national clergy — from the Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh traditions — will offer prayers to Obama, who is accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Biden and Jill Biden.A leader from the Metropolitan Community Church, a Christian denomination that focuses on outreach to gays and lesbians, is among the speakers at the service this year for the first time, a moment of inclusion that echoes Obama’s historic outreach to gay Americans in Monday’s inaugural address.
“The reason we come together to pray is because we want the best for our country,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of the Washington Catholic archdiocese, as he entered the cathedral early Tuesday. “We pray for our president, we pray for our vice president. We pray for our leaders as we move forward.”
After the drama and pomp of the inaugural service and the let-loose vibe of Monday night’s inaugural balls, the prayer service — even in the cavernous Gothic cathedral in Northwest Washington — has a more intimate feel, with clergy standing at a one-person, elevated altar, speaking and looking directly at the president as they pray on his behalf.
The most prominent spot on the program belongs to sermon-giver the Rev. Adam Hamilton, leader of a 16,000-member Methodist church in Kansas and whose most popular writings focus on how to take a middle road in relationships, politics and when confronting spiritual doubt.
Hamilton is expected in his sermon to call for that middle road and a God-led path out of partisan bitterness. He will note the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation this year and the heavy emphasis the Bible places on freedom.
Due to high security, guests at the service had to arrive an hour or two early. By mid-morning, the ornate nave looked like the merger of a Washington political gathering and a conference of notables from the clergy community. Heads of think tanks, in sober suits, mingled with clergy from every imaginable faith community wearing a variety of colorful robes and head coverings, from the white wrap of the Bahai to the Jewish yarmulke.
Among the political heavyweights wereAttorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Transportation Secretary Raymond H. LaHood, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), Health and Human Services SecretaryKathleen Sebelius, Massachusetts Gov.Deval Patrick (D) and outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Even though the cathedral is an Episcopal church, its vantage point on a Washington hilltop and its dramatic design have made it a symbolic house of worship for many all-community events.
It was here that President Carter sat in 1979, his face in his hands, at an event to pray for the safe return of U.S. hostages being held in Iran. And it was here that President Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan made a surprise stop to light candles in 1982, during a three-day vigil at which the names of thousands of troops killed during the Vietnam War were read.
The cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal Church in the United States, is frequently chosen to host memorial services and events honoring prominent American leaders from across the political spectrum. But its leaders have made news in recent weeks by taking progressive social stands.
The Rev. Gary Hall, the cathedral’s new dean, announced in December that the cathedral would begin hosting same-gender weddings, and he also has taken up the cause of gun control in the wake of last month’s Newtown, Conn., shootings.
There have been inaugural prayer services since the time of George Washington, but they have been held consistently at the cathedral since 1933, with the exception of the services after the inaugurations of Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1997.
Clinton chose the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic black church in downtown Washington, as the site for his prayer services. The Obama family worshipped at Metropolitan on Sunday.
Among those participating in the service at the cathedral are: Wuerl; the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church; Imam Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America and leader of the Sterling mega-mosque All Dulles Area Muslim Society; Rabbi Julie Schonfeld of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of rabbis from Judaism’s Conservative movement; and the Rev. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.