Hold Fast To That Which Is Good

I live and work in an environment that tries to be all things to all people…and I love it. This does not alter the fact that I strongly maintain that nobody can be all things to all people unless they come from a place of strong adherence to a core identity. My school is founded in the Episcopal tradition, is welcoming to people of all faiths or of no faith, and is in constant dialogue regarding the level to which we maintain a chapel program based on, and reflective of, the very best values and traditions of the Episcopal Church. We have healthy dialogue, hard conversations, differing points of view and passionate responses. We often disagree. This is a good place to be.

The recent news that the choir from Washington National Cathedral will be taking part in the inauguration on Friday has provoked a huge response, nationwide. At first there seemed to be confusion about the inauguration and the prayer service. The cathedral has hosted a prayer service on the day after the inauguration for many decades, and this is different to appearing at the inauguration itself. The cathedral invites the new president into its holy space in order to pray for him and for a peaceful transition of authority. The cathedral hosts the service. The new president, and his team, and the congregation, and the nation, are recipients of prayer and support. This is a service provided by the cathedral, for the people. This is the true meaning of liturgy and it is not about a person, or a group of people. It’s not about us. It’s not about me. It’s a transformative work provided for the people. Of course, the cathedral clergy, staff and musicians should design and execute such a service, coming from a strong adherence to the institution’s core identity; the institution of which they are granted temporary custodianship, and are granted power to lead. With great power comes great responsibility.

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The inauguration is intended to be a peaceful celebration of the transition of power. This is separate from the prayer service that comes on the next day. When the news first broke that the cathedral choir would be singing for the inauguration, many of us thought this naturally referred to the prayer service. The truth of the matter was gradually revealed, that the cathedral had also accepted an invitation to perform as part of the prelude music to Friday’s ceremony. This is not part of the choir’s official duties. At first, the articles all said that the Director of Music had agreed to do this. Well, all of us who have worked in large church institutions know that the musicians do not make these decisions alone! Since then, it has been clear that the Bishop and the Dean of the cathedral were in support of the plan, and both have issued statements to that effect. To me, these come across as reactionary statements rather than carefully considered rationales. The bottom line is this. It’s not enough to see both sides of the argument. It’s not enough to be all things to all people. It’s time to stand up against evil and hold fast to that which is good. In other words, don’t accept invitations to do things that run counter to your core values. You cannot be a strong leader of an institution, offer mere platitudes, and simply say that you see both sides of the situation.

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Performing for a president in happier times, with the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys in 1994 at the Lighting of the National Christmas Tree. That was Trisha Yearwood with Bill Clinton – not Monica Lewinsky! Oh, and Aretha Franklin was there too.  Good times…

We have the right as rational thinking humans to be dismayed and terrified about what a Trump presidency means. We have the right as deeply committed Episcopalians to be hurt and angry by decisions made by the current custodians of our cherished tradition. This is not a normal situation. This is not business as usual. The majority of American voters did not want this to happen.  It will probably take just a short time for many of those who thought they did want it to realize how great an error this was. But it happened. We can protest it. We can fear it. We can be angry about it. We can go high. We can go low. We cannot change it. We will even have to accept it. However, we do not have to endorse it.

The National Cathedral, having already espoused a chaotic, whimsical and often highly watered down liturgical life – in the name of moving with the times and seeking relevance –  is now endorsing the inauguration of the next president by agreeing to take part. There could be no clearer example than this of the church falling into line with society when, more than ever, the church needs to step up and be a confident leader of culture, perhaps counter-cultural, and stop being a follower. People will come to church to find respite from the failings of secular society, not to find more ties to it.

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Lightning nearly strikes the already earthquake-damaged cathedral last July. (Photo: Jeff Scheller)

I will be watching the inauguration on Friday because I am required to do so as part of my job. The entire school will gather and watch it together. For many it will be like watching a train wreck. I will be watching under duress, spending the time mourning the departure of a kind, thoughtful and intelligent president as America moves into a period of self-imposed tyranny, recklessness and painful regression. The American People did not want this, but somewhere along the line it was allowed to happen anyway. Something is horribly wrong with this picture.

What can I do? I can be honest about my feelings, without being reactionary. I can engage in difficult conversations without being cruel and unkind. I can be clear about my beliefs, true to myself, transparent in my dealings, and firm in my commitment to my own core identity.  Without that, I am of no use to anyone. I will strive to create beautiful music. I will preserve, uphold and contribute to the power and beauty of the very best of the tradition in which I grew up. I will keep my own priorities and expectations better in focus. I will live in hope that we will return to a time when clear, confident, humble voices of authority were respected, not constantly questioned; that those with experience and qualifications will be respected and trusted to perform their jobs; that those who are unqualified, with no experience, who are sensationalists or gas-lighters, are put in their place, and are held at arm’s length, whether artists or businessmen, teachers or politicians; that people are hired or elected to perform a job for the right reasons, and not to satisfy a quota, a whim, or to appeal to the lowest common denominator; and that those in religious authority may find the strength to say…

“This is who I am, this is what I offer you, I believe in this, and you are welcome to join me in this experience.”

Equally, I hope we might responsibly say…

“No, I will not agree to this, for it goes against my core beliefs and values.”

Without saying these things, with confidence and appropriate forethought, we are trying to be all things to all people. But actually we are nothing. We are lacking in substance and dismissive of our own integrity. Or worse, we are negligent and irresponsible in our actions which, as I fear we are about to see, can result in disaster.

At the start of this week we will celebrate the life of a man who said things like…

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At the end of the week we will be putting a man in power who says things like…

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To which I say…

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I first came to the USA in 1987, exactly 30 years ago, when Ronald Reagan was finishing his presidency. I was the organist on a choir tour for which this beautiful setting of that text was composed by John Rutter. More than ever, I believe, it’s time to hold fast to that which is good!

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2 thoughts on “Hold Fast To That Which Is Good

  1. Thank you so much for this. I am also shocked that there is to be no sermon at the prayer service, at Donald Trump’s request. Shameful.

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