By NICHOLAS FANDOS
JULY 4, 2015
WASHINGTON — Its vaulted nave has been the site of presidential funerals and inaugural prayer services for almost a century. Woodrow Wilson is entombed here, as is Helen Keller. Outside, protruding from the intricate stonework of the building’s northwest tower, a limestone Darth Vader watches over the sprawling grounds.
If the United States had a national church, this would be it. Established by congressional charter and perched on this city’s highest hill, the neo-Gothic Washington National Cathedral has long been a prominent fixture in the life of the nation’s political elite, who come for rituals of celebration and mourning.
But these days, the scaffolding draped over the more-than-300-foot-tall tower and the fencing around much of its base tell a different story.
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.
Now leaders at the National Cathedral and in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington say they need close to $200 million, on top of regular annual giving, to finish restoration and set the 83,000-square-foot cathedral, the seat of the American Episcopal Church, on stable financial footing.
That figure is among the largest ever sought through a capital campaign at an American religious institution.
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.”
The Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, as it is formally known, has for generations had a privileged position in American public life. Plans for “a great church for national purposes” in the capital appear as early as Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 design for the new city. And beginning with a memorial service for President Warren G. Harding in 1923, the cathedral has been the site of a memorial service or state funeral for nearly every president.
The cathedral has also tried to position itself as a major center of interfaith dialogue and education in the United States, cathedral leaders say. It hosted a national prayer service just three days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, attended by national religious and political leaders including President George W. Bush.
More recently, the space has been opened to nontraditional religious services and voices. Last year’s firsts included Muslim Friday prayers and a transgender priest.
“The big push was we got to build this thing. It was like the Field of Dreams: If we build it, they will come,” said Bishop John Bryson Chane, who led the Episcopal Diocese of Washington from 2002 to 2011. “So then, once it was built, it was a national house of prayer for all people, but what does that mean?”
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.
But within months, as the financial markets collapsed, he and Bishop Chane found themselves slashing budgets.
“You have these things you want to do, but the care of the building and the cathedral’s historic financial fragility — you really end up having to by and large deal with the immediate pressures in front of you like the financial crisis and the earthquake and not get on with the things you want to be doing,” Mr. Lloyd said.
Between the 2009 and 2011 fiscal years, as investment values and annual giving plummeted, the cathedral cut its annual budget to $12.9 million from $27 million, triggering the layoffs and shuttering several high-profile affiliated institutions.
The Cathedral College was among the first budget items cut. The cathedral greenhouse, popular among generations of families in the northwest section of the city, closed just as abruptly. In 2014, the cathedral began charging the more than 300,000 visitors each year for tours: $10 for adults and $6 for seniors, veterans, students and children.
For a while, it even looked as if the cathedral’s rare book collection might be sold to the Folger Shakespeare Library here. Much of the collection was eventually donated to the Virginia Theological Seminary.
But a substantial number of books were sold to an undisclosed collector and seller for $857,000 in 2011, according to the cathedral’s spokesman, Kevin Eckstrom, who said the sale had not been motivated by financial interest.
Some missteps were more visible to the public than others, those familiar with the cathedral’s finances say. Bishop Chane pushed before the financial crisis for the construction of an undergroundparking garage that cost $34 million and continues to saddle the cathedral and its sister institutions with debt.
In another case, Mr. Lloyd quietly dissolved the National Cathedral Association, a network of donors organized in 1899 to support the building of the cathedral that was no longer bringing in large sums.
In July 2011, Mr. Lloyd unexpectedly announced he would resign that September. The earthquake struck a little more than a month later, and the cathedral, virtually leaderless and without earthquake insurance, quickly added millions in damage to its already strained balance sheets.
Restoration has been slow, in large part because of the cathedral’s compromised financial position. Stabilization cost $2 million, while construction planning and detailed studies took an additional $2.5 million. Fund-raisers took almost three years to come up with the money needed to begin repairs.
“The challenge is, as you move further and further away from the date of the earthquake, interest wanes,” said James W. Shepherd, the National Cathedral’s director of preservation and facilities.
Fund-raising officers are trying to provide effective reminders. As they plan the cathedral’s first major capital campaign in decades — still three to four years off by most estimates — those leading the effort said they were billing the campaign as a chance to rebuild the cathedral, and not just for Episcopalians.
Mr. Hall said he also hoped to reopen the Cathedral College as a kind of think tank for mainline Christianity and re-establish the Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage to bolster the cathedral’s profile, particularly among young people, who now make up a small portion of the institutional church.
In the meantime, the cathedral has taken steps to set up new, independent revenue streams to stabilize its operating budget and pare expenses. In addition to admission charges and increased revenue from a bookstore now run by a private vendor, a new on-site cafe opened in the old baptistery here in December. And just this Thursday, in an email to supporters, Mr. Hall announced new cuts to music programs as part of a “fresh start toward responsible stewardship” after three years of deficit spending.
But both Mr. Hall and Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, the current leader of the diocese, who is closely involved with campaign planning, say their real work is navigating religious and cultural trends that are pushing against the institution’s continued relevancy.
That means finding ways to invest in new programming targeting young people and non-churchgoing populations.
“I just think this is the moment, this is the work of this generation, is figuring out how you face into the situation you are in and then operate effectively in it,” Mr. Hall said.