Presidential Inaugurals

A National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving

The Inaugural Prayer Service at Washington Cathedral

From the time that Major Pierre L’Enfant included “a great church for national purposes” in the plans for the city of Washington, the histories of the American presidency and of Washington National Cathedral have been intertwined. On Sunday, January 22, 1989, these histories were again united in the kind of service L’Enfant may well have had in mind, when the inaugural celebration for America’s forty-first president, George Herbert Walker Bush, culminated in a special service of prayer and thanksgiving at Washington National Cathedral. The service reflected the expressed wish of the Bush family that the inaugural festivities conclude with quiet reflection and prayer.

This inaugural prayer service marked the continuation of a tradition renewed by President Ronald Reagan, who held a national prayer service at Washington National Cathedral as part of his second inauguration in 1985. It also marked the involvement of the American presidency with the Cathedral in a way that was, paradoxically, a testament to the unity of a nation of people who are free to come together to pray and to the diversity of religious expression in America.

Coming Together to Pray

An estimated 3,550 people gathered together with President and Mrs. Bush, Vice President and Mrs. Quayle, their families, and other members of the new administration to pray for the future of the nation and the success of the work ahead. The service was the key feature of a National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving. A letter from President Bush was sent to more than 200,000 congregations nationwide encouraging them to use portions of the Cathedral service in their own worship services during the inaugural celebration. And following the service, when the Cathedral bells pealed out in celebration, churches across the country rang their bells as well. The result was that, in a sense, anyone who wanted to could pray for the nation along with the president.

As one attending family noted, “we are honored as a family to have the opportunity as ordinary citizens to be able to worship God in this truly magnificent sanctuary with President and Mrs. Bush on this Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving.”

A Nation United

The Rt. Rev. John T. Walker, Episcopal bishop of Washington and dean of Washington National Cathedral, who presided at the service, welcomed the congregation saying, “This morning this Cathedral reflects the great diversity that is our nation . . . . But we are a nation united in the person of our president. He is our symbol of unity. And it is appropriate, therefore, that we gather together on this occasion to pray for his life and health and for the life and health of the nation.”

Three Service Emphases

Cathedral Provost Charles A. Perry officiated at the service that was patterned after a simple morning prayer service of music, lessons, and prayers combined with three special segments—each comprised of a Scripture reading, a homily, and a litany prayer—reminiscent of services of lessons and carols.

The three sections were designed to reflect upon and emphasize the breadth of the decision-making impact of the American presidency: “Caring for the People of America,” “Caring for God’s Creation,” and “Reconciliation of the Peoples of the Earth.” Homilists for the three parts were, respectively: the Rev. Professor Peter Gomes, minister at The Memorial Church of Harvard University; Honorable John Ashcroft, governor of Missouri; and the Most Rev. Edmond L. Browning, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, USA.

Caring for America

In his homily, “Caring for the People of America,” Gomes focused on hope as necessary for reconciliation among the people of our nation. He defined hope as the essence of the work of faith and as the firm belief in present value and future possibility. “The Bible tells us that where there is no vision, the people perish,” Gomes said. “But it also implies that where there is no hope, no vision is possible. God has ordained governments to be instruments of hope. In God we trust, but in government we hope. What draws a people together . . . is a shared hope in the promise that where I am is not where I am going. Such is the common good.”

Caring for Creation

Ashcroft discussed the environment in his homily “Caring for God’s Creation.” He emphasized that when God gave people dominion over the earth, He shared His role as creator, in the sense that people can shape the nature of the world in which they live, and He shared His role as redeemer as well, in the sense that people can redeem the offenses against the earth that have already taken place. “Fortunately,” said Ashcroft, “many of our environmental missteps of the past can be redeemed. We have an incredibly wonderful opportunity to correct some of our past errors, to clean them up and start over again. With God’s help, science will bless us with even greater capacity for redeeming our past sins against the environment.”

Reconciliation and Moral Leadership

“Reconciliation of the peoples of the earth” will come from moral leadership, according to Browning’s message. He referred to President Abraham Lincoln as a man who exemplified outstanding moral leadership. Lincoln was beset by personal trials and presided over a war-torn nation, yet “his religious moral leadership in the face of these trials showed his unmistakable nobility,” Browning said. “When the moral leader shows his inner disposition of love and compassion through his words and actions,” Browning continued, “the people recognize, acclaim, and accept its authority. In fact, they hunger for that leadership, and as they are satisfied, they are reconciled to one another.”

Diversity of Religious Expression

Participants in the service were selected by the Cathedral in consultation with the Bush and Quayle families. Rabbi Matthew H. Simon from the B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, Maryland, read from the Torah. Vilma Guerrero Smith and the Rev. Canon Carole Crumley represented the Cathedral by reading part of the Forty-seventh Psalm and part of the fifth chapter of Matthew, respectively. His Eminence James Cardinal Hickey, Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, read from the New Testament as did His Eminence Iakovos, archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. The president’s son, George Walker Bush, and Mrs. James A. Baker, III, honorary chairman for the National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving, read prayers. And the Rev. Stephen E. Smallman, the Quayles’ pastor from their church in McLean, Virginia, read from the Old Testament.

It was most appropriate that “in a house of prayer for all people,” the service participants represented the Assemblies of God, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Greek Orthodox, Presbyterian, and Jewish expressions of faith and that seventeen representatives of local churches processed along with the service participants at the beginning of the service. In addition, more than one hundred special guests from various religious organizations were in attendance at the invitation of the Bush and Quayle families, including Dr. and Mrs. Billy Graham, the Rev. and Mrs. Pat Robertson, a delegation of ten Muslims, and the Grand Dharma (Chinese Buddhist).

Musical Expression

There was a diversity of musical expression in the service as well. For an hour prior to the service, those attending enjoyed preludes by the Walt Whitman High School Choirs, directed by Jeffrey Davis, and the Brass Ensemble of the United States Marine Band, conducted by Colonel John R. Bourgeois.

Music for the service, which was performed by the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys, Douglas R. Major conducting, and the Howard University Choir, Dr. James Weldon Norris conducting, ranged from spirituals such as “Ride On, Jesus” to the National Anthem.

“Thank you for singing songs I know: ‘America,’ ‘Ode to Joy,’ and ‘Amazing Grace,’” said one little boy, “I am seven years old and I’m glad to pray with the president to God. I hope my young prayer will help him be a good leader.”

President Bush’s Prayer

President George Herbert Walker Bush opened his inaugural address with a prayer that he drew from his breast pocket. Bishop John T. Walker used the president’s prayer as part of the inaugural prayer service:

Heavenly Father, we bow our heads and thank you for your love. Accept our thanks for peace that yields this day to the shared faith that makes its continuance likely. Make us strong to do your work, willing to hear and heed your will, and write on our hearts these words: “Use power to help people.” For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power and it is to serve people. Help us remember, Lord. Amen.

—Jean Grigsby
Originally published in Cathedral Age (Spring 1989)

Parking at the Cathedral

Parking in the Cathedral’s underground garage is free on Sundays for services and organ recitals; parking for concerts and programs is available for an event-parking fee. Learn more about parking options for individuals and groups.