Washington National Cathedral has a long association with the U.S. Space Program. Much of the cathedral’s construction took place in the “space age” of the 1960s and 70s and among the cathedral’s many symbolic stones from around the world is a small piece of the moon enshrined in its “Space Window” dedicated in 1974. In December 2018 it also hosted, “Spirit of Apollo” a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 Christmas Broadcast from space. On Sunday, January 12, 2020, its association with U.S. presence in space deepened when it blessed a Bible to be used for the swearing in of General Jay Raymond as first Chief of Space Operations, United States Space Force. The brief five-minute ceremony took place in the middle of the cathedral’s main Sunday service.
A tweet from the cathedral made a bolder claim about the Bible saying that it would be used for “all commanders” of the new military branch.
Many readers read this to mean that all future officers would be swearing on the Bible and complained. Others understood it meant only the commanding general and still objected. In a statement Mikey Weinstein founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation strongly condemned the swearing in of any military officer on a Bible as an “unconstitutional horor.”
The actual intention, as Stephen Losey reported in Air Force Times Monday night, was for this Bible to continue in the Space Force a tradition that General Carl A. Spaatz started in Air Force when he became its first chief of staff in 1947. Spaatz purchased a Bible to use at his swearing in. It has become a tradition for his successors to use it as well.
In the worship service, it was clear that the first use of the Bible would be to swear in the first chief of space operations. But it the Bible was also spoke of as being for the Space Force. The service leaflet listed the event as simply “Presentation and Blessing of the Bible for the United States Space Force.” The liturgy consisted of an introduction, two verses of scripture, and a prayer offered by the cathedral’s dean, the Very Reverend Randolph Hollerith followed by a prayer and blessing by the Episcopal Church’s bishop suffragan for armed services and federal ministries, the Right Reverend Carl Wright. Wright had served as an Air Force chaplain earlier in his career. The Air Force chief of chaplains Major General Steven A. Schaick participated in the service in uniform by silently holding the Bible. The press has reported it was a King James Version and had been donated by the Museum of the Bible.
The dean’s scripture and prayer was the rite for blessing Bibles in the Book of Occasional Services 2018 of the Episcopal Church. Since it was for a branch of the military, however, the dean added a the petition that people would search the Bible for the “the wisdom that leads to peace.” The additional bishop’s blessing of the Bible appears to have been written for the occasion.
I have transcribed the text of the rite from the online video as follows:
[Dean Hollierth:] Today is a special day for many reasons. Not only is it the day we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, we have a special brief liturgy this morning. And I ask your patience and your participation and help. In 1947 the United States Air Force was formed as a branch of the military from the United States Army Air Corps. Last month the United States Space Force, the newest branch of the U.S. military, was officially formed from the United States Air Force. Now every branch of the military has a Bible that is unique to that branch that is used for taking the oath of office whenever a new chief of staff is sworn in. Today we have been asked to dedicate a new Bible that will be used next week when Major General John William Raymond will be sworn in as the first chief of space operations. And shortly thereafter this Bible will be taken into space. At this time it is my honor to invite Major General, U.S. Air Force, Steven Schaik, chief of chaplains and the Right Reverend Carl Wright, bishop for the armed forces and federal ministries of the Episcopal Church to join me for this dedication.
[Schaik and Wright who were seated in the first row of the nave join the dean on the altar platform in the crossing.]
[Dean Hollerith continues:] “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scripture we might have hope.”
“Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”
Let us pray.
O heavenly Father, whose blessed Son taught the disciples in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself: Accept this Bible which we dedicate here today, for the United States Space Force that all may so diligently search your holy Word and find in it the wisdom that leads to peace and salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Bishop Wright: Our sixteenth president Abraham Lincoln, himself a Bible scholar, famously said “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow” but God can. So with that in mind, let us pray.
Almighty God who set the planets in their courses, the stars in space, look with favor we pray you, upon the commander-in-chief, forty-fifth president of this great nation, who looked to the heavens, and dared to dream of a safer future for all mankind and upon General Jay Raymond in whose hands this Bible will be entrusted and with whose hands will swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic and upon all men and women of the newly created United States Space Force, wherever they may go, [the bishop placed his hands on Bible] and may this Bible guard and guide all those who purpose that the final frontier be a place where God will triumph over evil, where love will triumph over hate, where life will triumph over death. So bless this Bible today [made the sign of the cross over the Bible] that it will never be merely an artifact or a symbol but always your true and living word. May it be in the words of the Psalmist “a lamp unto our feet, a light unto our pathway.”
[The bishop took a basin of baptismal water and a green branch that had been used to sprinkle the congregation earlier in the service and sprinkled the Bible saying,] Bless this Bible in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. [He also again blessed it with the sign of the cross.]
In an interview at the time of the cathedral’s centennial in 2007, its dean, the Very Reverend Samuel T. Lloyd III answered a reporter’s question “How did the National Cathedral become the National Cathedral” by saying “Simply by offering itself.” The cathedral is simply an Episcopal church that offers itself as a “house of prayer for all people,” or now more commonly, “a spiritual home for the nation.” It seeks to do this through ministries that are by turns priestly and prophetic. The text of the Bible blessing clearly sought to maintain that balance.
Yet surely none of the other Bibles used by the chiefs of staff of the armed services have been so publicly inaugurated by being donated by the Museum of the Bible and blessed in the National Cathedral. Given the highly controversial role of religion in contemporary national life, not to mention the political controversy over the new Space Force, it is not surprising that the cathedral’s offering of itself in this situation would not be without controversy.