St. John the Evangelist, Philip Schaff, and Christian Unity

Today, December 27, is the feast day of St. John the Evangelist. While internal evidence in the Bible suggests otherwise, tradition identifies him as the son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and the author of all five books in the New Testament ascribed to a John. As such his role in the New Testament is rivaled only by Peter and Paul. He is recognized in Christian art by usually being beardless or symbolized by an eagle or a chalice with a snake.

St. John the Evangelist represented as on the base of pulpit in Cordoba Cathedal, Spain, and in a rose window at St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.

Co-editing the works of the pioneering church historian Philip Schaff with my colleague Ted Trost, I learned much about the adulation John has received through the centuries. Schaff was born almost 200 years ago on January 1, 1819. Next week the bicentennial of his birth will be celebrated at the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History, which he founded.

In his first book, The Principle of Protestantism (1845), Schaff wrote

John, the apostle of love, has not without reason been styled by the church the “Theologian” per eminentiam. For by the eagle flight of his believing speculation into the depths of God and his Word as existing before the world and then made flesh for our salvation, he may be said to have led the way to Christian theology in its bold and glorious course. His love is only the strong will-force of knowledge, his knowledge but the keen vision of love.

The whole history of the Church furnishes proof that the men who have exerted the greatest and most happy influence, the wakers of a new life, the pillars of the temple of God, have always been distinguished also above there contemporaries by a thorough scientific cultivation.

Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, trans. John W. Nevin, in The Development of the Church, edited by David R. Bains and Theodore Louis Trost (Wipf and Stock, 2017), 175-6.

Schaff cites a medieval Latin hymn in praise of John. In his St. John the Divine: The Deified Evangelist in Medieval Art and Theology, Jeffery Hamburger translates it:

He flies like a bird without limit,
in that neither seer nor prophet
ever flew higher.
As much what would be fulfilled as what has been,
never were so many secrets seen
so purely by a pure man.

Cited in Development of the Church, 175

Schaff was an ecumenist, passionately concerned with the reunion of what he, following his German teachers, called the church of Peter (Roman Catholicism) with the church of Paul (Protestantism) in the coming church of John. He closes the Principle of Protestantism stating

The revivification of the spirit of John the evangelist, in the Church, will open the way directly for his second coming, to establish the Church absolute and triumphant, in which law and freedom shall both be perfect in one, and the results of all previous development appear conserved as the constituent elements of a higher and more
glorious state. To this refers the mystical sense of Christ’s word, John 21:22, where he speaks enigmatically of John’s tarrying till his second coming.

Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, in The Development of the Church, 190.

With such an emphasis on John–the beloved disciple, the theologian, the evangelist, the author of Revelation–as the embodiment of the coming church of the future, it is unsurprising that Americans would name him patron of their largest and most ambitious church, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Its name was fixed in a 1873 charter when Schaff was in his prime at age 54. Its cornerstone was laid on this day in 1892 a year before Schaff’s death. Its structure, like the reunion of Christ’s visible church is still unfinished.

Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, New York. Crossing and choir (interior, 2009), Exterior from the south.

While for Schaff, the key attributes of John were knowledge and love, the traditional Anglican collect for this feast highlights the theme of the light of truth appropriate for this dark time of year in the northern hemisphere. The phrasing in the Church of England’s Common Worship captures it best.

Merciful Lord,
cast your bright beams of light upon the Church:
that, being enlightened by the teaching of your most blessed apostle and evangelist Saint John,
we may so walk in the light of your truth
that we may at last attain to the light of everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

“O Mercy Divine” Wesley’s Original Text and Weir’s New Carol Setting for Nine Lessons and Carols

On Christmas Eve a new setting of a Charles Wesley Christmas hymn by Judith Weir was premiered as part of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge University. Weir set nine stanza’s of Charles Wesley’s 1745 text “O Mercy Divine.” The premier performance may be heard as part of free on-demand streaming of the festival at the BBC Radio 4 website until January 21. It begins at 1:05:30. The text and a note from the composer appear in the order of service on the college’s website. The stanzas included in Weir’s setting are:

O mercy divine,
how couldst thou incline,
my God, to become such an infant as mine?

What a wonder of grace,
the Ancient of Days
is found in the likeness of Adam’s frail race!

He comes from on high,
who fashioned the sky,
and meekly vouchsafes in a manger to lie.

The angels, she knew,
had worshipped him too,
and still they confess adoration his due.

Their newly born king,
transported they sing,
and heaven and earth with the triumph doth ring.

The wise men adore,
and bring him their store,
the rich are permitted to follow the poor.

To the inn they repair,
to see the young heir;
the inn is a palace, for Jesus is there.

Who now would be great,
and not rather wait
on Jesus their Lord in his humble estate?

Like him would I be,
my master I see
in a stable; a stable shall satisfy me.

A cello accompanies the choir. In her note on the carol, Weir describes the accompaniment as “a musical ‘flying carpet,” on which the choir can comfortably tread and later float above. The cello’s interludes between sets of stanzas help structure the hearer’s experience of the text.

Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord (London, 1745) in which Wesley first published these words contains seventeen other hymns. One of these, “Come, thou long-expected Jesus” is frequently sung. The others are not. Weir’s carol followed the scripture telling the story of the coming of the wise men. Accordingly she omits four stanzas that mention the animals, Mary, the angels, and the shepherds. She also omits the final two stanzas. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is often said of Wesley’s hymns that they begin on earth and end in heaven. While this cannot be said of the text as Weir sets it, it is true when the last stanza is included. As reprinted on the website of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, It runs as follows:

O mercy divine,
how couldst thou incline,
my God, to become such an infant as mine!

What a wonder of grace,
the ancient of days
is found in the likeness of Adam’s frail race.

He comes from on high,
who fashioned the sky,
and meekly vouchsafes in a manger to lie.

Our God ever blest
with oxen doth rest,
is nursed by his creature and hangs at the breast.

So heavenly-mild
his innocence smiled,
no wonder the mother should worship the child.

The angels, she knew
had worshipped him too,
and still they confess adoration his due.

On Jesus’s face,
with eager amaze,
and pleasure extatic the cherubim gaze.

Their newly born king,
transported they sing,
and heaven and earth with the triumph doth ring.

The shepherds behold
him promised of old,
by angels attended, by prophets foretold.

The wise men adore,
and bring him their store,
the rich are permitted to follow the poor.

To the inn they repair,
to see the young heir;
the inn is a palace, for Jesus is there.

Who now would be great,
and not rather wait
on Jesus their Lord in his humble estate?

Like him would I be,
my master I see
in a stable; a stable shall satisfy me.

With him I reside:
the manger shall hide
mine honour; the manger shall bury my pride.

And here will I lie,
till raised up on high
with him on the cross I recover the sky.

The reprinting of the hymn including that at reprintings of the hymn arrange it for a four-line meter by combining the first two lines of each stanza into one and combining the stanzas in pairs. Since this requires an even number of stanza’s the penultimate stanza is omitted.

Weir’s note in the order of service reflects this shorter version. She states that Wesley’s full text was fourteen stanzas, not the fifteen found in the 1745 printing of the collection.

President and Mrs. Trump Attend Christmas Eve Service at Washington National Cathedral

President Trump altered his Christmas plans and remained in D.C. to deal with the government shutdown. Mrs. Trump flew back to D.C. from Florida on Christmas Eve afternoon. At 10 p.m. they attended service of Holy Eucharist at Washington National Cathedral. It was Trump’s third visit as president to the cathedral and his first for a regularly scheduled public service. They were seated by Dean Randy Hollerith immediately before the dean welcomed the congregation to the service.

In Florida, the Trumps have commonly attended Bethesada-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church at Christmas and Easter.

In her sermon, the Right Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, challenged worshipers to take their place in God’s redemptive story and to listen for the word that God was saying to them in this service tonight. She quoted contemporary Christian author Rachel Held Evans and the German Jesuit Alfred Delp. Her most extensive quotations, however, were from the African American theologian and mystic, Howard Thurman.

She began the heart of her sermon quoting Thurman, “Celebrating Christmas affirms our solidarity with the whole human race in its long struggle to become more humane and to reveal the divinity in which all humanity shares.” Citing Rachel Held Evans, she insisted that our lives would find their meaning in the biggest story we can imagine and place ourselves in. This could be “nationalism, follow your bliss, or he who dies with the most toys wins,” but it should be God’s story of redemption.

The story of Christmas has “social implications,” she insisted and mentioned that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were forced to flee and take refuge in a foreign country. But as for what those social implications were for those listening to her, she left that to them to discover. Whatever God was calling them to do, she challenged them to “be instruments of God’s love for love’s sake.”

The cathedral’s video stream did not focus on the Trumps or other members of the congregation, but it did show them both the President and the First Lady receiving communion and singing “Silent Night.”

The video of the service and the service leaflet are available on YouTube

[UPDATES: Late Christmas afternoon The Washington Post published a story on the sermon (click here). NPR also broadcast an interview with Bishop Budde that afternoon on All Things Considered (click here).]

100 Years of Lessons and Carols

On Christmas Eve at 3 p.m. in England, a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols will be held in the chapel of King’s College at Cambridge University. It will be broadcast live around the world, in the United States over public radio at 9 a.m. Central Standard Time. (For one of many audio streams, click here. For the printed order of service click here.)

Many articles have been published to mark this anniversary and tell the history of this popular and widely imitated service. One blog post in the Guardian tells the story of the origin of this Christmas Eve service at Truro Cathedral in 1880. Another Guardian article features an interview with Stephen Cleobury who will retire this year after 37 years as the director of the King’s College Chapel choir. The BBC, which has broadcast the service since 1926, provides an overview of the history. King’s College provides a copy of the 1918 order of service.

I’ve listened to the service most years since at least the late 1980s, usually while wrapping Christmas presents. I received an LP recording of the service for Christmas some years earlier. Since my first year in college, I’ve also been to many services of lessons and carols that follow the same format and very similar prayer texts. Here are a few thoughts on this year’s selections and on the finer points of the service’s structure.

This Year’s New Carol

For over three decades the college has commissioned a new carol for the service each year. This year’s is a setting of a Charles Wesley text by Judith Weir. In the order of service, Weir describes the short stanzas of “O Mercy Divine” as “almost haiku-like.” The most poignant of them captures the world-turned-upside-down theme of Mary’s Magnificat
“The wise men adore,
and bring him their store,
the rich are permitted to follow the poor.”
It often said of Wesley’s hymns that they begin on earth and end in heaven. In its full form, this is no exception. It begins speaking of “an infant” and “Adam’s frail race” but ends
“And here will I lie,
till raised up on high,
with him on the cross I recover the sky.”
But Weir omits five of Wesley’s fourteen stanzas including this last one. In her interpretation the hymn concludes in earthly humility.
“Like him would I be,
my master I see
in a stable; a stable shall satisfy me.”

This is perhaps appropriate to its place in the service following the eighth lesson telling of the coming of the Wise Men. After the ninth lesson (John’s prologue), the collect for Christmas Eve, and the blessing, Wesley does get the last word. His “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is the service’s final text. It concludes
“born to raise the sons of earth,
born to given the second birth.”

Old Favorites

Among the changing music of the service, two of my favorite’s are returning this year. They are Elizabeth Poston’s setting of the anonymous text from New England, “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree” and John Rutter’s setting of Robert Herrick’s “What Sweeter Music.” The latter was commissioned for this service in 1987. I like the liturgical or courtly procession of Herrick’s text and Rutter’s text is idyllic and dependably singable. My wife and I own a two-disc collection of the commissioned carols and often refer to it as “the challenging carols.” And indeed many are difficult, even if rewarding, to hear. It is not so with Rutter’s.

If you aren’t familiar with these two, there is a fine performance of “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree” here by my university’s A Cappella choir, and here’s is the link to a 2008 performance of “What Sweeter Music” by the King’s College Chapel choir.


One aspect of the structure of the service that is often over looked in adaptations of in the U.S.A. is that the carol immediately before the first lesson is intended as an “invitatory carol,” that a call to worship, or an introduction to the service. This year, as often, the text begins “Up! good Christian folk, and listen.” It is a sung introduction to the lessons which is in some respect parallel in function to the bidding prayer. While the worship books of the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) all provide orders of worship based on the King’s service, none of them mark out this purpose for a song at this point. Indeed the Presbyterian and Episcopal books call for no song at this point. Having it and marking it as the “invitatory” carol shows the influences of prayer book offices of morning and evening prayer on the service. They each have their own invitatory that introduces the recitations from the psalms.

Lastly, the bidding prayer composed by Eric Milder-White is rightly prized and celebrated. I think one of its many strengths is the way that it is specific to the time and place of the service: “this Christmas eve” and “this chapel, dedicated to Mary, his most blessed Mother.” Similarly it bids prayers for, “the dominions of our sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth,” “this University and City of Cambridge,” and “the two royal and religious Foundations of King Henry VI here and at Eaton.” In services I’ve attended and in the service books of the denominations above these specific are replaced with generics: “this house of prayer,” “our city and country.” It takes a little skill to work proper nouns into these phrases while maintaining the cadence of the prayer. I think it is worth trying to do.

All in all it is the simplicity and adaptability of the format and its focus on song and scripture that make the service successful.

Trump Churchgoing and Christmas

There are millions of things more important than the church going customs of the president of the United States, especially at present. But since everything the president does is charted by someone, it is worth noting that President Trump’s announcement that, due to the government shutdown, he will stay in Washington for Christmas will alter his custom of going to church on Christmas Eve.

The past two years, Mr. Trump and his wife have attended a Christmas Eve service at the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida. This 1925 Gothic revival church is the same church in which they were married. They have also attended this church at Easter.

In Washington, to my knowledge, the Trumps have attended regularly-scheduled services only once. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the president attended a Sunday service on September 3 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square to mark the national day of prayer he had declared.

St. John’s is the unofficial church of the presidents and the closest to the White House. It has been visited by every president since it opened in 1816. Recently, it was the Washington church that both President Bush and President Obama attended most frequently. None of these three recent presidents was an Episcopalian when they were elected, but all found Episcopal churches most convenient and appropriate to their churchgoing in office.

Mr. Trump was raised a Presbyterian and Mrs. Trump a Roman Catholic. One may hypothesize that like many other Protestant-Catholic couples, they find the Episcopal Church to be an appropriate common church home. Attending churches well known to the Secret Service, also is surely a convenience to the government.

This year, Mrs. Trump and her son are already in Florida. She will return to Washington to spend Christmas with the president. Given that Washington church attendance would require last-minute adjustments for security, I won’t be surprised if the Trumps skip church this Christmas eve.

“Spirit of Apollo” Makes Good Alternative Holiday Viewing

If you are looking for alternative holiday viewing, you might consider the hour-long “Spirit of Apollo” program organized by the National Air and Space Museum and held at the Washington National Cathedral earlier this month. It is available on YouTube (click here)or on the Smithsonian website, where you will also find the printed program for the event.

The event commemorates Apollo 8, the first trip humans made to lunar orbit. It particularly remembers its most famous moment, the broadcast made by the astronauts on Christmas Eve 1968 in which they read to the world the creation account in the first 8 verses of Genesis. Also central is the “Earthrise” photograph taken by astronaut Bill Anders. Its effect on human perceptions of the Earth was aptly summarized by Anders, “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”

Jack Jenkins provided a fine report of the newsworthy aspects of the evening for Religion News Service. Here I’ll offer a few additional reflections. The program is an intriguing mix of the historical, the spiritual, the technical, and the artistic. A short documentary film and an address by James Lovell, one of the Apollo 8 astronauts, provides the inspiring historical story. Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church who impressed the world with his sermon at the royal wedding in May, provided a stirring sermon-like address. Curry framed the evening as one of “re-consecration and dedication.” He strongly emphasized the need to draw on the wisdom of science to address the challenge of global warming, saying we need to act now “to save this oasis, our island home.”

“Our island home” was an allusion to the phrase by which Apollo’s images of Earth entered into Episcopal liturgy. In one of the eucharistic prayers included in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, God is addressed saying,

At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.

Eucharistic Prayer C, The Holy Eucharist Rite II, The Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal Church, 1979).

Dean Randolph Hollerith also channeled this prayer in his welcome at the beginning of the evening when he mentioned the “images of our small and fragile world.” Howard Galley wrote the prayer in the summer of 1969 as he and the rest of the world watched Apollo 11 land on the moon. Apollo’s images of Earth were very much on his mind. While the prayer is often called the “Star Trek” prayer because of this phrase, it might be better called the “Apollo” or “NASA” prayer.

The most technical, or practical address of the evening came from the NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine. He presented the president’s space policy of returning to the moon and using it as a base for further voyages to Mars. This would be possible because the moon has water ice. Since water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, that means rocket fuel.

Curiously, in driving this point home, Administrator Bridenstine returned three times to the “firmament” which Genesis 1 states God created to separate the waters from the waters. We now know, Bridenstine emphasized, what the Apollo astronauts did not when they read the Bible. We know that there is water not only on earth, but on the moon. Defining firmament as “empty space,” he emphasized that the Bible’s words about water above the firmament had “very really meaning, and that NASA is now following the water so that we can make new discoveries.”

“Firmament” is the word the translators of the King James Bible used to translate rāqîa. Many more recent translations have preferred “dome.” Firmament is an anglicanization of the Latin firmamentum, which is related to the English firm. The key thing about the rāqîa in the cosmology of the Ancient Near East is that it is a physical boundary that can separate water. Thus it allows ordered life on earth to exist amid the watery chaos of the universe. Administrator Bridenstine’s glossing it as “empty space,” reconciles it with modern science. Some popular translations such as the New American Standard Bible and the English Standard Version perform this reconciliation in the text itself by using the word “expanse” which suggests to most ears distance, rather than boundary. Bridenstine’s main point of course was that water which is on earth is also elsewhere, a point the ancient world view took as a given.

“Firmament” is also the title given to the choral and visual presentation near the beginning of the program where the audio of the astronaut’s broadcasts from Apollo 8 is framed by ethereal music supplied by the cathedral’s choir. The work begins with an animated visual of the cathedral’s space window in which a piece of the moon is enshrined. This sets the astronauts words, not only their reading of Genesis, but all their broadcasts as a kind of civic sacred text encapsulating “The Spirit of Apollo.”

Bush’s Cathedral Funeral was the Longest Yet

In the age of television, the world has watched the funerals of nine U.S. presidents. These funerals had many stages, including, rites in the city of death, lying in state in Capitol Rotunda, a church service in Washington, and rites at the place of burial. For George H.W. Bush and his two immediate predecessors in death, the key stage was the funeral at Washington National Cathedral. At two hours and nine minutes, Bush’s service was a full forty minutes longer than either of theirs, and four times longer than the 1969 service at the cathedral for President Eisenhower. (Details below)

More Eulogies

One reason for the greater length of the cathedral funerals for Reagan, Ford, and Bush is that they have included eulogies. Former president Dwight Eisenhower was eulogized by President Richard Nixon in the Capitol Rotunda as was former Herbert Hoover by president Lyndon Johnson. There were no eulogies or even homilies the church services for Hoover and Eisenhower.

During ceremonies in the Rotunda, many attendees must stand. They are subject to fatigue. At the ceremony for Gerald Ford in December 2006, Michigan congressman William Broomfield collapsed. Delivering the eulogies in a church presents a more comfortable situation, though with the consequence of more intimately mixing the civic and the religious.

Nixon’s funeral included five addresses. There were four tributes by friends, family, or national leaders and one homily by a clergyman. The same pattern has been followed in subsequent services. Bush’s funeral was longer than Reagan’s and Ford’s not because of a greater number of addresses, but because of their greater average length and the inclusion of longer scripture readings, additional prayers, and music.

Liturgical Change

The three recent funerals have included more music including offerings by military and ecclesiastical groups and, in the case of Reagan and Ford, by famous musicians. They have also been conducted not only in an Episcopal cathedral, but by Episcopal clergy and according to Episcopal liturgies. While this is no surprise for Episcopalians Ford and Bush, Reagan was at the time of his death a Presbyterian. Eisenhower was also a Presbyterian, and when he was buried from the cathedral his service was led primarily by a Presbyterian minister according to the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship. 

Today the Episcopal Church calls for more participation by the congregation in funeral than it did in former times. At Hoover’s Episcopal funeral in 1964, the congregation was asked to stand, sit, kneel, recite the Lord’s Prayer, and respond to other prayers with, “Amen.” At Bush’s funeral the congregation was not asked to kneel but they were was invited to sing two hymns, recite acclamations after scripture readings, participate in a litany, and recite the Apostles’ Creed as well as respond to the prayers with an “Amen.” Much of this stems from the new Book of Common Prayer adopted in 1979 as part of the liturgical reform movement that also reshaped Roman Catholic worship and that of many other denominations. One effect of these changes has been to lengthen the service.

It is tempting to hypothesize that the war-time funerals of Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson were simpler out of deference to the many Americans who were loosing loved ones in the service of their country. It is probably truer to say that American funeral custom has changed. While singer Aretha Franklin’s day-long funeral in August was exceptional, it is indicative of a trend among some Americans.

I remember that when I was a child, my father took pride in saying that the Book of Common Prayer provided the same funeral for “king and commoner.” Comparing the Bush funeral to those in my local parish church, that is still true. It is simply that kings, or in this case presidents, have friends who are senators, prime ministers, and award-winning musicians.

Made for Television

While the funerals of Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Johnson were all well televised according to the capacity of their day, Nixon’s 1994 California funeral was the first to be carefully crafted for television in the era of the 24/7 news cycle. Reagan’s funeral a decade later did the same, but on a much larger scale. It set a new standard.

Funeral of Richard M. Nixon, April 27. 1994, Yorba Linda, California

Some traditional aspects of Reagan’s funeral, such as the horse-drawn procession, were not used by Ford and Bush. Other aspects such as the more elaborate church service were. From ancient times until the age of television, slow processions were a major way the public participated in funerals. They remained so through the mid-twentieth century for the funerals of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. But as media have involved, so has the means of public participation. Today televised indoor services receive the most attention.

Length of Presidential Funerals in Churches in Washington, D.C.

Six of the nine televised presidential funerals have involved a service at a D.C. church with the body present. The length of the church funeral given below is from the moment the clergy receive the body outside the church to when the body exits the church. It excludes outdoor military honors.

(The timings are based on videos of the services provided at the links below. An exception is Eisenhower’s. I have not yet located a recording of the complete service, so the time is based on information provided by the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.)

1963, November 25, John F. Kennedy, St. Matthew’s Cathedral, pontifical low requiem mass, eulogy by the Most Reverend Philip M. Hannan, 1 hour 5 minutes.

1969, March 31, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Washington National Cathedral, funeral service, 30 minutes.

1973, January 25, Lyndon B. Johnson, National City Christian Church, funeral service including addresses by W. Marvin Watson and the Reverend George Davis, 54 minutes.

2004, June 11, Ronald W. Reagan, Washington National Cathedral, Burial of the Dead, Rite I including addresses by George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Brian Mulroney, and the Reverend John C. Danforth, 1 hour, 30 minutes.

2007, January 2, Gerald R. Ford, Washington National Cathedral, Burial of the Dead, Rite I including addresses by George H.W. Bush, Henry A. Kissinger, Thomas J. Brokaw, George W. Bush, and the Reverend Dr. Robert Certain, 1 hour 29 minutes

2018, December 5, George H.W. Bush, Washington National Cathedral, Burial of the Dead, Rite II including addresses by Jon Meacham, Brian Mulroney, Alan K. Simpson, George W. Bush, and the Reverend Dr. Russell Levenson, Jr., 2 hours, 9 minutes.F

Length of Funerals Elsewhere

The funerals of Hoover, Truman, and Nixon each included a televised religious service, but not from a Washington church.

1964, 21 October, Herbert C. Hoover, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, New York, New York, Burial of the Dead, President Johnson attended the service which occurred before Hoover was taken to Washington to lie in state. Hoover lay in repose before and after the service, so unlike the others the length of the service does not include a procession into and out of the church, 15 minutes.

1972, 28 December, Harry S Truman, Presidential Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri, indoor funeral service, 39 minutes.
This was a private family service. President Nixon had flown to Independence to pay his respects to Mrs. Truman earlier and did not attend the service nor the official memorial service at Washington National Cathedral on January 5 which was attended by other government officials and foreign dignitaries. I do not believe that service was televised. According to the New York Times it included an address by the Very Reverend Francis B. Sayre, Jr., and lasted 40 minutes.

1994, April 27, Richard M. Nixon, Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, California, funeral service including addresses by Henry Kissinger, Robert Dole, Pete Wilson, Bill Clinton, and Billy Graham. While the burial service followed immediately at a slightly different location on the same site, the portion corresponding to the church services above was 1 hour 8 minutes.

Bush’s Long Funeral and the Creed

When President Donald Trump stood silently during the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed last week, perhaps he was thinking, “I should be home by now.” It would have been a reasonable thought.

The funeral of George H.W. Bush was the longest in the history of televised presidential funerals. It was forty minutes longer than either Ronald Reagan’s or Gerald Ford’s and four times as long as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s.

I’m referring here to the portion of the multi-day funeral conducted inside Washington National Cathedral. From the time his body was received by the bishops at the door of the cathedral until it was borne out through the same doors, two hours and nine minutes elapsed. (I’ll share details on the length of televised presidential funerals in an upcoming post.)

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry invited the congregation to say the creed one hour and forty-six minutes into the service. The longest previous funeral was Reagan’s at an hour and a half. Bush’s funeral was not longer because of any big difference. It had the same number of tributes as Reagan’s and a similar array of music. But a number of little things combined to make it longer. Among other things, two opening collects were used, not one, the scripture readings were longer, the average length of the addresses was longer, and of course the creed was recited. (Eisenhower’s funeral also included the creed.)

Bush’s leisurely funeral by no means explains the president’s general lack of a receptive expression during the service. Often people sit with friends at funerals. If they do not, they try to make friends with those they are near, especially if they are politicians. As has been widely noted neither the president nor some of his companions in the first row seemed interested in doing this. No doubt it was a long time to sit following someone else’s schedule and feeling alone.

The Apostles’ Creed Has a Big Day, Thanks to the Trumps’ Silence.

At yesterday’s funeral for George H.W. Bush, President Trump and the First Lady stood for the Apostles’ Creed, but did not recite it, nor did they look at the text printed in their service leaflets. This was also their response to most of the other calls for congregational participation in the service. But many of Trump’s critics on social media took special notice of the creed. (See also Michelle Boorstein’s article on this for the Washington Post.) In part, this was because it was the one long text the congregation was asked to recite rather than sing. In part, it was because the camera clearly broadcast that moment to the world.

Besides giving Trump critics another opportunity to denounce him, the online discussion involved a number of interesting points about the creed.

Is the creed a prayer? When some journalists referred to the creed as a common Christian prayer, others who know the creed quickly corrected them. The creed is a proclamation of faith, a statement to the world, the church, and to God, they said. It is not a prayer to God.

In my experience this basically reflects a difference in vocabulary as well as how Catholics and Protestants use the creed. Many Catholics call it a prayer and think of it as a prayer. It is part of the rosary, and one usually speaks of “praying” the rosary and recites the rosary while kneeling. A creed, usually the Nicene, but sometimes the Apostles’ is part of Sunday mass. Most Catholics think of the dominant action in all of mass as prayer.

In Protestant liturgies, on the other hand, the creed is often introduced with words that definite it as a declaration or proclamation of faith. This is how it is used in baptismal liturgies. (Catholics use a slightly different creed in their baptismal rite.) It is because it is used in baptism that it is included in the Episcopalian funeral rite.

Trump identifies as a Presbyterian, and Presbyterians commonly recite it. While this is true, the majority of Trump’s church going experience was at Marble Collegiate Church, a Reformed Church of America congregation. I don’t know the history of Marble Collegiate’s liturgical practice. But the regular recitation of the Apostles’ Creed is not something that I believe would have been emphasized by its long-time pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking.

Trump is the “evangelical President,” and he doesn’t even know, much less recite the creed. To this many have replied that the recitation of the creed is not a common evangelical practice. Others have said that while many evangelicals love Trump, they recognize that he is not one of their own. To the latter point, I’ll simply say that for some that is true. Some look to him as a “Cyrus” figure. A man from outside God’s people that God has appointed to do his work.

On the former point, it is true that free church evangelical churches, including non denominational churches and many Baptist churches do not use the creed in their worship or education. This is not because of theological objections to the content of the creed, but because of their identity as a non-creedal and/or non-liturgical tradition. I know that many students headed for ministry in evangelical churches encounter the creed for the first time when they are asked to write an essay about it as part of the application process to the divinity school on my campus.

Overall, however, the unfortunate debate is a good moment for liturgy. Liturgies are public. People watch what you do, especially if you are in the front row.

The Apostles’ Creed as printed in the service leaflet for George H.W. Bush’s December 5, 2018, funeral at Washington National Cathedral.

(Additional note added 1:30 CST: In the clip of the funeral accompanying Michelle Boorstein’s article, it appears that Ivanka Trump joined in the recitation of the creed. Since she is an Orthodox Jew, this raises other issues. Participating in televised liturgies when you are a public figure can be a minefield. I also note that perhaps realizing the problematic nature of the Presidential non-recitation, the camera team quickly cut to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry for most of the creed before ending with a wide-angle shot of the clergy.)

The Order of Service for George H.W. Bush’s Funeral in Washington

This afternoon the service leaflet for George Herbert Walker Bush’s funeral at Washington National Cathedral was published. The most notable differences in liturgical structure between it and the funerals at Washington National Cathedral for Presidents Reagan and Ford and Senator McCain are in the place of the tributes.

At Reagan and Ford’s funeral they came together before the Gospel reading but after all other scripture readings. At McCain’s funeral they came after the opening rites but before the opening collect and the scripture readings.

At Bush’s the first (by historian Jon Meacham) will follow the first reading, the second and third (by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Senator Alan Simpson) follow the second reading. An anthem will then be sung by Ronan Tynan and the Armed Forces Chorus before the fourth tribute by President George W. Bush. This seems better to me than the arrangement at McCain’s where the politically charged eulogies in the first half of the service seemed to many to overshadow the Christian funeral that followed. Mr. Meacham happened to be the guest preacher at the cathedral this past Sunday. It would not be surprising if his remarks were rooted in the text from Isaiah that precedes his tribute.

Reagan’s funeral included participation by Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic clergy as well as Episcopal clergy. At Bush’s as at Ford’s only all the clergy leading the service are Episcopalians. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry will open the service and offer the final blessing.

I have not confirmed it, yet but I will not be surprised if this is not the first presidential funeral in which a presiding bishop has participated. The presiding bishop did not participate in leading the services mentioned above.

Lastly, I know that watching McCain’s funeral some were very taken aback by the signing of the patriotic hymn “America the Beautiful” as the cross was brought to McCain’s casket immediately before the committal. See in particular Lizette Larson’s post at Pray Tell. That won’t happen tomorrow. As at Ford’s funeral at this point, the choir will sing the emphatically trinitarian Navy Hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.”

As at Ford’s funeral the recessional hymn is eight stanza’s of “For All the Saint,” a popular hymn at Episcopalian funerals.