When Congress authorized the creation of Washington National Cathedral in 1893, it envisioned a national spiritual home. Decades later, it became a setting for presidential funerals, sermons by the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and worship services for epic national tragedies such as Newtown and Sept. 11. But would it have thought of tai chi and yoga mats? Seeking to transform the historic institution’s mission and heighten its public profile, the cathedral’s leaders recently removed the thousands of chairs usually in its 10-story Gothic worship area for a week of unconventional events in a suddenly changed empty but dramatic space. On Monday night, the nave was filled with dozens of people in socks after a lesson by a tai chi master with a silver sword.
On Wednesday, a chorus will perform an unusual 40-part song while walking across the marble floor (cathedral officials call this “extreme polyphony”). On Friday, the soaring space will be open for an all-night vigil and be stocked with yoga mats and meditation cushions. As mellow as it all sounds, the week-long public program — “Seeing Deeper” — is part of a highly orchestrated drive by the nation’s second-largest cathedral to remake itself and survive in an era when religious institutions are struggling. And what’s more institutional than a huge cathedral? Washington National Cathedral, one of the Episcopal Church’s three major U.S. cathedrals, was already forced to halve its $27 million budget in the mid-2000s because of falling revenue before an earthquake in 2011 caused damage tallying an additional $26 million. Although it is now in the black, it must raise its roughly $13 million annual operating budget as well as the remaining $19 million for earthquake repairs. More