During my tenure at the National Archives, I got into the habit of attending St. John’s Lafayette Square each year on Good Friday. As an Episcopalian I enjoyed the familiar liturgy, the music was always excellent, and long-time rector Rev. John Carsten Harper, was a gifted preacher. A short walk from the White House, St. John’s had long ago been labelled the Church of the Presidents. Reverend Harper had preached to eight Chief Executives during his 30 years as the rector.
When a sitting president steps into any church and takes his place in the pew, he puts himself in a rather vulnerable position. Pastors always want to make the Gospel relevant to the congregation and that oft-times means the events of the day are at the center of the sermon.
Famously, in November of 1967, Reverend Dr. Cotesworth Pinkney Lewis had President Lyndon Johnson and his family in the front pew of Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, VA and didn’t pass up the opportunity to tell him what he thought of the war in Vietnam. The American people deserve a “full and complete explanation of the war” preached Rev. Lewis and the President had to sit there and listen in embarrassed silence. As they exited the church that morning, the President silently shook the Rector’s hand and Lady Bird (in the “always say something nice” Southern tradition) complemented Reverend Lewis on their choir.
The following year, Bruton Parish became my oft-attended church as a freshman at the College of William and Mary. Lewis was a showman extraordinaire, and I particularly remember him holding infants high aloft as he walked down the center aisle and intoned, “Let us welcome the newly baptized.” Even the unhappiest of babies would be shocked into silence by this rare, elevated view of the nave.
In the modern era, it was my friend Reverend Bruce McPherson, who took a swing at President Donald Trump* from the pulpit of St. John’s Lafayette Square. Bruce has concentrated his ministry on service as an “interim” priest in the Baltimore/Washington area and my parish in Ellicott City, MD employed him for two years during our search for a new Rector in 2005-2006. He was serving in an interim role at St. John’s Lafayette Square when President Trump came calling on Sunday, March 17, 2019.
In the wake of a deadly rampage by a gunman in two New Zealand mosques the week before, Reverend McPherson asked, “What can we do? Well perhaps we’re called whenever we overhear or oversee hateful slurs against other people, perhaps we need the holy courage to call them out, because that’s just not us.” He went on to call hate speech a sin against the Gospel.
The President had taken some criticism due to his silence regarding the manifesto issued by the gunman which praised him and used Trump-like language such as calling immigrants “invaders”. You didn’t need a great deal of imagination to conclude that the morning’s sermon was aimed directly at one listener.
But my interest in attending St. John’s was liturgy and history, not political pyrotechnics. Consecrated in 1816 during the administration of James Madison, the church is an architectural gem. Its 1,000-pound steeple bell was cast by Paul Revere’s son, Joseph, and Lorin Stained Glass Windows crafted its 25 historic windows in Chartres, France in 1883. The Last Supper window over the altar makes a poignant backdrop to the Good Friday services that I attended for 10 years.
Of all those cold spring walks from the Archives to St. John’s and all those beautiful services that I attended, Good Friday, March 24, 1989, is the most memorable.
As I approached the church on that cold windy day, I noticed a handful of Secret Service Agents standing on either side of the door as I entered from Lafayette Square. In the pre-9/11 world of Washington, DC that rather light security detail could mean one of two things. Either a Cabinet Secretary or some other protectee was in the church, or the President was on his way. I had been there enough to know that the President’s attendance was much less likely.
I entered the nave and walked up the aisle to Pew 54 and stepped in to take a seat. Now, my father always said, “We only come this way once, let’s not sit in the cheap seats”. This is the “Church of Presidents”, and Pew 54 is the one reserved for the President when he is in attendance. However, being a church and one with the motto, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You”, I had long ago learned that the ushers would not bar you from sitting anywhere you wished. We were long-past the days of pew rent and so every service was “open seating”.
The other interesting thing about Pew 54 is that it is not at the front of the church, but about halfway back. When the President of the United States comes to this church, he sits among the people, signifying in a silent way that this is a democracy. We are not there to worship our worldly leaders. We are there to worship the One whose image is depicted on that beautiful stained-glass window of the Last Supper.
On this morning, I was approached by a tall, impeccably dressed, gray-haired usher (like from Central Casting), who leaned over and asked me to please slide to my right and sit at the other end of the pew. As I moved over, I wondered, could it be? Was this in fact going to be the President’s Pew on this Good Friday?
Well, just then, the congregation arose, the Rector and black-cassocked attendants entered the church and processed to their stations and a Secret Service Agent stepped into the nave from a door on the Gospel side of the altar and stood on the left wall. As I was standing in place, I realized that a line of people in close order were coming down the aisle. I looked to my left and James A. Baker, Secretary of State, turned into my pew and side-stepped to a spot shoulder to shoulder with me. He was followed by a gentleman I immediately recognized as Brent Scowcroft, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. That would have been sufficient to make my day.
However, directly behind Scowcroft with a large shock of snow-white hair and a bright blue scarf was First Lady Barbara Bush followed by the tall, thin 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush. Holy you know what. Here they were sharing Pew 54 with me.
I smiled and exchanged pleasantries with Secretary Baker. The only other politician in the pew, President Bush leaned forward and nodded his head to me. I had been recognized as a fellow worshiper by the President. Wow.
As we sat down, I realized that the pew behind us had been occupied by an invading army of men with trench coats and earpieces. I am certain that they were wondering, who the hell is the guy who was prepositioned in the President’s Pew prior to our arrival?
The Good Friday Service at St. John’s, like many Episcopal churches, is structured around the last words of Jesus Christ and is broken into 45-minute sections from noon until 3:00pm. Each section includes a Gospel reading, a vocal solo, a short homily, and a concluding hymn. It is also interspersed with prayers that are received and responded to from a kneeling position.
I mention that last detail because I learned that Secret Service agents do kneel with the congregation, but they do not pray with their eyes closed.
I had contracted my annual spring cold at the beginning of Holy Week and was fighting a runny nose. (You know where this is going). At one point during the prayers, I reached into my back pocket for my handkerchief and as I pulled it out, I glanced over my shoulder to the pew behind me. Five sets of eyes were laser focused on my hand and my rumpled handkerchief as it emerged from my back pocket. I gave a weak smile and a nod as I moved the cloth toward my nose. They were still watching me when I returned it to its original place. In addition to the “they don’t close their eyes when they pray” lesson, I learned that when you are sitting near the President, you can, in fact, die from a common cold.
As the session ended and we joined in song, I realized that my end of the pew only had one hymnal available, so I offered to share with the Secretary of State. I had always admired James Baker as an intelligent public servant, policy manager, and political strategist. Ronald Reagan’s public image suffered when Baker shifted from White House Chief of Staff to Secretary of the Treasury during that Administration. It was way cool to shake his hand that morning and to share a hymnal with him in the final moments of my Good Friday experience.
I did learn one other thing that day. James A. Baker cannot carry a tune.
*President Trump made his most infamous visit to St. John’s on June 1, 2020. Given the non-political nature of this website, I have no comment to make on that trip.