When George Washington commissioned Pierre L’Enfant to design a new capital city on the Potomac River, the French architect’s 1791 plan called for a nonsectarian church “intended for national purposes … equally open to all.” American revolutionaries had rejected a state religion when they won freedom from the British monarch, who also led the Church of England. John Dickinson warned that mixing religion and government would beget feuding and persecution. Thomas Jefferson famously described “a wall of separation between Church & State.”
The idea of a national church stalled for a century, until lawmakers granted a charter to an Episcopalian group in 1893—making the cathedral the only church established by an act of Congress. The charter, like that of the American Red Cross, gave recognition but no funding. It took nearly another century to finish construction. Like the man whose funeral unfolds there today, Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Washington National Cathedral is a maverick.
This 4,000-seat space mingles church and state like nowhere else in Washington. State flags hang over the sanctuary’s pews. Stained-glass windows tell stories from the Bible as well as national history, such as the striking Space Window, which holds a seven-gram chunk of the moon delivered by Apollo 11 astronauts. In a side chapel, the carvings depict Jesus’s crucifixion while the kneeler cushions pay homage to U.S. presidents and famous citizens such as Herman Melville and Susan B. Anthony. As Americans debate history and monuments, the cathedral is not immune; The Washington Post reported that church leaders decided to remove the Confederate battle flag from two stained glass windows honoring secessionist generals. A dean said the windows were installed in 1953 to “foster reconciliation between parts of the nation that had been divided by the Civil War,” nearly 90 years after that war’s end.