Thursday, June 09, 2016

Shoot, If You Must, This Old Gray Head

Trigger warning: bad poetic allusions

Well, Dean Hall is gone from the national cathedral, and while he may not be moldering in the grave or anyplace else for that matter, some small bit of his soul is marching on in the announcement that the two representations of the confederate battle flag are to be removed from the Lee-Jackson windows and replaced with clear glass. It's oh so tempting to suggest that they should be replaced with white glass, but at least they aren't going to efface the whole thing, and for whatever reason they're leaving in the two representations of the confederate national flag. And, well, perhaps the Corps of Engineers flag should removed for offending the sensibilities of environmentalists everywhere.

OK, OK: sorry for all the cheap shots. But there's a certain irony in the whole project in that the whole controversy is over a very small fragment of a fabric deeply woven with a symbolism towards which the committed leftist progressive must have an uneasy relationship. Jesus to the north, sitting in royal judgement over the world; Jesus to the south, sitting in triumph; Jesus to the east for a majestic two-fer: it's all so royal. But at the same time, the towering presence on Mount St. Alban, the highest hill around, symbolizes the influence the cathedral establishment feels it deserves. In the '50s, it was still plausible; when the cathedral was finally consecrated in 1990, it perhaps was still plausible. But by then, already, the fragmentation of American society into warring political tribes had become a feature of public life, and the church, any church, could no longer present itself as the moral voice of the nation.

And by then there were no longer a series of signs along US 40, one each mile, telling the traveller the distance to the Barbara Fritchie House in Frederick. Whittier's poem, it is widely agreed, is something of a political pious fiction, assembled from a mixture of tales which more likely than not had their origin in the defiance of another woman, and which probably didn't involve Jackson. I have never visited the attraction, though I understand it is still in business. It was so blatantly a tourist trap as to be avoided by my parents. In the end a more scenery-conscious age swept the signs away, and a more cynical age swept away such pure sentimentality as Whittier wrote. There is something if the same naive secular hagiography in the window, which forgives the two of being on the wrong side of the conflict in favor of recalling their piety (which was quite real).

Such noble sentiments were once not ridiculed. As the First Things article from last year recounts, Dean "I marched with MLK even though my granddaddy was that great segregationist Woodrow Wilson" Sayre, under whose helm the window was commissioned and installed, wrote that "Cathedrals do not belong to a single generation. They are churches of history. They gather up the faith of a whole people and proclaim the goodly Providence which has welded that people together as they have hoped and suffered and believed across the centuries." Washington National Cathedral certainly was built under that vision, in the haphazard course of such projects; interrupted over and over, steered by benefactors and the whims of current taste, it is perhaps a miracle that it holds together as well as it does, and surely that can be ascribed to the long presence of Philip Frohman as architect. In it are recorded the concerns of a century of American life, through two world wars and into outer space. Perhaps one of my favorite memorials is the spot in a transept where it is carved that then Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher laid his hand in blessing; another remembers that Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last sermon in its pulpit.

And now, apparently, two pieces of clear glass, each about the size of my hand, are going to testify through the ages to the contrived twitchiness of early 21st century progressives. I suppose I should be grateful that Dean Hall's original notion was not carried through; and yet the window, in the hands of the cathedral chapter, has been turned from its original purpose of reconciliation into a permanent sign of division. The day may yet come when the battle flag is just history, and perhaps then some crate in the cathedral archives may be opened, and two old pieces of red, white, and blue glass may be returned to their former places. But I do not hold out hope that I will live to see the day.

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