Washington National Cathedral prepares to help family, nation honour McCain

Sen. John McCain, who died August 25 of brain cancer, served in the U.S. Senate from 1987 until his death. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 until he entered the Senate. Photo: Office of Sen. John McCain
Published August 29, 2018

Washington National Cathedral may be the site of state funerals and national memorial services and celebrations, but it is also a worshipping community whose members come to the cavernous building on the highest hill in Washington, D.C., to mark the significant moments of their lives. And that is why on September 1, the morning’s funeral for Sen. John McCain will be followed that afternoon by a wedding. 

“This couple is actually having their reception in the back of the nave, so we’re going to be moving in hundreds of chairs and moving out hundreds of chairs and then flipping it over again Saturday night for services on Sunday morning,” the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, cathedral dean, told Episcopal News Service in an interview.

It’s all hands on deck for the cathedral’s 80-plus employees as they prepare for McCain’s funeral, set for 10 a.m., and for the services that follow. “Some employees will be here all night Friday night and well into Saturday night,” he said.

Sen. John McCain delivers remarks on the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbour, Dec. 7, 2017. Photo: Office of Sen. John McCain

McCain’s funeral no doubt will be the largest such service held in the cathedral since former president Gerald R. Ford’s funeral service in 2007, he said. The cathedral has been the setting for many presidential funerals and other services at times of national crises and natural disasters. There have been prayers for peace and services to remember the victims of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake, among others.

McCain, who died August 25 from brain cancer just before his 82nd birthday, was a long-time Arizona senator who also had spent years as a prisoner of war after being shot down over Hanoi during the Vietnam War.

It takes more than 80 people to stage a service such as the McCain funeral. More than 150 volunteers are being pressed into action, according to the dean.

“Just the Secret Service needs alone can be immense,” Hollerith said. “Shutting down streets, sweeping the buildings hours ahead, days ahead sometimes. It will involve 250 folks from the media. You’ve got lines of people outside with security getting guests in. It’s a ticketed, private event…because the cathedral is only so large.”

Hollerith expects that 2,500 people or more will attend.

Even at that scale, the dean said, the funeral is still a funeral like the many done in the cathedral each year, for the famous and not-so-famous. As in any congregation, some preparations can be made in advance, either by the family or by the person who wants to be “well-prepared,” in the dean’s words. Then, after the death of a loved one, the family works out the timing of the service. He did not say how much preplanning has gone into the McCain funeral.

“What happens here that you can’t prepare for are the logistics involved in a service like this because of who may attend, who may be involved in speaking and when the event will happen,” he said.

An order of service is not yet available for the funeral, which will be livestreamed. However, the McCain family has announced tributes will be offered by former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as by former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Meghan McCain, one of the senator’s daughters. The Rev. Edward A. Reese, president of St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco, Calif., will preach.

Hollerith, diocese of Washington Bishop Mariann Budde and the Rev. Jan Cope, cathedral provost, also will participate. The details of the service made public so far are here.

The dean said it is an honour for the cathedral to host such services. “It is an opportunity to honour a grieving family and to help a grieving nation,” he said. Hollerith added that it is also an opportunity to show The Episcopal Church at its best with powerful and comforting liturgy.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry on August 26 called McCain “a witness to the nobility of living not for self alone but for the ideals and values that make for a better world.”

The nation says good-bye and honours McCain

A series of ceremonies to mark the passing of McCain will begin August 29 when his body will lie in state in the Arizona State Capitol. A private service at 10 a.m. will be followed by six hours of public viewing. The next day, a memorial service is set for 10 a.m. at North Phoenix Baptist Church.

McCain’s body will then be flown to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C., in preparation for lying in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda August 31. A ceremony will take place at approximately 11 a.m. ET and then a Capitol Hill Guard of Honor will preside as members of the public pay their respects from 2 to 8 p.m.

The cathedral service is the next day, and McCain will be buried September 2 at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, Md., next to his Naval Academy classmate and lifelong friend, Adm. Chuck Larson, following a private service in the academy’s chapel.

Hints of the faith life of John McCain

McCain was baptized an Episcopalian and was the great-grandson of an Episcopal priest. However, for the past 27 years he has worshipped at North Phoenix Baptist Church.

It appears that McCain never became a member of the church, which like all Baptist-affiliated churches requires full-immersion baptism. Ten years ago, then-pastor Dan Yeary told the Baptist Global News website that he had “dialogued” McCain, then in his second bid to become president, about such a baptism. (Episcopalians believe that a person who has been baptized at any age with water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit does not need subsequent re-baptism.)

McCain spent five and a half years as a POW in North Vietnam, a time that included torture and extended periods of isolation, some of it because he was the son of the admiral who commanded the war in the Pacific. In a 1973 essay for U.S. News and World Report, he wrote that he prayed not for “superhuman strength or for God to strike the North Vietnamese dead,” but for “moral and physical courage, for guidance and wisdom to do the right thing.

“I asked for comfort when I was in pain, and sometimes I received relief. I was sustained in many times of trial.”

Then-President Richard Nixon greets John McCain upon returning home after his 1973 release from captivity in North Vietnam. Photo: Office of Sen. John McCain

In 2007, he told the Christian Science Monitor that “there were times when I didn’t pray for one more day or one more hour, but I prayed for one more minute. So, I have very little doubt that it was reliance on someone stronger than me that not only got me through but got me through honorably.”

The Monitor reported that McCain helped run what it called a “covert church.” Orson Swindle, who spent the last 20 months of his captivity with McCain said that every Sunday, after the midday meal was finished, the dishes were washed and the guards had departed, the senior officer in the area would signal that it was time to pray together, by coughing in a way that signaled the letter “c” for church – one cough and then three coughs.

Swindle said the signal was the call for “a solid stream of thought among those of us there” during which the men in their separate cells silently said the Pledge of Allegiance, the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer, “and anything else you’d want to [say] in there that would get us some help – but not out loud. If we were heard talking, they would come in and start torturing us.”

Toward the end of the war, the North Vietnamese put the POWs together in a room, and the prisoners were able to have organized Sunday church services. McCain said he became a chaplain “not because the senior ranking officer thought I was imbued with any particular extra brand of religion, but because I knew all of the words of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.”

McCain said he conducted the services and gave a short talk. “We had a choir that was marvelous…. The guy who directed it happened to have been previously the director of the Air Force Academy choir,” he said.

George “Bud” Day, a fellow POW, told Religion News Service, that McCain “was a very good preacher, much to my surprise. He could remember all of the liturgy from the Episcopal services … word for word.”

The senator recalled the first Christmas the prisoners were allowed to have a service together. Some of the men had been held for seven years. The North Vietnamese handed McCain a King James Bible, a piece of paper and a pencil. He jotted down bits of the nativity story from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He read parts of the story in between Christmas hymns.

“We got to the point where we talked about the birth of Christ, and then sang ‘Silent Night,’ and I still remember looking at the faces of those guys – skinny, worn out – but most of them, a lot of them, had tears down their faces,” McCain told the Monitor. “And they weren’t sorrow, they were happiness that for the first time in so many years we were able to worship together.”

In his book “Faith of My Fathers,” the senator said that service “was more sacred to me than any service I had attended in the past, or any service I have attended since.”

McCain also recalled a Christmas Day when he was allowed to stand outside for 10 minutes in a courtyard. A guard came beside him and then drew a cross in the dirt with his sandal and stood there for a minute, looking at McCain silently. A few minutes later he rubbed it out and walked away, he recalled. This was the same guard who a few months earlier had come to his cell one night to loosen the ropes that held McCain’s arms behind his back in a painful position.

In an essay titled “The Moment I Came to Love My Enemy,” McCain called this guard his Good Samaritan and said that in that courtyard “for just that moment I forgot all my hatred for my enemies, and all the hatred most of them felt for me… I forgot about the war, and the terrible things that war does to you. I was just one Christian venerating the cross with a fellow Christian on Christmas morning.”

McCain also recounted the role of his faith and of communal worship during those years here.

Diocese of Arizona Bishop Kirk Smith told ENS that he knew McCain from two perspectives. As a policy maker, the senator met with Smith at least three times to discuss immigration, a controversial topic in the state. “He was very down to earth and receptive and wanted to hear what we thought,” Smith said. “He was a good listener.”

Once, on the spur of the moment, Smith invited McCain to come to an interfaith meeting on immigration south of Phoenix. For a man whose schedule was often made months ahead, the senator was free that afternoon and came.

“He was very well-loved and respected in Arizona, even though some people disagreed with him,” Smith said. “I disagreed with him on a lot of things, but people admired his character and his forthrightness.”

Smith recalled McCain’s sometimes-changing stance on immigration, but he also recounted a story that McCain told to explain why he eventually favored amnesty for immigrants. The senator had gone to a naturalization ceremony and had seen empty seats in the front row with combat boots in front of each chair. They represented soldiers who had died in action while they were in the process of becoming United States citizens. “That was the thing that pushed him over,” Smith said. “He said, if these young men were willing to give their lives for this country, why aren’t we making them citizens.”

The soldiers were posthumously made citizens, Smith said.

Smith also knew McCain by way of the senator’s aunt, his mother’s identical twin sister, who was a parishioner of his at St. James’ Church in Los Angeles. He would remind McCain of that connection, Smith said, and that led to swapping of stories.

McCain attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. While at the school, McCain was influenced by English teacher and football coach William Ravenel. “I worshipped him,” said McCain, according to Robert Timberg’s “John McCain: An American Odyssey.” “He saw something in me that others did not. And he took a very personal interest in me and we spent a good deal of time together. He had a very important influence on my life.”

Diocese of California Bishop Marc Andrus recalled on Aug. 27 that he heard McCain speak twice at Episcopal High School while Andrus was the school’s chaplain. As a student, the senator said he was not happy about the school’s compulsory chapel services.

“During those daily services that I imagine not only bored but frustrated McCain, something unexpected happened: he memorized prayers, parts of psalms, and other spiritual resources that he says sustained him and others during his almost six years of imprisonment in Vietnam during the Vietnam War,” Andrus wrote.


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