IT has taken 83 years for the Washington National Cathedral to dawn completely on the horizon. And while it may yet only be a historic footnote in the national consciousness, the mammoth Gothic structure, which will be completed tomorrow with the fitting of its final stone, has certainly come to dominate the Washington skyline. Most Americans' image of this city is narrowly parenthesized by the democratic symbols of the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument.
Yet anyone who flies into Washington can't help but notice that Capitol Hill is rivaled by that other hill across town where the world's sixth-largest cathedral has risen in fits and starts since the laying of the foundation stone on Sept. 29, 1907.
A New World expression of an Old World art, the cathedral is ribbed by stone and supported by flying buttresses and gravity, not steel. But it drips with intricate detail that is purely 20th century in its concern and whimsy, from a Darth Vader-like gargoyle to an actual piece of moon rock inlaid in a stained-glass window.
What, ask Americans drilled in the principle of separation of church and state, is the Washington National Cathedral?
Besides being a 20th-century architectural wonder, it is also a symbol of American spirituality, conceived as a national house of worship for a pluralistic society.
Though it is run by the Episcopal church and is the seat of the bishop of the diocese, as well as the religious center of the church's United States leadership, the cathedral has no congregation. Rather, it is supported by a 20,000-member, nondenominational foundation, which paid the $130 million to build it and continues to provide operating funds.
The idea for a national cathedral is rooted in the city's earliest plans. French architect Pierre L'Enfant had actually penciled in a place for ``a great church for national purposes ... equally open to all'' in his original 1791 design of the city.
In the late 1800s, a group of prominent Washingtonians - mostly Episcopalian laymen with the dream of a united Christian church - decided to carry out the plan that Congress could not. Congress granted a charter in 1893, incorporating a private foundation to build a cathedral in the city. Similar to the congressional charter for the American Red Cross, it was merely a legal formality and did not offer any government privilege to the cathedral.
Though the largest part of the stone and stained-glass cathedral did not rise until the 1980s, it has been the powerful backdrop for services of national significance since 1932.
Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last Sunday sermon here. National prayer and thanksgiving services were given there for the inaugurations of Presidents Bush and Reagan. President Woodrow Wilson was entombed in a crypt there. A 1982 national prayer vigil, in which the names of the more than 50,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War were read, took six days of round-the-clock reading at the cathedral.
``We live in a nation of separation of church and state, and that's part of the American religious genius. Yet at the same time the nation is deeply informed by a religious sense, ...'' which the cathedral is meant to symbolize and serve, explains the Rev. Canon Leonard Freeman, one of the five clergy who run the cathedral.
``We've put up the biggest neon sign in Washington in terms of the religious heritage of this nation,'' he says.
``While they may talk about it being a national church, they have not relinquished it to an interdenominational body ... some feel it would be a bit much for Epsicopalians to claim it a national church,'' observes Ronald Johnson, director of American Studies at American University in Washington.
Interfaith services play a large part in cathedral activities. Special services, beyond the regular Episcopal services, involve other religions, from Islam to Judaism, from Roman Catholicism to Lutheranism.
The cathedral's Episcopal roots stem directly from an era when that church still carried the political and financial influence it had developed in early American society as the direct link to the Church of England, says Dr. Johnson. At the turn of the century, wealthy Episcopalians still had the notion that they might provide the framework for a national religion, he says.
In the heart of one of the capital's most prestigious neighborhoods and housing on its grounds exclusive boys' and girls' schools, the cathedral retains the traditional social character of the Episcopalian church. While it does have black clergy and participates in community outreach, the largest religious, and even political, influence in the city mainly rests today with black Baptists and Methodists.
Cathedral officials have always ``been wary of being presumptuous'' in claiming it to be a national church, Canon Freeman says. The name of the church itself - which has shifted through the years - reflects the hesitancy to claim something too broad. Officially named the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, it is variously known as the National Cathedral, the Washington Cathedral, or the Washington National Cathedral.
By whatever name, the cathedral's symbolic importance is perhaps eclipsed by its recognition as a purely American work of art.
This is not an imitation of European cathedrals, says Richard T. Feller, a civil engineer who has spent his entire professional career as the cathedral's clerk of the works. ``Just as the son looks like his father, with two eyes, ears, and a nose, this resembles Gothic architecture ... but it is distinctive and original.''
``Architectural historians can go through a long list of English or French cathedrals for resemblances of one part or another, but in its details and its entirety, Washington National Cathedral is unique. ... In its way this building is as authentic a piece of New World architecture as the great Sears Tower in Chicago, and every bit as astonishing,'' writes Benjamin Forgey, architecture critic for the Washington Post.
The cathedral has an airier, lighter feel to its stained-glass glow than its European predecessors. It is meant to evoke the religious and historic associations of the American time and place. It also incorporates modern touches such as television lighting, dimmers, sound systems, radiant heating, air conditioning, and elevators.
Though cathedral construction consumed the lifetimes of several architects - not to mention scores of craftsmen - architect Philip Hubert Frohman and British Gothicist George Frederick Bodley are generally credited with holding fast to the Gothic design. They suffered severe criticism because, with the industrial age in full swing, modernism was the style of the time.
The cathedral celebrates its completion tomorrow as a victory over the obstacles of artistic criticism, two world wars, the Depression, and its own large debt.
This enduring nature of the cathedral, says artist Brenda Belfield, is what inspired her 20 years of labor on the 60 stained-glass windows in the soaring twin towers of the west front. ``My ideas had to be good, to last for the ages,'' she says, ``because the cathedral is going to be there for a thousand years.''