On his first full day in office, President Obama is spending part of the morning at the Washington National Cathedral, placing his own stamp on the traditional National Prayer Service with a larger-than-usual group of interfaith religious leaders participating and newly written prayers meant to emphasize liberty and diversity.
The invitation-only service, which has followed presidential inaugurals in the United States on and off since George Washington's swearing-in, started just after 10 a.m. and is scheduled to run from 75 to 90 minutes. The list of 20 clergy participating includes Rev. Samuel Lloyd, dean of the Cathedral, which is the seat of the Episcopal church in Washington; prominent Baptist pastor Rev. Otis Moss Jr. (whose son is currently pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, Obama's former church); Washington Catholic Archbishop Donald Wuerl; Rev. Jim Wallis of the progressive group Sojourners; and several well-known Jewish, Muslim and Greek Orthodox leaders.
The sermon will be delivered by Rev. Sharon Watkins, president of the Protestant denomination Disciples of Christ in North America and the first woman to have such a prominent role in the post-inaugural prayer service.
Other clergy will recite simple, responsive spiritual readings that were crafted by Obama's faith advisors and Cathedral staff.
The service is to include a traditional prayer for civil leaders, led by Rev. Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga.; and a prayer for the nation.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, wearing a bold black-and-white patterned dress, walked into the stately church just after 10 a.m., along with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his wife Jill Biden. They took seats in the front row alongside Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), Obama's nominee for secretary of state, and her husband, former president Bill Clinton.
Before the Obamas arrived, the District-based Children of the Gospel Children's Choir entertained the assembled dignitaries and guests by singing "He's Got the Whole World in His hands."
So many members of Congress were scheduled to attend the service, that a markup session scheduled for Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder was postponed.
Canon Carol Wade, who as the Cathedral's precentor oversees music and worship at the Cathedral, said that in accordance with tradition, today's prayers are based on the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and should sound similar to prayers given at services after the inaugurations of both Bush presidents and Ronald Reagan.
New touches to the service this year, said Cathedral officials, are prayers drawn in part from George Washington's 1789 post-inauguration prayer service and Abraham Lincoln's 1865 inaugural address. The latter includes the famous phrase "with malice toward none, with charity for all," which will be said as part of the closing prayer given today by Katharine Jefferts-Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.
"We felt it was time to take a fresh look at the prayers," Wade said yesterday, noting Obama's embrace of religious liberalism. "Care was taken as to how we might respect and celebrate our diversity."
While multiple clergy are appearing who are not Christian, she noted that the service is at its core Christian to reflect Obama's personal beliefs.
The purpose of the service, Wade said, is to "lift the president up" on his first day at work, but the structure of the event has changed over the centuries.
According to the Margaret Shannon, a historian of presidential inauguration services who works with the Cathedral, New York's Episcopal bishop led the post-inauguration service for the nation in April 1789, immediately after Washington's swearing-in.
Starting in 1869, other pastors organized "union prayer meetings," likely made up of clergy from different schools of Protestantism -- that era's definition of "inter-faith." The tradition continued on into the 20th Century.
Historic records aren't clear about the next few decades, but in 1933 the tradition of a post-inaugural prayer service was revived, only to apparently wane again from the 1940s until the 1980s, when Reagan restored it. After Reagan's first inauguration, in 1981, the prayer service was held downtown at National City Christian Church; the service was at the Cathedral in 1985.
Clinton's prayer service was at the historically black Metropolitan AME Zion church in downtown Washington.
The service is being streamed live on the Cathedral's Web site, and the public will be able to post messages and personal expressions of faith on the Web site as well. For the next three weeks, the Cathedral will host a photo exhibit of past presidential appearances at the church. Church officials hope people will leave written prayers there too.
Other faith leaders giving the newly-tweaked responsive readings today are Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America; Rev. Suzan Johnson-Cook, senior pastor of Believers Christian-Fellowship Church in New York; Rabbi Jerome Epstein, director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America; Rabbi Haskal Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York; Kirbyjon Caldwell, senior pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston; Wade and Washington's Episcopal Bishop Rev. John Bryson Chane.
Rabbi David Saperstein, executive director of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is to deliver a psalm. Scripture readings are being provided by Rev. Cynthia Hale, senior pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Atlanta; Archbishop Demetrios, the New York-based primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America; and Rev. Francisco Gonzalez, auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Washington.
Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, is to give the benediction.