Before moving to Minnesota and then to Texas, my wife and I lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I served for over six years as Associate Rector at Bruton Parish Episcopal Church. One of the highlights of those years was Virginia’s 2006 Inaugural Ceremonies. These took place outside the Reconstructed Capitol in Williamsburg because the State Capitol in Richmond was undergoing extensive renovations at the time.
I had been invited by the Clerk of the House of Delegates to offer a prayer at the beginning of their meeting, which convened shortly before Governor-Elect Tim Kaine was sworn into office, in the place where their colonial predecessors in the House of Burgesses once met. The best part of the day, however, was a prelude to the rites of the Commonwealth and to the parade down Duke of Gloucester Street.
The Rector of Bruton Parish had asked me to organize and preside over an interfaith prayer service at our historic church on the morning of the inauguration. This was very important to the Governor-Elect, a thoughtful Christian and former missionary, who belongs to a Roman Catholic parish in Richmond that is majority Black.
Voices of prayer on behalf of the citizens of Virginia were raised that day by representatives of the three Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Gospel music, sung by the Governor-Elect’s home church choir, nearly blew the roof off the building. And all of it was framed by familiar hymns and at least a few familiar words from the Book of Common Prayer.
What I learned is that it’s actually possible to honor the particular identities of those invited to participate in an event like this from different religious traditions. These representatives brought into that sacred space the depth of their beliefs and, therefore, a richness to their prayers. That is to be preferred, it seems to me, over watering down those particularities and pretending that we’re all temporarily Unitarians. I believe that interfaith conversations — and interfaith prayers — are most fruitful when we bring our particularities to the table and share them as a gift.
After all was said and done — and prayed, I received a gracious note from the Honorable Tim Kaine, then Governor of Virginia. He commented that the time spent in the church that morning was powerful, and, he wrote,
I will always consider it the highlight of the weekend.