Christ Church in Old Town has one of the most beautiful Christmas Eve services anywhere.
Over the years, though not myself an Episcopalian, I have frequently attended, sometimes sitting in George Washingtons pew.
The service of Christmas Eve 2007 was again gorgeous in liturgy and music, though the sermon was a jarring reminder of the Episcopal Churchs current meltdown over theological liberalism.
Besides affirming some of his denominations laissez-fair policies, the pastor also referenced Global Warming and the United Nations in his sermon, which most would have expected to focus on the Nativity Story.
It was a sermon that might have slightly given Martha Washington the vapors. Sitting behind Robert E. Lees pew, I glanced over at the Washington pew, and my mind wondered back to other illustrious visitors who had sat there.
On New Years Day, 66 years ago, two new wartime allies rang in 1942 in the historic sanctuary. British premier Winston Churchill was in America for the first time since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He had spent Christmas Day with his new friend, President Franklin Roosevelt, at the White House.
New Years Day, 1942
On New Years Day 1942, Christ Church hosted a special service for the two allied heads of government. The 34-year-old Rev. Edward Wells of Christ Church had invited President Roosevelt and his guest to follow nearly every other president in worshipping where Washington had prayed.
Upon receiving an affirmative answer, Wells had cleared a list of stalwart church members with the Secret Service. And then the minister dispatched young men to knock on the doors of the approved worshippers early New Years morning with their special invite.
The Father of his Country had made Christ Church his regular place of worship since its construction in 1773. His box pew, for which he had paid an annual sum of $200 in the currency of the 1700s, would easily accommodate Churchill and Roosevelt, along with First Lady Eleanor.
Just across the aisle from the Washington box was General Lees more modern single bench pew. His boyhood had been spent around Christ Church, and he had been baptized and confirmed into the church there as a middle-aged man, after a spiritual rebirth.
Washingtons Sunday carriage ride to the church had averaged about 90 minutes. Half a century later, the adult Lees typical journey from Arlington was somewhat shorter. Shorter still would be the 1942 presidential motorcade from the White House, which would cross what is now the Memorial Bridge and come down the George Washington Parkway.
CHURCHILL HAD ARRIVED EARLIER that morning fresh from a trip to Canada, where he had briefly conferred about the war with Canadian Premier Mackenzie King. His sojourn north had given the Roosevelts a respite from two weeks with the demanding houseguest, whose late hours and endless conversation had both delighted and exhausted the President, while exasperating the First Lady.
Zooming straight to the White House from Union Station, Churchill was greeted by Eleanor. By 10:45, the Roosevelts and Churchill, along with an entourage of Roosevelt aides, and British Ambassador Lord Halifax, were touring Christ Church.
Distinguished visitors arrive
The waiting handpicked parishioners at Christ Church had been told to expect distinguished visitors. Their imaginations did not need to strain far to guess the identities. Word spread fast, and the streets of Alexandria were lined with gawkers and U.S. Marine guards. Wartime Washington, not having been threatened by an enemy since the Civil War, was on edge against enemy saboteurs and other potential calamities.
Seated in the three-sided Washington pew box, the Roosevelts and Churchill could see before them mounted wooden tablets of the Lords Prayer, Ten Commandments, and Apostles Creed. The hand-lettered tablets had remained essentially untouched since Washingtons time, though now aged to a golden hew. Also before them, though of more recent vintage, were marble memorials to both Washington and to Lee.
FDR was a lifelong, church-going Episcopalian, and Christ Church no doubt was familiar to him. Churchill was likewise Anglican, and though not as devout in his attendance, appreciated the pageantry of public worship, especially in times of crisis. The colonial brick sanctuary, surrounded by its ancient graveyard, must have looked to the British prime minister like an old English country church. Indeed, Christ Church had still been under the authority of the Church of England when first built, on the eve of the American Revolution.
Churchills bodyguard slipped him $20 in anticipation of a church collection plate. According to Franklin and Winston, by Jon Meacham (2003), Eleanor similarly passed money to her usually cash-less husband, later explaining: When these little things are taken care of by others as a rule, it is easy always to expect them to be arranged. But the special congregation of the day was spared any requests for money. Seated between the President and First Lady, Churchill was irritatingly blocked from seeing the pulpit by an inconvenient pillar.
SUPPOSEDLY, ROOSEVELT TOOK roguish delight in his British guests having to pray in the church so intimately associated with Americas chief revolutionary against imperial Britain. The Rev. Wells even read Washingtons official prayer for the United States, which the first president had issued shortly after his inauguration in 1789.
Whatever benign mischief Roosevelt may have intended, Churchill was not in the least discomfited. Washingtons supplication had the cadence of any good Church of England prayer. And Churchill was an unabashed fan of the American liberator, praising him in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples for his firmness and dignity.
On another occasion, Churchill humorously explained his admiration for the ethnically English Washington, who had fought against an ethnically German King George III, supported by German mercenaries.
No doubt further to Churchills liking was the Rev. Welless militant pro-war sermon. The spirit of Christ alone stands in the way of successful Nazi world domination, for it alone can inspire a successful will to resist and provide sufficient power to achieve victory, Welles preached.
The pastor went on to excoriate America for its too long delayed action against the Axis powers: We have wanted other nations to pay the supreme price for liberty while we gave them dollar credits! Welles insisted his countrymen must become Christ-like and accept our cross, too. In atonement for its fear of conflict, America must be purged and cleansed of its evil.
AS CHURCHILL AND THE ROOSEVELTS left Christ Church, the Rev. Welles introduced them to his 7-year-old daughter, who several hours later was diagnosed with chicken pox. Welles fretted that she may have infected the two world leaders.
But the President and Prime Minister remained healthy as they hurried on in the rain to MountVernon, where they laid a wreath at Washingtons tomb. En route back to the White House, Churchill insisted to Roosevelt that an Anglo-American partnership could curb the post-war worlds problems.
In typical style, the President continually nodded Yes, yes, yes. Not completely enamored of the Englishman, Eleanor explained that her husbands nods signified attentiveness, not necessarily agreement.
Largely as Churchill had hoped, the Anglo-American alliance more than survived the war. And the worship by FDR and Churchill at the church where Washington had prayed before leading his new country in war against Britain powerfully symbolized the enduring new strategic partnership.
Whatever the passing fads of the modern Episcopal Church, such history will have forever ennobled sanctuaries like Old Towns Christ Church.
Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. Used w
ith permission of the author.