The stately Washington National Cathedral has been home to some of our nation’s most significant events–from state funerals to the last Sunday sermon delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. The neo-Gothic cathedral defines itself as “a trusted voice of moral leadership and a sacred space where the country gathers during moments of national significance.”
But what happens when a pandemic prevents the country from gathering for religious services? If you’re Reverend Canon Jan Naylor Cope ‘78, you improvise. Over the years, it’s been a strategy that has served her well.
Cope began her professional career in the field of financial development, and in 1989, she served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of presidential personnel in the George H.W. Bush White House. In 2007, after a breast cancer scare, she switched careers and became an ordained Episcopal priest. By 2015, she was appointed provost of National Cathedral in Washington D.C. The church’s doors have been shut since the early days of the pandemic, but Cope and her team have been busier than ever.
“We have some state-of-the-art video cameras and equipment that allow us to produce a pretty high-quality, visual service,” she explains. “Before COVID-19, we would have maybe 800 people physically in the building for a Sunday service and a few hundred live streaming. Today, we have anywhere from 10,000-15,000 people streaming live, and another 30,000-40,000 will tune in after the fact.”
The response has been so strong that they’ve added a daily morning prayer service that is viewed globally–a couple from New Zealand are regulars.
“It tells me that people are yearning for a connection, particularly in these incredibly difficult times. They want some sense of rootedness and some sense of hope that it's not always going to be like this,” Cope says. “One of the things that I have noticed in this Zoom world is that people are sharing much more deeply, personally, and intuitively than they would ever do before.”
Another important but poignant new tradition at the National Cathedral is reading the names of COVID-19 victims that have been submitted by friends and family. Each individual is prayed for, and a card bearing their name is placed upon the walls of the Chapel of St. Joseph.
“We’ll be doing that for as long as we need to,” she says. “We’ve seen a huge uptick In pastoral care requests. And because we're the National Cathedral, all these people have found us. We’re stretched to be responsive to our own congregation and also be there for others.”
Cope says her time at Trinity helped her hone two of the main traits she has called on during this time: adaptation and compassion.
“It was at Trinity that I was encouraged to look outside of myself at the social context that might not be my own, to better understand what was going on in the world around me,” she explains. “I think that part of the challenge is, people get so overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues and the challenges that we forget it starts with one person just reaching out to another.”
Editor’s Note: All photos in this story are credited to Danielle Thomas, Washington National Cathedral