Date of Award

Spring 4-18-2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

James F. Darsey

Second Advisor

Nathan Atkinson

Third Advisor

Isaac Weiner

Fourth Advisor

Elizabeth Burmester

Fifth Advisor

Martin Medhurst


Washington National Cathedral sits atop Mt. St. Alban’s hill in Washington, D.C. declaring itself the nation’s cathedral and spiritual home for the nation. The idea of a national church serving national purposes was first envisioned by L’Enfant in the District’s original plan. Left aside in the times of nation building, the idea of a national church slumbered until 1893 when a group of Episcopalians petitioned and received a Congressional charter to begin a church and school in Washington, D.C. The first bishop of Washington, Henry Y. Satterlee, began his bishopric with the understanding that this cathedral being built by the Protestant Episcopal Church Foundation was to be a house of prayer for all people. Using Jasinksi’s constructivist orientation to reveal the one hundred year rhetorical history defining what constitutes a “national cathedral” within the narrative paradigm first established by Walter Fisher, this work utilizes a rhetorical biographical approach to uncover the various discourses of those speaking of and about the Cathedral. This biographical approach claims that Washington National Cathedral possesses an ethos that differentiates the national cathedral from the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul even though the two names refer to the same building. The WNC ethos is one that allows a constant “becoming” of a national cathedral, and this ability to “become” allows for a rhetorical voice of the entity we call Washington National Cathedral. Four loci of rhetorical construction weave through this dissertation in the guiding question of how the Cathedral rhetorically created and how it sustains itself as Washington National Cathedral: rhetoric about the Cathedral, the Cathedral as rhetoric, the Cathedral as context, and Cathedral Dean Francis Sayre, Jr. as synecdoche with the Cathedral. This dissertation is divided into eight rhetorical moments of change that take the idea of a national church from L’Enfant’s 1791 plan of the City through the January 2013 announcement allowing same-sex weddings at the Cathedral and Obama’s second inaugural prayer service. The result of this rhetorical exploration is a more nuanced understanding of the place and how it functions in an otherwise secular society for which there is no precedent for the establishment of a national cathedral completely separated from the national government. The narrative strains that wind through Cathedral discourse create a braid of text, context, and moral imperative that ultimately allows for the unique construction of Washington National Cathedral, a construction of what defines “national” created entirely by the Cathedral.