St James Cathedral, Seattle, Washington, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St James Cathedral
Location: Seattle, Washington, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 February 2020, 10:00am

The building

The cathedral was originally dedicated in 1907. It was built in an Italian Renaissance style, with two towers reaching a height of 167 feet. There was an extensive renovation in 1994, when the altar was moved to the center of the church, with seating on four sides. Cathedralites talk of a ‘west nave’ and ‘east nave.’ The choir and organ are against the east wall. The ambo (designed by the Jewish sculptor Randal Rosenthal) is in the front of the west nave, facing the northeast corner of the church. In addition to the original baptismal font, there is a baptismal pool allowing for baptism by immersion. Along the north wall is a shrine honoring Saint John XXIII; St James is the only cathedral in the United States honoring this pope.

The church

There are a host of social justice ministries, the usual Christian formation activities, and an extensive music program. Since I attended the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the bulletin listed a number of activities and worship opportunities for the season of Lent: Stations of the Cross (thrice weekly), a mass for the special needs community of the archdiocese, a mass remembering St Oscar Romero on the 40th anniversary of his martyrdom, and a four-week long scripture study. The cathedral's main choir boasts 60 singers – and a waiting list! There is also a concert series focusing on choral and organ music. There are two masses each weekday and five each weekend. The office is prayed weekdays at 12.10pm, and vespers and benediction are held each Sunday afternoon.

The neighborhood

Seattle is a seaport in the northwestern corner of the United States. It is the northernmost large city in the United States, and the fourth-largest port in North America. It is home to the aircraft manufacturing giant Boeing. Microsoft Corporation is headquartered in Redmond, a suburb a short distance to the east. The on-line marketing giant Amazon was founded in Seattle and is the city’s largest private employer. The cathedral is downtown, on a high hill overlooking the city. The surrounding neighborhood is mixed use.

The cast

The pastor of the parish celebrated and preached. There were a dozen or more eucharistic ministers, at least four acolytes, the aforementioned choir of sixty, an organist, and a choirmaster who also shared duties at the organ. In addition, five members of the cathedral's confirmation class gave reflections at various points during the service.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

Three-quarters full. The congregation were racially and generationally diverse.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was attending with my wife and brother-in-law. As soon as we entered, an usher asked, ‘Where are you folks from?’ We replied, ‘Michigan,’ and he then said, ‘Wonderful! I've been looking for three folks from Michigan to carry the gifts in procession at the offertory. Can you folks do that?’ We replied that we would be happy to, and he gave us some simple instructions. When the time came for us to fulfill our appointed tasks, he grinned and said, ‘Now don't screw it up.’ After mass, he came by our pew and thanked us for taking part in the service.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

A bit of chatter.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

After the opening hymn, the pastor said that before mass began, he wanted to address a situation at the local Catholic high school (two faculty members who had announced that they were going to enter into a same-sex marriage were dismissed from their positions). The pastor noted that many of the students at the school were confused and upset, and that ‘the Church has a lot of catching up to do.’ Then he invited us to begin the mass with: ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A printed order of service, quite nicely designed and easy to use.

What musical instruments were played?

A four manual pipe organ designed by Manuel Rosales Organ Builders, a Los Angeles firm. There is a second organ in the west gallery (by Hutchings-Voley), not used in this service.

Did anything distract you?

The Kyrie, Gloria, and Agnus Dei were from the plainsong Missa de Angelis. The Kyrie was unusual, as it was not three-fold or nine-fold, but four-fold (using the first, fourth, seventh, and ninth petitions: Kyrie, Christe, Kyrie, Kyrie). In addition, each petition was sung in Greek by the choir, but then extended by an English ‘have mercy on us’ for the congregation. The Agnus Dei was similarly extended. Odd.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

High, but neither archaic nor stuffy. Much of the service was chanted (and the pastor chants beautifully). Four torches accompanied the gospel to the ambo. Bells were rung at the elevations during the institution narrative. There were two offertory processions: one in the east nave, one in the west nave.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

10 — The pastor is a superb public speaker.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He based his sermon on the gospel for the day (Matthew 5:38-48 – ‘an eye for an eye’). He recalled an event where he went to hear a Muslim physician speak; the speaker’s daughters had died in a senseless act of violence in Israel. His response was to write a book entitled I Shall Not Hate. The pastor said he found the physician's talk one of the best sermons on Jesus' teaching he had ever heard. Too often we do not forgive, but instead pay back in kind, and thus make matters worse. He then noted that the Washington State Legislature was taking a look at the death penalty. He felt it was sad that Catholics are just as likely as the general public to support the death penalty, and emphatically stated that no Catholic can support the death penalty. We must break the endless cycle of revenge and retaliation.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choral singing, especially the excerpt from Bloch's Sacred Service and SS Wesley's ‘Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace.’ And the pastor's homily.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Five members from the confirmation class presented five ‘reflections’ at various points in the service. In general, I'm not fond of these didactic moments being inserted into a celebratory liturgy. I must say, though, that these young people had been very carefully prepared and read their assigned texts clearly and distinctly.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

The usher who had recruited us for the offertory procession came over and thanked us. He was most welcoming. And I had the chance to chat with the pastor briefly.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none. We went to the cathedral bookstore and looked around a bit.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 — In a dozen or so years of Mystery Worshipping, I don't think I have ever encountered a church where seemingly everything – music, preaching, liturgy – showed such careful preparation. When I return to Michigan, I will begin looking for another excuse to visit Seattle.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The usher telling us, ‘Now don't screw it up.’

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