Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Washington National Cathedral
Location: Washington, DC
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 June 2019, 11:15am

The building

There is much more to say about the Cathedral Church of St Peter and St Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington than could ever be included in a Mystery Worship report. Please refer to their website, and to other resources easily located via Google, for a complete description of the cathedral’s appearance, history, ministries and outreaches, and curious trivia. I’ll just say here that it is in the Gothic Revival style and was begun in 1907 during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt but not finished until 1990, when George H.W. Bush occupied the White House. The cathedral is famous for its gargoyles and grotesques, including one of Star Wars’ Darth Vader; and for its stained glass, some of which has sparked controversy – a window depicting two Civil War generals on the side of the Confederacy was recently deconsecrated and removed. The building suffered damage during an earthquake, rare in these parts, in 2011. Without earthquake insurance, the cathedral has struggled to pay for necessary repairs, and has had to make cuts to some of its programs in order to balance its budget. Even so, Washington National Cathedral stands as the fulfillment of city planner Pierre Charles L'Enfant’s dream of ‘a great church for national purposes.’ For today’s service the altar, usually set in the midst of the quire, was moved up to in front of the rood screen.

The church

The cathedral is the seat of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church as well as the Bishop of Washington. It serves as spiritual home for the nation, America’s cathedral, so to speak, and a place where services of great national importance can be held. Weddings, funerals, prayer services, and memorial commemorations of and for various statesmen have been held at the cathedral over the years. In 1968 Martin Luther King preached from the cathedral’s pulpit just days before his assassination. Among those buried in the crypt are Helen Keller, author, political activist and advocate for the blind and deaf; her tutor and companion Anne Sullivan; composer Leo Sowerby; President Woodrow Wilson (the cathedral is one of only two churches in the United States where a President is buried); and Matthew Shepard, whose brutal murder in 1998 brought national attention to the offense of hate crime.

The neighborhood

The cathedral stands at Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues in the northwest quadrant of Washington. It crowns Mount St Alban, one of the highest points in the District of Columbia (which, at 377 feet, isn’t really saying much), and is visible (albeit dimly through the haze) from anywhere that has a view of the District. It is easily reached via the Metro Red Line (get off at the Tenleytown station) and by numerous bus routes.

The cast

The canon vicar presided, assisted by the canon theologian, canon provost, and canon for worship. The dean preached. The associate for music and service read the gospel. There were seven candidates for baptism. The clergy were vested in alb and cincture, red stole and red cope; the presider and her assistants changed into red chasubles at the offertory. The choir were vested in surplice and blue cassock. A teenage thurifer in alb and cincture performed his duties with dignity and aplomb, as did the crucifer and two torches attired in like manner. The Cathedral Singers, led by the canon director of music and the organist, provided the music.

What was the name of the service?

The Day of Pentecost: Festival Holy Eucharist with Holy Baptism and Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant.

How full was the building?

Completely full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. We had arrived an hour early, knowing the place would fill up quickly, and obtained seats at third row center!

Was your pew comfortable?

They were standard issue cathedral chairs and were comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was, in general, quite a bit of hubbub. The families of the baptismal candidates visited amongst themselves and each other. The cathedral staff and clergy busied themselves with their preparations. The organist played some twiddly bits and then struck up his prelude: Hymnus ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ by the 17th century French composer Nicolas de Grigny.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

We sang ‘O day of radiant gladness,’ after which the opening acclamation was said: V. ‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people.’ R. ‘Kindle in us the fire of your love.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Everything we needed was in a beautifully prepared service booklet.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, originally an opus of Ernest M. Skinner & Son Organ Builders, and modified in 1963-64 by its successor, Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co., Inc. I say 'originally' because major renovations took place in the 1970s that drastically changed the character of the instrument widely regarded as Skinner's masterpiece. It still sounds magnificent, although whether Ernest Skinner would still recognize it as his work is debatable.

Did anything distract you?

During the organist’s prelude, a woman across the aisle from us continued talking loudly to her party. I shot her my most withering glare, but unfortunately she had her back turned to me. The father of one of the baptismal candidates looked like Jared Kushner. The father of another candidate was impeccably dressed save for those hideous mini-socks that don’t cover the ankles; he looked like he was wearing no socks at all with his black dress shoes. At least they were black.

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

A solemn Rite II liturgy carried out with all the precision and dignity you’d expect in America’s cathedral. There were more vergers than you could virge a virgule at! Incense galore, but no bells. To the collect of the day was added a collect of thanksgiving for the diversity of humankind: ‘Help us to embrace people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and expressions as your children in love…’ The first reading (Acts 2:1-21, the descent of the Holy Spirit) was read in parts, the people taking the part of the crowd. Choir anthems included motets by Michael McCarthy, Leo Sowerby, and Thomas Tallis. I have never heard an organist so skilled at supporting congregational singing as was this one.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

9 — The dean preached in the most silvery tones you could imagine. His sermon was well researched, well organized, and kept us enthralled the whole time. I fault him only for not considering a shorter sermon in light of there being seven baptismal candidates.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The dean began with a joke about a mother cat who raised her kittens properly as a mother should. But one day a large ferocious dog menaced them, growling and baring its teeth. The kittens cowered in fear behind their mother. The mother cat, however, let out a loud, fierce – bark! – and the dog ran away as quickly as it could. ‘And that, my children,’ said the cat, ‘is why everyone should learn a second language!’ But is speaking in tongues the only point of Pentecost? Let’s face it: the apostles were a ragtag group at best, but the Holy Spirit transformed them. The Church is what it is today because of the Holy Spirit. Despite the troubles it has faced and continues to face, the Church has changed the world for the better. It is not merely a vestige of ancient ritual. The world oppresses; the Church raises up. The Church has fought slavery, built hospitals, championed workers’ rights, and so on. The fruits of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, blessing. When burdened with troubles, welcome the Holy Spirit into your midst.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Just about everything: the music, the preaching, the ceremony, the dignified precision with which everything took place.

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

Honestly, I can’t think of a thing, except …

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

… unfortunately we had to leave right after communion, as the service with baptisms and all was running longer than we had expected and we could not be late for our next engagement. We really regretted having to leave, but we had to.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

An announcement was made that refreshments would be served, but unfortunately we couldn’t stay.

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

10 — In a flash!

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

How could it not?

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

How beautifully everything was done.

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