Monday, July 28, 2008

Sunday morning at the National Cathedral

(When I first got to DC, I wrote that I would attend and review a different Episcopal Church each week. That was on April 13, and now here I am, three months later, with my second installment. In the intervening weeks, I have attended a few churches and neglected their reviews, spent six Sundays traveling, and, well, slept in a lot. My bad.)

Yesterday, I went to church at the Washington National Cathedral, more properly known as The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter & Saint Paul. It was the second time I have worshipped at the National Cathedral since coming to DC in March, and the third time ever. Overall, I enjoyed the experience, as the music was thrilling and the sermon engaging, but unfortunately, the ushers were rather overbearing and created a huge distraction, and I will not be back.

Unbeknownst to many, the “national house of prayer” is also a working Episcopal parish. Both yesterday and on July 6, I attended the 11:15 Holy Eucharist Rite Two service. On July 6, Cathedral vicar Rev. Canon Stephen Huber preached on loving our enemies, pointing out that for all the energy our politicians spend “convincing the electorate of their Christian credentials,” they also spend a lot of time and money killing rather than loving our national enemies. The July 27 sermon, from the Cathedral’s Canon Missioner the Rev. Canon William Barnwell, was much more compelling. It is not online yet, but I will try to remember to link to it once it is. The entire sermon focused on Romans 8:38-39:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

While I had been hoping for a sermon on the Lambeth Conference, Rev. Barnwell used this verse to explore the theology of pain, a subject I have only just begun to explore but hope to one day make the crux of my ministry. He listed a number of catastrophes, including recent storms and the Holocaust, reminding us why so many agnostics say if there is a God, he is either not good, or not God. Barnwell reminded us of Job, pointing out that God never told Job why he had to suffer, only that he needed to stop his self-pity and get up. For God to stop wars and conflicts, Barnwell said, would actually be a disservice for us, as it would rob us of our freedom. Instead, we just need to move forward in faith, allowing nothing to separate us from God. He admitted that it was not an intellectually satisfying answer, but said it was something more. “Can we explain it? No. Can we live it? Yes.”

The Cathedral is especially famous for its music program, what with its 10,467 pipe Great Organ. Yesterday featured the choir of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia , South Carolina , and they were wonderful. I was very moved by the introit, or opening prayer. Their beautiful voices filled every nook of the echoey church, and I almost wished we could skip the service and just have a concert – I would have felt every bit as close to God. I felt the same way during the anthem, “My soul, there is a country,” and the recessional, one of my favorites, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise.” The July 6 bulletin made no special mention of guest musicians, so I suppose it was just the regular Cathedral choir, but they were amazing, especially the soloist for the Anthem, “Precious Jesus.” I wish I could give you his name. I also got a real kick out of singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the recessional hymn – the black national anthem on the Fourth of July weekend. It’s a beautiful hymn in its own right, and paired with “O beautiful, for spacious skies,” was rather appropriate. In any event, music is perhaps the most important part of worship for me. Nothing brings me closer to God, and from its hymn selection to its musicians, the National Cathedral never lets me down.

Yet for all the beauty of its music or the theology of its sermons, I could never worship regularly at the National Cathedral. Visit for concerts and guest lectures, oh absolutely, what amazing programs they offer, but belong, no. One reason is that it feels very impersonal – as you leave, there are tourists snapping photos everywhere, many of them with no intention of worshipping. Another, more important reason was the ushers. I don’t want to call them “power hungry,” but both Sundays, they were gruff and overly stern. The Cathedral is very controlling in where it allows people to sit and which aisles it lets them use to reach their seats, which I guess makes sense given the size of the place, but there is almost an anger in the ushers’ voices as they redirect people, using their whole bodies and outstretched arms to block aisles. For those of you who have read Garrison Keillor’s “Leaving Home,” they reminded me of the way Keillor describes Lake Wobegon’s Lutheran ushers. I would type up the excerpt, but alas have loaned out my copy and do not have it handy. (Keillor will, btw, be giving a public reading at the Cathedral on September 29 - after I have left DC, doggonit.)

There was one usher in particular I thought was especially bad. I won’t describe his appearance as I have no desire to embarrass him, but his performance had no place in a church. Before the service, if anyone paused to admire the building’s windows or architecture, he would angrily point at them and give them fast and furious hand gestures to keep moving forward, even if there was no one behind them. During the service, if a family came up the side aisle, he would purse his lips and make demanding gesture towards the back. In fact, his lips were pursed almost the whole time, and his brow constantly furled. I rarely saw him speak, only make angry gestures. I was especially appalled when a young family tried to cross from one pew to another during the service, and he stormed over waving his arms. When he was close enough, he pointed at them and said, rather fiercely, “Do NOT cross the aisles!” His tone was an annoyed one, suggesting that the reason for such a rule was obvious (never mind that it was not posted) and how dare anyone break it. Fortunately, he did soften a bit at Communion. His directions were still a little too assertive, but they came with a friendly tone and a genuine smile, and I am grateful for that.

This usher, for all his good intentions, was far more distracting than any of the people he approached. I found it insulting that he would only angrily point at people, never approaching them in kindness, never giving them the benefit of the doubt. I very much wanted to ask him, “If Jesus were physically here today, do you think he would run up and yell at people who crossed the aisle?” but of course I didn’t. I tried instead to focus on the sermon or the prayers, but my mind just kept coming back to the usher. I tried to remind myself that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, and that that includes ushers. This was more than likely my impatience getting the best of me, but maybe, just maybe, it was Wormwood himself at work.

(All Cathedral pictures courtesy Wikipedia. Screwtape is from the cover of the book.)

1 comment:

Bill Grote said...

My first visit to the Cathedral was in the late 1940s. My family and I sat in the left section of the crossing, which was the only part of the Cathedral completed with seating for the congregation. Frank Gee, a stone mason from Yorkshire, England-- a good friend I met at Christ Church, Georgetown, Young Adults in the early 1960s when I first came to Washington-- helped build the Cathedral. It was exciting to witness with Frank’s widow Janet and other family and friends the completion of the Cathedral in 1991 when the final stone was set in place.

I sometimes find respite in a Cathedral chapel when I need to unwind and refuel. It’s thrilling to sing in the Cathedral when the St. Columba choir is invited to participate with other choirs in events like the consecration of Bishop Eugene Sutton, a former St. Columbia Associate Rector, as Bishop of Maryland and the ordination as deacons of seminarians who served in parishes. It’s thrilling to sing in a Cathedral Choral Society summer concert accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra.

Regarding the 10,4670-pipe Great Organ you enjoyed so much, the Cathedral plans to spend $10-12 million to replace it. I agree with J. Reilly Lewis, a frequent Cathedral Great Organ recitalist, and other organists who perform on the instrument, that this magnificent organ should not be replaced. Reilly is founder and music director of the Washington Bach Consort and is recognized internationally as an accomplished keyboard artist and conductor. He is also Music Director of the Cathedral Choral Society. As a harpsichordist, pianist, and organist, Dr. Lewis has performed throughout the world. SAVE THE CATHEDRAL GREAT ORGAN!

While it’s the Cathedral ushers who detracted from your worship, it’s the penguin-like vergers who get in the way of worship for me and others. The Cathedral used to have a single verger who served as a discrete master-of-ceremonies to keep the service on track. Now, they’ve multiplied like rabbits and seem to emerge from every nook and cranny of the Cathedral. They’re obtrusively everywhere! I don’t think that clergy need a verger to lead them to the lectern to read from the bible or to show them how to find the pulpit to preach a sermon. It’s especially annoying to see a verger get up toward the end of s sermon to be at the foot of the pulpit steps when the sermon ends to escort the preacher from pulpit to seat. I’ve expressed my verger-distress sentiments to the Bishop and Cathedral Dean and Vicar.

Nevertheless, I feel privileged to drive by the Cathedral several times a day and bask in its beauty and blessing.