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2853: St Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle, Washington, USA
St Mark's Cathedral, Seattle, WA (Exterior)
Photo: © Vladimir Menkov and used under license
Mystery Worshipper: Werburga of Chester.
The church: St Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle, Washington, USA.
Denomination: The Episcopal Church, Diocese of Olympia.
The building: After the end of World War I, the Diocese of Olympia decided to build a “Victory Cathedral.” A magnificent building was planned and construction began in 1928. The stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression reduced available funds, and the core of the present building was all that could be afforded. It was dedicated on St Mark’s Day, April 25, 1931. For some years the cathedral struggled financially. Unable to meet mortgage payments, it was foreclosed upon in 1941 and shut for the next two years. But in 1944 negotiations with the bankers were re-opened, and an energetic fund-raising campaign enabled the mortgage to be paid off and burned in 1947. In 1958 a hall, kitchen, library, parish office, and meeting rooms were added. In 1961 the stunning 3944 pipe Flentrop organ was commissioned. The Chapel of the Resurrection and columbarium were added beneath the nave in 1969. In 1997, remodeling of the west wall enabled the addition of new sacristies, vesting rooms, and the McCaw Chapel, a quiet space for private prayer and the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. If all this sounds a bit haphazard, that’s because it is. Externally the building looks like a brutalist concrete structure with assorted ill-matched boxes tacked on all round. Internally it looks like a converted warehouse, but massive high windows, huge suspended lights, and a bunch of wide colored streamers gathered in over the altar combine to create an impressive worship space, though with a somewhat cavernous acoustic.
The church: St Mark’s parish was a daughter church of Trinity Church, Seattle’s oldest Episcopal parish, founded in 1865. St Mark’s was founded in 1889 to meet the needs of a growing population and to offer worship “less formal” than Trinity. Sunday worship is astonishingly varied, with services ranging from quiet contemplative eucharists to full choral worship, and ending at 9.30pm with sung compline, which is broadcast on local radio. St Marks’ extensive ministry guide indicates a wide variety of outreach to the community, from AIDS care and Alcoholics Anonymous through quilt ministry and young adults and youth groups. Commitment to the arts is also a strong feature, especially to music: it has a range of different choirs.
The neighborhood: Notorious for its damp climate, Seattle ranks among the top five rainiest cities in the United States and is either cloudy or partly cloudy for about three-quarters of each year. Even so, Seattle is the largest and fastest growing city in the Pacific Northwest. The cathedral is located in the Capitol Hill district, one of the most select in Seattle, with substantial residential properties, particularly on the east side toward Volunteer Park. Visiting in April, I was able to admire the handsome grounds of the park itself and of the nearby homes, ablaze with azaleas, rhododendrons, bluebells and dogwoods in full flower.
The cast: The Very Revd Steve Thomason, dean and rector, was the officiant. The lector for both lessons was Kae Eaton. The service was sung by the St Mark’s Gallery Choir, directed by Brian Fairbanks. The organist was Michael Kleinschmidt.
The date & time: Sunday, April 26, 2015, 5.00pm.
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.

What was the name of the service?
Choral Evensong.

How full was the building?
Almost empty: about 20 worshippers, plus officiant and musicians.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. The officiant was already sitting at one end of the altar, looking like a rather benevolent Buddha in clerical garb, but he wasn’t doing any welcoming. There were two music stands toward the back of the wide nave aisle: one supported a notice indicating that folk attending evensong should occupy pews toward the front near the altar. The other stand held copies of the order of service.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes indeed – a lot more comfortable than it looked. A carved, shaped pew that supported comfortably below and behind.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Bemusing. Since the gallery choir were advertised as singing the service, I wanted to know if they would be singing in the gallery, which is at the back of the church and thus behind the congregation. I wanted to be sure I could sit where I would be able to hear them, but there was no one to ask. It turned out that I need not have worried: that cavernous building has such a massive acoustic that I could probably have heard them in Vancouver!

What were the exact opening words of the service?
“When rooks fly homeward and shadows fall, when roses fold on the hay yard wall, when blind moths flutter by door and tree, then comes the quiet of Christ to me.” These were the opening words of the introit anthem, sung by the choir to a setting by the contemporary American organist and composer Charles Callahan. The first spoken words were: “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The service sheet, the Hymnal 1982, and for those who wished to follow the words of the psalm, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, the Book of Common Prayer was also available in all pews.

What musical instruments were played?
The organ, and during the Magnificat also bells. The organ is a magnificent instrument by Flentrop Orgelbouw of Zaandam, the Netherlands, and was given its inaugural recital by the legendary E. Power Biggs. It was renovated and augmented in 2011 by Paul Fritts & Company of Tacoma, Washington.

Did anything distract you?
I found myself wondering how on earth they had managed to hang the streamers from the ceiling: it must have taken a huge cherry picker lift!

St Mark's Cathedral, Seattle, WA (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Choral evensong has a style all of its own – it follows a pattern and so it is formal, but its glories truly emerge if the music is well chosen and performed with sincerity. Such was the case here. And the congregation were encouraged to join in where appropriate, with various sections sung to an ancient setting by John Merbecke well known to Episcopalians. Music was included in the service sheet for anyone who did not already know it.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
No sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The anthem. It was a setting of “There is a balm in Gilead”, arranged by the gallery choir’s conductor Brian Fairbanks. It was beautiful and, being written for this choir, it played to their strengths and to the acoustics of the building.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The complete absence of any welcome – at the start, during the service, or afterward.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At the end of the service the officiant and congregation all sat down to listen to the organ voluntary. When that ended, the officiant rose and ambled off toward the back of the building. According to the service sheet, the congregation were invited to remain for quiet prayer or to depart the nave in silence. Everyone just left, except those clearly waiting for members of the choir to emerge. I gave up and went home.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee, but to be fair it was getting on toward evening and I wasn’t expecting any. The cathedral advertises an hour of yoga from 6.00pm to 7.00pm on Sundays. A different kind of refreshment, perhaps?

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – This is a hard call. For the music, probably 9; for the general sense of Christian welcome, no better than 3.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. As a minister of music who finds music the perfect way to worship, I found this service impressive and deeply joyful.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The total absence of any effort to welcome a stranger.
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