Easter 2024

17 October 2016
Praying for the Cathedrals at our center

Cathedrals have been in the news lately.

In particular I'm thinking of

  1. A video from Indianapolis
  2. News of surging attendance in England
  3. A final Evensong in Hawaii

Episcopal Cathedrals are hard places. I know. I used to work at one (full disclosure: it was Indy). And I used to work at a place that occasionally functioned as one in a diocese without a cathedral church.

There tends to be a lot going on all the time, and the pressure to be the liturgical and religious "standard-bearer" for the diocese, the city, and the region can be immense.

Why? Because cathedrals find themselves at the center of things by design.

The cathedral simply houses the official seat of the bishop. The name of the place comes from the bishop's ceremonial chair, the "cathedra". And even if the bishop is rarely there (maybe only at Christmas, Easter, ordinations, confirmation) this gives the church the name and status of "Cathedral" 365 days a year.

There is wide variability in the way cathedrals are governed on both side of the Atlantic. In the UK, even despite an effort toward standardization in 1999, there are still differences in how the cathedrals operate, particularly in regard to who appoints the Dean (the Crown, the Bishop, trustees, drawing lots, throwing stones, etc.; it's a real gordian knot that I saw here: tl;dr)

In the US things are generally a bit more consistent even if they're not any clearer. Cathedrals are generally parish churches that have special status. In many cases, they started life as a parish church, like Christ Church, Indianapolis did before it became the cathedral on October 10, 1954.

There are a few US cathedrals that operate as "true" cathedrals, not parish churches. I think the one in Boston is one because they must not report their parish statistics? (Good luck finding their chart with the Studying Your Congregation and Community tool on the Episcopal Church website).

Recently, the staff of Christ Church, Indy compiled some of their stories on race and racism into a short, well-produced video. It has been viewed over 13,000 on Facebook in the past week.

Of course the Cathedral's rich liturgical life continues, and it is exciting to be able to see and hear recordings of so much of the Cathedral's music in recent days. I've been delighted to catch a couple live videos on Facebook of the weekly Thursday evensong service. You can find them to watch again on the cathedral Facebook page.

Speaking of a rich liturgical life, this has proved very good news in England.

...This analysis finds support in the C of E’s own ‘growth research’ programme, which stresses the cathedral as a place for ‘peace, contemplation, worship, music and a friendly atmosphere’. Significantly, it is midweek evensong that has boomed, not Sunday matins or mass, with attendances doubling in a decade. These visitors are untroubled by Philip Larkin’s church as ‘a shape less recognisable each week/ A purpose more obscure’. They come for the music.

Jenkins, Simon. "Why cathedrals are soaring". The Spectator, 8 October 2016. Emphasis added.

This is pretty remarkable to hear. Cathedral churches, which are the churches most likely to have the capability to offer a service of Evensong mid-week (not just on Sunday, mind you!), are seeing a major uptick in the numbers at these services.

The videos of recent Evensong from services at Christ Church, Indy have been viewed a little over 1,000 times as of this writing. That's exciting to see, but I bet the service attendance was a lot lower. When I was the assistant organist for these services back in the late aughts, it wasn't uncommon to look out into the nave on a frigid Hoosier winter evening and see an attendance in the single digits for Evensong.

And yet like the sanctuary lamp that remains lit, the Church's worship and song continue day in and day out. As the old hymn puts it, "the voice of prayer is never silent / nor dies the strain of prayer away".

So I for one am glad to see this news from England, and the large interest in the service videos from Indianapolis because it affirms what I and many others believe about what the Episcopal Church should be doing. The Rev. Broderick Greer put it this way:

Put another way: do we have the courage to truly be the church we are?

We've pondered the question of the "power of particularity" previously. See Brooks, David - on why Anglican church music helps form our identity

A final sad note: The Cathedral in Hawaii has apparently offered its last regular Choral Evensong for the foreseeable future. More on that development here: Three little words (those words are "A new direction", the headline about the situation in the local paper). And a recap of John Renke's last service, including a full audio recording, here: A beautiful farewell.

I've never been to Hawaii, but this strikes me as an especially profound liturgical and cultural loss for this place. It's not as if one can just pick up and head to another cathedral easily. By my reckoning, the nearest cathedral is in San Diego, California, 2,521 miles away.

Cathedrals will always be chaotic, busy places. There will always be a lot (maybe too much!) going on there, but this is sort of how I hope things would be at the intersection of the city and the diocese.

And I for one certainly hope that daily prayer, including Evensong, will be one of those things that will be going on.

I hope you will join me in my prayer that our cathedrals will be places that seek the truth and worship God in the beauty of holiness.

That cathedrals will strive to feed those who are hungry for the sacraments and historic liturgy. And those who are just plain hungry.

That cathedrals, of all places, will be held up on the three pillars of scripture, tradition, and reason.

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