Chant Matters – Compline at St Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle

I’ve been to some interesting services in the last few weeks. None more so than going to Compline at St Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle recently.

Now, Compline at St Mark’s is pretty famous. For over fifty years, a men’s choir have been singing Compline (which is a service of late night prayer) on a Sunday evening. It happens just about every week and is a very beautiful thing indeed. Imagine the King’s Singers with about 30 members and you are not wide of the mark. The service is broadcast on local radio in Seattle and has been since 1962 and is now available on the internet.

The trouble is, gorgeous though the music is, and it is very gorgeous indeed, hearing it is no substitute for being there. For Compline at St Mark’s is one of the great spiritual experiences that this world offers not simply because of the music. You can, if you are minded, experience lovely choral music in lots of places. My own congregation offers Choral Evensong on a Sunday evening  and very wonderful it is too. There are lots of places which do the same. You can even find Compline in various degrees of gorgeousness in all kinds of other places. No, what makes it special at St Mark’s is the crowd.

You see at St Mark’s, they get hundreds turning up. The service takes place at 9.30 pm and lasts half an hour. Most of the crowd are in place quite a while before the action begins. And those hundreds are young. The majority looked to me to be less than 25 and I’d guess that there were 500 there on Sunday evening, maybe more.

Think about that. Five hundred people on a Sunday evening, mostly young. I know there are churches in the UK who can get those numbers but generally they are few and far between and generally speaking they are not offering Compline.

They don’t just sit either. They sprawl. They lie down. Some bring blankets. They inhabit the sanctuary and lie flat on their backs. They loll.

The only movement in the service comes at the Creed when everyone leaps up and stands as they are able facing liturgical East. As they rise it looks like a scene from a Stanley Spencer picture. The dead rise. They stand for the creed.

Then they loll once more.

I found myself thinking that I had never seen anything like it until I remembered that I had. It was all rather like that wonderful Weather Project that was in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern a couple of years ago where they put mirrors on the ceiling and hung a large sun in the air. People laid on the floor there and gazed up to the mirrored heavens. Now though there were no mirrors, the Cathedral of St Mark, Seattle is rather reminiscent of the Turbine Hall at Tate M. Except that the cavernous Turbine Hall has a good deal more charm.

St Mark’s looked to me to be as ugly as sin though it was considerably improved by scores of lolling, youthful bodies.

That’s part of the puzzle about this Compline. Who are those young people and why do they come? No-one seemed to really know. They did not strike me as being people who generally attach themselves to any other form of organised religion.

That service breaks almost (and that almost is important, as we shall see) rule in the How to Attract Young People Big Book of Church Growth.

The building is as close to hideous as makes no odds.
The choir sing from behind a pillar and can’t be seen.
You don’t get a service sheet on the way in. You don’t in fact get anything.
The service is uncompromisingly old fashioned.
The service is based around Plainsong Chant.
There are no guitars. Not one.
It is unaccompanied by anything.
You don’t get to do anything.
You don’t sing.
You don’t speak.
You don’t engage.
You don’t form community.

And still they come. Hundreds of them. Every week they come.

Of course, there is one rule that they don’t break – there is a sense of mystery and awe and wonder about the whole thing. And there is beauty.

If I am coming to any conclusions about what churches need to develop in order to attract people, emphasising mystery, awe, wonder and above all beauty would be right up there high on the list.

I’m still processing what I saw when I went to St Mark’s. I’ve also a lot to think about from other places that I’ve been, about which there will no doubt be more later.

For now though, imagine 500 mostly young people sprawled out in church; in your church if you like, many lying around the altar.

Who told them they could do that in St Mark’s?

Who tells them they can’t everywhere else?