Washington National Cathedral: Chant The Nicene Creed accompanied by Organist Benjamin Straley

Update 2017: Benjamin Straley performed for Donald Trump. One would have hoped he would have higher standards than that! Read more about that here at the top of the page.

This article is intended as a gentle suggestion to Washington National Cathedral (a cathedral church of the Anglican Communion) in the District of Columbia and their superb Cathedral Organist and Assistant Director of Music, Benjamin Straley (should he read this).

Hola a todos. I’ve often wondered why Washington National Cathedral (WNC) does not chant The Nicene Creed during their Holy Eucharist Liturgies on Domingo/Sunday morning. Or would that be considered too High Church for them? For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, The Nicene Creed comes after the Homily/Sermon in the Holy Eucharist/Solemn Mass Liturgy:

The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
(Source: The Book of Common Prayer)

The way it would work is that the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys (and/or Girls) and the congregation would sing a single tone (let’s say Middle C) throughout the Creed. The Nicene Creed begins with the cantor or celebrant singing “We Believe In One God” and then The People join in and begin chanting on the same tone accompanied by our Benjamin. The music aspect comes from the cathedral organ with Benjamin accompanying the congregation by playing various quiet chords of mostly whole note values and slowly changing harmonic chords creating various effects (with appropriate crescendo and decrescendo) throughout the chant/Creed. Such as on the words, “On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” There, he could play faster chord textures “text painting”/simulating the ascending into heaven. Or, with the text “With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified,” there, a more glorious full-organ effect/chord for “worshiped and glorified.” With our Benjamin’s imagination with chords and chord structures, and his superb improvisational skills I think it would be quite beautiful and really an improvement over the way it’s currently done: droned/spoken/mumbled. It wouldn’t take any longer to chant the Creed than it does to speak it, if they’re concerned about time constraints. I suspect our Benjamin would be all for this idea. But then there’s the problem of running it by others and getting it approved by them who prefer Low Church.

I know of one church that sings The Nicene Creed but I’m not too hot on that. The Nicene Creed is a very ancient creed and in my opinion chanting it is much more appropriate than singing it to a more contemporary (in the big scheme of things) hymn tune. They once chanted The Nicene Creed for awhile at Grace Cathedral (Anglican Communion) here in San Francisco and it was very beautiful and it gave a sort of monastery feeling to the Liturgy at that point. As of this writing, they’re now speaking it. I don’t know why they went back to speaking it/mumbling it when it’s so much more beautiful chanted. Anyway, just a suggestion.

They at WNC seem to run from High Church. I don’t know why. Even as a child I instinctively expected cathedrals to be High Church, without knowing anything about Low or High Church or what it was called. And that’s because to me a cathedral looks grand and glorious or High Church looking at the outside of the building as well as inside. By contrast, most parishes are Low or “middle,” in their Liturgy. So there’s no shortage of those out there. “We” don’t really need any more of that. But there is a major shortage of High Churches, and when people come to WNC I would think they would assume/expect because they’re coming to a cathedral church — of the Anglican Communion — that it would automatically be High Church. And why shouldn’t a cathedral church — the seat of the Bishop — be High Church? Instead, you have WNC doing all it can to emulate the lowest of church — by singing some southern baptist hymns (“revive us again” being the most recent) and apparently they’re going to try to go even deeper in the Low Church abyss by bringing in jazz, gospel and “global song” (of other denominations) and they’re giving various names to them. There’s nothing wrong with those music genres but they don’t belong in an Anglican Liturgy, in my opinion. (Just as I wouldn’t bring in my favourite jazz group, the now-disband Pat Metheny Group with Pedro Aznar). Regardless of what pretty marketing name they give this, the name I give to it is: Dumbing down. They’re calling it, “expanding Anglican tradition.” Oh that’s what you’re calling it, is it? I would point out that one could “expand Anglican tradition” by bringing in country & western music! (*roll eyes*).

I get the feeling that our Benjamin won’t be there much longer, unfortunately. That’s all I’ll say about that. It would be such a shame for them to lose him and it would sadden me deeply (although I would understand his reasons for leaving), not that they care much about the music anyway or at least that’s the impression I come away with. And I do clearly sense that someone there is suppressing him (by that I mean his preferred High Church style of playing), and I suspect we all know who I’m talking about, don’t we? I don’t quite understand them at all. For the position of cathedral organist, they have these extensive requirements regarding training and background, and the applicant for the position of cathedral organist is subjected to 3 auditions — as was the case with our Benjamin; who wouldn’t have hired him after his first audition??? — and then upon being hired they expect someone like him and with his talent to play like some ordinary podunk boring Low Church organist where every verse of a hymn sounds the same with no creativity allowed whatsoever, and don’t put in any elaborate High Church interludes between the verses because we don’t like that around here. Sigh. Ludicrous. Such a glaring waste of talent and utterly boring like one can hear any other church, and then they wonder why attendance is dropping?

Benjamin may want to get on with being ordained as an Anglican priest and that may be his priority now. But as I’ve said before, most of the time they at WNC don’t even respect him by printing his name on the service leaflet, as was the case yesterday. Printing the names of the Choirmaster or Director of Music and Organist is standard practise in the Anglican parishes and cathedral churches I’ve had experience with. They were able to print the name of a public radio personality on the service leaflet who gave the Homily, and the Cathedral Singers, but apparently they don’t see our Benjamin as one of the “Worship Leaders” as they call them. In my opinion, he’s one of The main “Worship Leaders.” They wouldn’t have much of a worship/Liturgy without the cathedral’s Great Organ being expertly played by him. And don’t get me started on production disrespecting him by taking the camera off of him when he’s performing, so they can show the same windows that we’ve seen for months.

We already have thousands of churches out there having taken that “dumbing-down” approach of changing the music and from my research it hasn’t worked to bring in more people.

Previously at WNC, they tried chanting the responses before and after The Gospel reading (did Benjamin suggest that?…if so, gracias to him), but that didn’t last long unfortunately. I got the sense that the Low Church priests were not into it (just like they’re not into incense and nearly jog around the free-standing altar to get it over with as fast as possible). And the responses they used were not the best. The best responses I’ve heard before and after The Gospel are the ones used at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Their responses are much better, especially the response after The Gospel where the trebles/boys soar up a 7th (am I getting too technical here?). It’s rather glorious depending upon where on the scale they start it which is based on the key of the Sequences/Gospel hymn before it. So therefore, how about chanting the Nicene Creed at WNC? Chau.—el barrio rosa

P.S. Oh by the way, what happened to the Anglican Cycle of Prayer during The Prayers of The People? I heard the Cathedral Cycle of Prayer, but I didn’t hear the Anglican Cycle of Prayer. I guess that’s for another article.

Related:

Note (November 2016): A change of venue to Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris: Organ Improvisation by Philippe Lefebvre (Organist at Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris)

2 comments on “Washington National Cathedral: Chant The Nicene Creed accompanied by Organist Benjamin Straley

  1. Wes in Arlington - GLBTQ

    They made Benjamin audition 3 times? wtf ?

    Never heard the Nicene Creed chanted…..sounds really nice.

  2. FireintheHead

    I must reiterate my admiration and appreciation for your musical knowledge and manner in which you’re able to explain things so that a non-musicians like myself can easily understand them.

Fin. The End.