Update: Cathedral Organist 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 about Washington National Cathedral, a cathedral church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, in the District of Columbia. This Gothic Cathedral Church of St Peter and Paul — where you’ll hear Big Band music inserted in the middle of the Widor Toccata (no I’m not joking) — is the antithesis of US Pop Culture.
Hola a todos. Washington National Cathedral (WNC) which is located on Mount Saint Albans in the District refers to itself as “the nation’s cathedral.” And because of that, one might think that “the nation’s cathedral” would have the highest of standards setting an example for other cathedral and parish churches of the Anglican Communion. But unfortunately that’s not the case. When I think of the highest standards, I think of Anglo-Catholic St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, as one example, as the model for the highest standards, particular in the area of the music.
I don’t have any interest in US Pop Culture or this fad of celebrity worship which is so prevalent today in the US. I don’t understand what people see it in. I find it all quite empty and boring. At one time, I did pay attention to what various Latino/Hispano musicians were doing who appeared regularly on the US español-language corporate networks. But I got turned off by each and every one of them as they one-by-one sold out to major corporate interests by contracting to do commercials for these corporations. It didn’t seem to phase some of these Latin musicians that they sold out to a major national ISP provider, for example, involved in global illegal NSA-spying and data-mining for The US Oligarchy. The Latin artist received his or her pay check from their agent so that’s all that mattered to him or her. And that artist and many others are part of US Pop Culture.
I’ve written many times about how Washington National Cathedral (WNC) is Low Church. Although when compared with the cathedral churches of the Church of England that I’ve observed from videos of Liturgies from St Paul’s Cathedral, Gloucester Cathedral and Westminster Abbey (the latter not being a cathedral), WNC seems rather High Church by comparison. Although the music in those spaces makes them seem more High Church which is the same with WNC in that regard. I was surprised at how Low Church some of the cathedrals of the “Mother Church” (CofE) of the Anglican Communion are, particularly the congregations (no one bowing for the processional crosses, no genuflecting to the (reserved) Sacrament, no one bowing to the High Altar, no one blessing themselves (that I saw), only one person and none of the priests at Gloucester Cathedral making the three signs of the cross before The Gospel reading and no one bowing for the response before and after The Gospel reading, no bowing for certain words in the Liturgy and so forth). Nothing. Why are they Anglicans? Didn’t they learn anything in Confirmation class on “Why Anglicans do what they do?.” They could easily be mistaken for evangelicals. I did find roughly 17 Anglo-Catholic parishes in the City of London.
St Thomas Church in Manhattan (Anglican Communion) does not resort to or try to appeal to US Pop Culture whatsoever. But that’s the approach I and others see WNC gradually taking in small steps. Little by little they’re changing things, but not for the better in our opinion. And apparently the Bishop for the Diocese of Washington, District of Columbia approves since she’s ultimately responsible for what happens at WNC. But why is she going after/interested in essentially what’s known as US Pop Culture? Since when did the sheeple into US Pop Culture ever get talked into going to church? I didn’t know that US Pop Culture was into gospel music, “global song” and jazz, for example.
At St Thomas, one won’t hear any gospel music, “global song” or jazz/Big Band music, and the playing of the Widor Toccata won’t be abruptly interrupted in three places like it was recently when the Washington National Cathedral Jazz Night ClubTM ensemble — that’s what I call them — inserted jazz/Big Band-style music into Widor’s Toccata as one heard at the end of the Liturgy for the Organ Voluntary for the installation of the new Dean. The music standards are very different between St Thomas and Washington National Cathedral. Someone might say: “Well that’s because St Thomas has a resident Choir School. The only one of its kind in the US.” WNC has a Choir School too (St Albans School for Boys/The Cathedral School), although the boys and girls don’t live there as the boys do at St Thomas. It’s true that the trebles/choirboys at Washington National Cathedral don’t sound like the trebles at St Thomas and that’s been the case for years now. One wonders why that is? The boys at WNC are weak and don’t have much or any of a high register which I find odd. St Thomas showcases their superb trebles by the repertoire selected for them and by using descants for hymns on a regular basis. During the descants, their trebles have the power, vocal stamina and endurance to cut through the thick full organ texture and full congregational singing — the congregation sings at St Thomas as opposed to WNC’s “stand and mumble” congregation — and the boys at St Thomas are not catered to during their descants by the organist “toning it down” a bit. No, the trebles are on their own. But that’s not the case at all at WNC where descants are rarely used, for some unknown reason. On the odd occasion that a descant is used at WNC, I’ve only heard the girl choristers sing the descants or the wobbly/fluttering sopranos of the
Cathedral Singers Cathedral Opera Chorus (that’s my new name for them based on how they often sound with their god-awful fluttering and wobbling vibrato). With the trebles at WNC, it’s as if descants are beyond their skill level.
Some of us think that WNC would be better served by having a new choirmaster/Director of Music to raise the choral music standards closer to those of the late John Scott who was Organist/Choirmaster at St Thomas.
The highest of organ music standards are already in place at WNC. And that’s because of superb Cathedral Organist and Associate Director of Music, Benjamin Straley, and the repertoire he selects for his organ preludes, organ voluntaries as well as his superb improvisational skills including his occasional (signature) Improvisation-Toccatas on the recessional hymn for his Organ Voluntary. As for his hymn playing, we don’t often hear the real Benjamin Straley these days, unfortunately. The hymn playing these days is pretty ordinary. But the highest of hymn playing standards would be in place if Benjamin were allowed to be the gloriously High Church and creative organist he was when he arrived there where he played hymns very smoothly, lush and legato as well-trained organists are taught to play hymns, and with elaborate High Church interludes. We heard some really beautiful hymn playing from him when he first arrived there. But then something changed.
St Thomas respect their music and their renowned Choir of Men and Boys perform a (Festal) Choral Eucharist every Domingo/Sunday. That’s not the case at WNC. And for some reason, they have renamed the Cathedral Choir at WNC. For years it was known as the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys (or Girls). It is now called “The Boys Cathedral Choir” and “The Girls Cathedral Choir.” Damn odd names, and what about the Men? Both names fail to acknowledge the Men of the Choir who are singing with the boys and/or girls. (Who is running things at this church?) Both new names imply there are no men’s voices. WNC also disrespects all of their musicians by having the camera drift off of them to show what production most favours: the stained-glass windows of the building (which regular viewers have memorised by now), the columns in the cathedral and the baskets of flowers for that Liturgy. I enjoy looking at las flores/flowers, but not when I want to see the musicians who are performing at the time. You also won’t hear southern baptist hymns at St Thomas as one does at WNC. At St Thomas, there’s no hint that they are possibly ashamed of being Anglicans and would prefer to be another christian denomination.
St Thomas doesn’t try to appeal to US Pop Culture even though they’re in Pop Culture Manhattan. I think they have the intelligence to know that just the appearance of their Gothic building and its interior will not fool anyone into thinking they are a Pop Culture parish.
WNC doesn’t seem to have received that clue yet. I don’t think that the sheeple into US Pop Culture in the District, Maryland or Virginia or elsewhere have any interest in Washington National Cathedral no matter what they do to try to remake/re-invent themselves and try to be like the more evangelical christian denominations, in part, by singing hymns specifically associated with the anti-gay, prejudiced and bigoted southern baptist convention. I’m talking about hymns such as “We’re Marching to Zion,” “Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine” and “Revive Us Again”.
If WNC want to appeal more to US Pop Culture, they will also have to rewrite part of the Liturgy from The Book of Common Prayer. An example, using the beginning of The Nicene Creed to appeal to US Pop Culture, they would have to make the following changes (with the original text in bold font):
“We like totally like awesome believe like totally in like one like God, like, the like Father like totally the Almighty, like. maker of like heaven and like earth like, of all that is like totally, seen and like totally unseen like.
That sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? I read that to mi amigo/my friend and he said: “You don’t have enough ‘likes’ in there.” But do you get the point? We hear many (if not most) people in conformist and US Pop Culture Tech-Zombie San Francisco speaking this way all the time. To appeal to US Pop Culture, you have to use their language/their way of speaking — if one can call that nonsense “speaking” — throughout your Liturgy. Such as using the words “like” every-other-word as well as the words “awesome” and “totally” constantly. Because that’s the language and dumbed-down speaking style of US Pop Culture. So you’re doing it all wrong with the Book of Common Prayer’s “ancient” language. Mi amigo/My friend heard a tourist the other day here in San Francisco speaking in French but her French was sprinkled with the US Pop Culture English word “like” throughout. We’ve never heard that before.
Of course the US Pop Culture language change I wrote about in the previous paragraph would not match WNC’s Gothic building or the cathedral’s interior so it would all seem fake and out of place. But WNC doesn’t seem to care or grasp what’s out-of-place or what styles clash. They don’t seem to possess a compass for that, such as when they have jazz/Big Band music in an Anglican liturgy. Trying to appeal to US Pop Culture with jazz and Big Band music? I wasn’t aware that US Pop Culture is into either genre of music.
Also, US Pop Culture doesn’t care about stained-glass windows shown repeatedly in the videos of WNC Liturgies. Pop Culture likes to watch the singers/the musicians. Turn on the espanol-language networks when they have their various annual award ceremonies and other musical performances throughout the year and their cameras stay on the singers/performers. They don’t wander off during musical performances and show the ceiling or walls in the building the way the clueless and musically-disrespectful production team does as WNC. (I think they’re trying to emulate Diane Bish’s programme The Joy of Music, but Diane was not in the same church every week so Haney Production’s camera style worked for her; that camera style does not work at WNC – it gets redundant). To attract US Pop Culture, WNC would have to keep the camera on the musicians when they’re performing to attract the audience of US Pop Culture’s high-pitched screaming teeny-boppers. Isn’t that the age demographic they’re going after? A younger, dumbed-down audience?
But the Anglican Liturgy is very ancient and US Pop Culture is not into ancient. The Anglican Liturgy is too sophisticated for the dumbed-down US Pop Culture audience. They don’t have the attention span for or the interest in understanding it. They would hear The Gospel reading and their response would be, “I’m like whatever” or “Like what?” Therein lies your problems in trying to attract such an audience.
Having talked with Anglicans during my experience in parishes and cathedral churches, most people are parish people. Many people find cathedrals intimidating. Just the sheer size of the building is intimidating to some people. I’ve heard people say that “cathedrals are cold and impersonal,” although that was not my experience because the resident congregation in a cathedral is really no different than a parish congregation. At cathedrals you have tourists and I’ve read comments from some members of the WNC resident congregation complaining about WNC’s obssesion with the tourists which they don’t understand (I don’t either) because tourists are only there for one Liturgy most likely. So why are they concerned about the tourists and trying to attract them?
“Global Song” and Calvinism. Evangelical Calvinism Coming to Washington National Cathedral?
WNC has decided to “change the programme.” That’s how the former Dean described it, and bring in gospel music, “global song” and jazz. I had not heard the term “global song” before, but I had a general idea of what “global song” might be. From my research, “global song” is associated with Calvinism (also known as “Reformed Christianity,” and “Reformed Faith”) and evangelicals. Well, to me that explains their increasing interests and usage of hymns with their tradition of being specifically of the bigoted, prejudiced and anti-gay evangelical southern baptist convention.
Trying to “Grow the Congregation” By Appealing to US Pop Culture ?
By appealing to US Pop Culture at WNC — and Pop Culture in itself is a temporary fad — WNC may lose some of the resident congregation because I would think that the “liberals in Upper NW” (as they’re called – referring to the members of the congregation who live in the Upper North West quadrant of the District) are not into US Pop Culture. I suspect they are there for the traditional Anglican Liturgy. Perhaps the Bishop doesn’t care whether they lose some of the resident congregation. This new scheme may be all about attracting the US Pop Culture crowd to “grow the congregation” with teeny-boppers singing “Global Song” about their new-found love jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesus as they stand in the pews or aisles swaying their arms back and forth over their heads with tears coming down their faces and with their phones in hand at-the-ready to text anyone who will read it about what they’re doing at that very moment at WNC (as if anyone cares!).
Upon reflection, WNC’s traditional Anglican procession wouldn’t fit with this US Pop Culture scheme, so acolytes: You may be out of a “job” at some point in the future. You too vergers.
Maybe they are planning to have only “children’s choirs” sing the “global song” music selected to appeal specifically to US Pop Culture. If so, the Men of the Cathedral Choir (as they’ve long been called) will no longer be needed. Sorry chicos, you’ll be out of a job too. Is that why they changed the names to “Boy’s Cathedral Choir” and “Girl’s Cathedral Choir?” I think US Pop Culture and evangelicals could more easily relate to just the name “the Children’s Choir.” That’s typically what they’re called in those bigoted, anti-gay and prejudiced evangelical/pentecostal and southern baptist convention type denominations.
And will High Church Benjamin Straley go along with all this over time as a professional musician to play whatever he’s asked to play and to take part in whatever he’s asked to be complicit in as part of his job requirements? I think it’s safe to say that all well-trained musicians have their standards and for some professional musicians this stuff would be the “last straw” and the breaking point causing them to leave having had enough as Washington National Cathedral tries to give itself an evangelical “make-over.” That’s indeed the feeling some of us have.
Meanwhile, US Pop Culture is just temporary in the big scheme of things. It is continuously changing and evolving until it turns into something else, so anyone who runs after the US Pop Culture sheeple/audience will never be able to “keep up” with them.
Wouldn’t it be easier for WNC to leave the Anglican Communion and be done with it. Bring in a large crew to quickly level most of the cathedral (leaving a couple of stories) making it look more like any other contemporary church. Strip out the interior and any signs of the building ever being an Anglican cathedral. Then put up a large sign reading:
District of Columbia Evangelical Church
“Your Calvinist connection in the District”
I can see it now: Thousands and thousands of people will stream in each week from all across the Washington Metropolitan Area and all up and down the East Coast for their evangelical fix of “global song,” gospel and jazz/Big Band music. Metro won’t be able to handle the large crowds coming into the District. I can imagine it looking like M-F rush hour on Domingo/Sunday morning, can’t you? Yes, every bridge solidly packed coming across the Potomac, Washington National Airport — I refuse to use the newer name considering the piece of basura it’s named after (I wouldn’t dream of calling it that!) — won’t be able to handle the extra passenger traffic. The Capitol Beltway will be in gridlock with people praising their jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesus in “global song” while rushing to get to the Wisconsin Avenue exit which will be all backed up of course with a massive traffic jam all trying to get to WNC. You’ll see!
Now back to reality. Haven’t many other christian churches tried this dumbing-down scheme before of changing the music? Yes, absolutely. Did it make a difference in their attendance? No. Not at all. From my research, it’s been a massive failure for most of them. But never mind that, the results will be different for the District of Columbia Evangelical Church. You’ll see!
Mi amigo gave me his opinion, he said: “Religious people like to see a religion they’ve had since childhood. That’s usually what they are most comfortable with. So in the case of Anglicans, why would they want to see jazz, gospel and Big Band music in their Liturgy? This makes no sense.” And why would people go out of their way and deliberately go to an Anglican cathedral to hear gospel music, “global song” and jazz when they can hear those genres anywhere else? There’s no shortage of churches out there using that music. Chau.—el barrio rosa
A change of venue to Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris (November 2016): Organ Improvisation by Philippe Lefebvre (Organist at Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris)