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48: Washington National Cathedral, USA
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Washington Cathedral
Mystery Worshipper: M. Luther.
The church: Cathedral Church of St Peter & St Paul, Washington, DC.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: Washington Cathedral is probably the last pure Gothic, stone-on-stone construction in the world. It is the seat of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and that of the Bishop of Washington. The building has many unusual features, not least of which is a stained glass window with a moon rock in it. Many of the carved stone details show people and events in American history, including a stone boss that depicts the ride of Paul Revere. Various bishops and one president (Woodrow Wilson) are buried in the cathedral, as well as Helen Keller.
The neighborhood: The cathedral is surrounded by large grounds that include a contemplative garden. The larger neighborhood is residential, apparently middle to upper-middle class. The residence of the Vice President of the United States is just down the street.
The cast: Quite a parade: the Revd Canon Frank M. Harron, II, celebrant; the Revd Canon Barbara T. Duncan, gospeller; the Revd Canon Erica B. Wood, assistant; the Revd Canon Patricia M. Thomas, preacher.
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.
What was the name of the service?
Lent III, Holy Eucharist, Rite II.

How full was the building?
The central part of the nave was probably 90 per cent filled. The side aisles, obviously used for overflow during regular services, were empty.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. In fact, I had to seek out an usher to get a service bulletin. To be fair, the place was swarming with people – not only those coming for worship, but also tourists who were just there for a look.

Was your pew comfortable?
Mostly. Seating was in padded cathedral chairs. However, the rows were placed so close together that kneeling was nearly impossible. Most people stood where one would usually kneel.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Reverential, with a low rumble produced by hundreds of people talking in hushed tones. It was hard to be contemplative with so many people coming in, ushers running back and forth, etc. Pre-service music by a visiting college choir from Pennsylvania helped provide a devotional atmosphere, however. They performed some wonderful pieces, including 'Ubi caritas et amor' and 'Tantum ergo Sacramentum', by Durufle.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
'On behalf of the bishops and staff of the diocese, I welcome you to the cathedral.'

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Book of Common Prayer, Hymnal 1982.

What musical instruments were played?
In addition to the organ, and the visiting choir who performed before the service, the cathedral's own choir of men and boys sang beautifully.

Did anything distract you?
The inability to kneel, which was especially distracting, since it was Lent and I couldn't even kneel during the confession! Otherwise, the building has a million possible distractions: the architecture, furnishings and stained glass are all stunning.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Inoffensive but dignified, middle-of-the-road, broad church Anglican. There was a surprising minimum of ceremony, given the grandeur of the surroundings and the solemnity of the season. The ordinary of the mass was sung by the choir, but prayers by the celebrant (including the eucharistic dialogue and preface) were spoken. Everything was carried off properly, in order, and with a minimum of fuss.

Washington Cathedral

Exactly how long was the sermon?
About 25 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – Canon Thomas used most of the sermon time to recount (not very interestingly, I thought) the story of the Exodus, which did not relate to the lessons at all. It was hard not to tune her out and just gaze at the interesting stained glass and Gothic gew-gaws. Her point could have been conveyed in five minutes instead of twenty-five.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Obeying the Ten Commandments gives us true freedom.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It was moving to be in a congregation this size in a large, acoustically live space – the congregational responses resounded through the church. Also, there was a sense that this was a pilgrimage, as the cathedral is the seat of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. It is the Anglican cathedral in the US.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, to me there is nothing worse than sitting through a mediocre sermon. Even a bad one can be more interesting!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was a mass confusion of people looking around or leaving, and tourists coming in. It was easy to remain anonymous. Even if there had been someone to greet people, it would have been impossible to catch a fraction of those coming and going.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none, though you could visit the snack bar in the cathedral bookshop in the basement.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – Since the cathedral is not a parish and there is no regular worshipping congregation, you cannot join, even if you wanted. I suppose it would be possible to attend there every Sunday, but I would miss all the aspects of congregational life: the coffee hours, pot-lucks, study sessions and familiar faces.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The inability to kneel, which I found very disconcerting, for some reason.

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