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Tuesday
Jan212014

Chairless at the Cathedral

What if the Cathedral could serve as a liturgical laboratory for the diocese?

Last week, the Washington National Cathedral removed all the chairs from its nave and held a series of events to allow people to explore the empty, altered space in various ways. (Read more about the week's events here.) As you know, I am passionately interested in the way people experience space in Episcopal churches. I've known the Cathedral literally as long as I can remember – I started Beauvoir when I'd just turned 4 – and had never seen the nave empty of chairs, so I was definitely not going to miss this.

I was able to attend two evening events during #WNCnochairs week. On the Tuesday night, I went to Evensong, which was held in St. John's Chapel, alongside the Great Choir. The nave was completely empty, and before Evensong, the Cathedral was completely silent. The floor of the nave, it turns out, is sea-green marble, which is almost entirely covered by the chairs in their normal configuration. With the chairs gone, you can read the full height of the nave arcade, and the piers appear to rise from a placid sea.

The few minutes I had to explore the space before and after the service went a long way to recapturing, for me, the feeling of the Cathedral as permeable sacred space as I knew it during my free-range childhood in the neighborhood. It used to be possible to go in any door at almost any time, and simply let your imagination rebound off the stone. The Cathedral has increasingly — and for understandable reasons — closed off ways of entering in recent years. The transept doors have been closed since the 2011 earthquake, and now, partly for security and partly because of the urgent need to raise restoration funds, visitors must enter through only one door at the west end and present themselves to staff before entering. Although entry for worship is free, the requirement to account for your purposes in visiting has largely shut off the sense that the Cathedral might be a place of private wonder. (I assume it goes without saying that a child of 9 or 10 would never be allowed to roam the Cathedral unaccompanied nowadays.)

During no-chairs week, however, there was almost no gatekeeping — none at the entrance, one helpful Purple Hat Lady within, and absolutely mimimal ushing and shushing. The empty space was defamiliarized. People who clearly know the Cathedral well gathered in small groups to point and exclaim and share their renewed wonder at the space.

On the Wednesday evening, I went to the informal choral concert. A choir sang first from the crossing, then moved up to the high altar for a second piece, and then deployed around the nave for Tallis's "Spem in alium". The people were free to move around the nave ad lib. during the singing.  Two things I particularly noticed (in addition to the stunning music, that is):

An audience (or congregation) free to move is much better at stillness than one forced to sit still.

People in wheelchairs were moving about the space with particular freedom.

I think of myself as pretty attuned to accessibility issues, since my dad used a wheelchair, but I didn't realize until that evening how much of a barrier the ordinary arrangement of chairs presents.

The new sense of freedom in the space, and the defamiliarizing effect, made me wonder about the liturgical implications.

What if the Eucharist came together like a flash mob in the midst of the people as they milled about in the great space?

What if the Cathedral took advantage of its vast range of different types of liturgical spaces to have a liturgy that danced and moved, as at St. Gregory of Nyssa?

What if the Cathedral could serve as a liturgical laboratory for parishes in the diocese? Congregations might come and worship in any of the Cathedral's spaces and see what it's like when a familiar community brings their worship into unfamiliar configurations.

I don't know to what extent Seeing Deeper was driven by liturgical concerns and to what extent it was a product of the visitor services side of things. On the latter front, I think it was a great success, but I hope the implications on the liturgical side aren't lost. Obviously there was a lot of clergy participation in the week's events, and the Dean was out and about, welcoming people and experiencing the space (and recording it with his iPhone). I didn't detect much public diocesan engagement with the experiment. I hope people will continue to compare notes (including in comments here) on their no-chairs experience, and that the Cathedral and our congregations will take inspiration from it in the year ahead.

Did you go to the Cathedral during #WNCnochairs? What was your experience? What might we take away from the experiment?

Addendum: Kathy Stuadt has a wonderful reflection on Seeing Deeper at the diocesan blog.

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Reader Comments (1)

Well done, Carin. I agree with everything you wrote. Entering the cathedral through one door greatly limits the experience. I, too, enjoyed seeing the transept without chairs. A very different visit.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Nick

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNick Netchvolodoff

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