EVERY Sunday at 9.30 p.m., St Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, in the
heart of the youth-dating district of Seattle, is packed for
compline. For decades, hundreds of teens and twenty-somethings who
would not normally go near a church on a Sunday morning come here
to sit in the dark, or lie on the bare floor, to hear a male choir
chant the Night Office.
The custom started when music students from the University of
Washington began singing plainchant in the empty church for their
own enjoyment. By 1967, young people in Seattle questing for
"alternative spiritual forms" had discovered it. "It happened
overnight," the choir's director says. "There were all these
youngsters here, because the service appealed to the mystical and
This is not the way it was supposed to be. By the late '60s, it
was generally recognised that religion was on the skids. Clergy
were convinced that the slide could be stopped only if the Church
would adopt contemporary English, and drop old-fashioned churchy
rituals. They believed, in particular, that adopting the musical
idioms of youth culture would bring in the ever-coveted "young
people". But it did not, and has not. And now, while grey,
dwindling congregations mumble through church services in the
contemporary idiom of the past century, hipsters, dating couples,
and the spiritual-but-not-religious head for compline at St
Habitués say that they love the service because there is no
pastor, no sermon, no collection, and no "community". That is
because compline at St Mark's provides everything that liturgical
reformers laboured for decades to strip from the liturgy and beat
out of lay people: mysticism, aestheticism, amoral "escapism", and
I see no reason why churches should not indulge people's tastes
for these things. The pious baulk at the idea that the Church
should accommodate people's self-indulgent tastes for
ecclesiastical entertainment without edification or obligation.
But, if the Church does not satisfy those tastes, there is no
reason for anyone to bother with it - as most Europeans and a
growing number of Americans now recognise.
If there is no benefit, no pleasure in religion, it is hard to
see why anyone should take on the burden - the tough, unpleasant
duties that follow from our obligation to recognise Christ in
others, and treat them accordingly.
The secular world now supplies all the essentially secular goods
that churches once provided. For people who are badly off
materially, there are charities and the welfare state; for those
who are psychologically needy, there are innumerable therapies and
"philosophies", and self-help programmes and books; for those
looking for companionship, there are social facilities outside the
Church where they can meet people who are probably more congenial.
The secular world provides for all our needs.
Religion is worth while precisely because we do not need it. We
can get along perfectly well without services like compline at St
Mark's; it is a luxury, not a necessity for survival. But luxury is
what makes survival worth while. And religion is the greatest
luxury: it frees us from the dull, practical business of life, and
opens a window into the other world - the world of beauty, glory,
bliss, and the vision of God.
Dr Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San