“Action!” isn’t a term you hear shouted that often at Washington National Cathedral, but everything’s different in 2020, right? The cathedral has been closed to the public since March and presents its services virtually. On a Thursday evening in December when Washingtonian visited, a production crew was working on the cathedral’s annual Gospel Christmas service, which they were recording in pieces to be assembled later.
First up: the spoken liturgy. Eleven musicians are seated on a stage in the church’s crossing, with four priests seated in front of them: the Reverend Canon Jan Naylor Cope, the cathedral’s provost; the Very Reverend Randolph Marshall Hollerith, its dean; the Reverend Canon Dana Colley Corsello, its vicar; and the Reverend Canon Leonard L. Hamlin, Sr., its canon missioner.
Canon Mike McCarthy, the cathedral’s director of music, asks the musicians for the “heartiest response we can provide” to the clergy’s cues as they go through the service’s text. Hamlin removes his mask and walks to lectern to read from the Gospel of John. “Christ is coming,” he finishes. McCarthy signals the musicians. “Be glad and believe,” they respond.
The director calls for another take.
This is not how Episcopalians tend to roll. The liturgy unfolds in a familiar order during corporate worship. But this year the body of the church is worshiping from a great distance, in greater numbers than the cathedral usually experiences. Typically, about 2,500 people attend each of the Christmas Eve services. The nave can seat about 3,200 people maximum. Since March, 1.82 million people have joined its services online.
So, a little showbiz is necessary. “We realize we’re not just preaching to the folks who come in here on Sunday morning,” Hollerith says. “We’re preaching to people in very different circumstances all over the country.” Or as the Reverend Canon Rosemarie Logan Duncan says, this year, “time is not linear.”
As it does every year, the cathedral plans a packed lineup of services this Christmas, which began with the “Blue Christmas” service for people reckoning with grief on Wednesday and will continue with the Gospel Christmas service on Friday, the “Joy of Christmas Concert” presented by the Cathedral Choral Society on Sunday, December 20, a “Lessons & Carols” service on December 23, a family service and pageant at noon on Christmas Eve and a Eucharist that evening, and an organ recital on Christmas Day. While some of these services will unspool live, the cathedral is taping more complex ones in advance. (The pageant, for instance, which involves animals and actors, was taped a week before I visited.)
A “season pass” to all the services for one household costs nothing, though you’re able to donate to the Cathedral when you register.
Once the spoken parts of the service are done, the musicians begin to warm up, sound-checking with “The First Noel.” The singers, who include soloist Imani-Grace Cooper, send the familiar melody skyward, where it reverberates among the vaults in the Gothic ceiling. It wasn’t yet a cold winter’s night, but the sound was very, very deep.