There’s something about being in an empty church that doesn’t feel truly empty.
“This is a very live space right now,” says Jason Anderson, director of the Compline Choir at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. “We get a lot of reverb.”
The Compline Choir is a men’s group practicing an ancient tradition of a sung prayer service. Anderson has kept it going every Sunday through the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s a mix of duty and appreciation for continuing the tradition,” he said. And, he added, a huge amount of reading, studying and anxiety about gathering singers.
The Compline Choir has gathered Sunday nights in the same corner of St. Mark’s since Peter R. Hallock founded it in 1956 with a group of students from the University of Washington. Much like now, they sang to an empty church.
Interest in mysticism and religious experience brought a new type of congregation to the church for Compline in the 1960s. Hippies started filling the pews. Around 1962, local radio station KING-FM started broadcasting the service each week via phone line. Microphones strung up in the church still bring the service to radio listeners every Sunday at 9:30 p.m.
In not-so-distant pre-pandemic times, congregants for the Compline service were known to bring pillows and blankets and show up in pajamas. “It was such a different way of being in church,” says Gregory Bloch, a tenor in the Compline Choir and director of communications for St. Mark’s. Hearing it on the radio piqued his curiosity and he first showed up in 2009.
“It’s definitely a church service, we are singing about God,” he said. “If that’s hard for you, there’s space for that. You can have whatever experience you want with the service.”
The religious outlooks of choir members are varied, but the service continues in the monastic tradition, with singers donning vestments and mixing hymns, chanting and spoken word.
Anderson said he has leaned into science and data to keep gathering safely during the coronavirus pandemic. He uses a tape measure to space people 10 feet apart. The choir of 24 is scaled back to rotating quartets for now, excluding a third of singers, who are classified as high-risk. He’s worked with facilities personnel on the HVAC system. They take aerosol-dispersion breaks and wear masks.
The dedication of this group of volunteers is unusual. But singing is not just a hobby, and the service is not just a show.
“It’s hard for singers not to sing for a long period of time,” said Anderson. “It has taken a great emotional and psychological toll … Normally, this would be their release in the turmoil.”
The group meets as a whole every Sunday over Zoom a few hours before the in-person quartets, but it is not the same as gathering together in the cathedral. Bloch says that he feels a mix of joy and guilt for his turn to be singing with the quartet.
“I feel like I’ve been given this thing that I feel a lot of other people should have,” he said.
“It feels wrong to sing this in an empty church. This is a service that we do as a community.”
As King County moves on to different phases in the pandemic, Anderson said he’ll evaluate the situation to add more singers as it is safe.
For now, four voices ring through the empty spaces of the church every Sunday night, shaking alive the long history of the choir hidden in the beams and the walls.
To learn more about the Compline Choir, check out its website at www.complinechoir.org.
To listen to its weekly services, tune in to 98.1 KING-FM in Seattle or find The Compline Choir Podcast at https://complinepodcast.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
Longtime member Ken Peterson keeps a detailed blog of the services at https://complineunderground.wordpress.com and has written a book about his experiences with the choir: https://prayerasnightfalls.com.