The cathedral is peaceful with anticipation rising on the gentle whispers of the inhabitants. The front of the room, in St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, sooths with calming teal colors while the warm, dim lights hang from the high-slatted ceiling. The floor is concrete, providing a firm foundation. And the pews’ backs are tall, making the sitters small.
With white and purple robes and confident strides, the male choir enters and takes their position at the back of the cathedral. The sound comes from behind — “The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.”
And Compline begins.
Compline, the last liturgical hour of the day, means contemplation. For 54 years The Compline Choir has been chanting on Sunday evenings at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Capitol Hill in Seattle. For 48 of those years, Compline has been broadcast live on Classic King FM 98.1 while the choir sings a version of Compline derived from The Proposed Book of Common Prayer. The music is largely based on the Medieval and Renaissance era in Europe, but the Episcopal hymnal, The Hymnal 1982, and Peter Haddock are often sources as well.
Peter Haddock, the founder and long-time director of Compline, began exploring plainsong in 1954 with eleven other University of Washington students. They started singing the steady chants in an empty space, but eventually, they began signing on Sunday evenings to large crowds, mostly of younger people. Haddock, writing on the Compline website, says the response was a result of the younger generation’s search for new cultural values.
After Haddock had a car accident on his way to Compline in 2009, he resigned. Jason Anderson assumed the position, although Haddock still makes special appearances.
The all-male choir is currently composed of volunteers from the community. None are monks. Some are Episcopalian, some Roman Catholic, some Lutheran or other denominations, and some aren’t “believers” at all according to The Compline Choir’s official website.
The diversity amongst the choir is mirrored in the crowd. On an average Sunday, most of the nearly 500 people in attendance are under 35. They all show up with different perspectives and for different reasons. There are many people sitting in the pews, but there are also loungers sprawled out by the pulpit and along the aisles. Those who consider Compline formal and those who consider it casual gather together every Sunday evening at 9:30 p.m. And countless others listen in on the radio. All the listeners at the cathedral submit to a call to silence, indicated by the sign at the door, and silence prevails.
“Compline is remarkable to me because of the way the contemplative tradition is so embraced by a wide spectrum of people – in particular the younger generations,” says Morgan Darrah, who is often in the crowd. “There is something beautiful about an experience that draws so many with such stark simplicity and sincerity, without special effects and gimmicks.”
Simplicity clinches Compline’s survival. People continue to gather together to grow in silence. According to Haddock, “Silence and time for interior reflection are often identified as the most powerful and moving characteristics of the Compline service.”
The individuals in attendance sit in solitude surrounded by many — it’s a collective solitude, a community of acceptance, curiosity and a quiet, prevailing joy. And in the presence of many there’s room to reflect, sort and sit, all while enjoying the power of presence. There’s no loneliness in this solitude.
As the choir chants, the words fade away and the sounds saturate the ears of listeners. The steadiness of the chants gives way to a drone, anchoring the listeners so they’re free to hear something else. It’s the sound of silence, a sound that provides a refuge in a world of clamor. Just outside the doors of St. Mark’s Cathedral, the bustle of city streets and the hum of I-5 are heard, and inside every head is the sound of busyness and worry. But the chanting dominates and all other noises fade away leaving just one thing to be heard — silence.
As Compline continues, everyone stands together to listen to the Apostle’s Creed. Even the loungers stand. It’s a reminder that attending Compline isn’t simply passive — it’s a participation in something ancient. After everyone’s seated again, the Lord’s Prayer is shared and the chanting takes on more repetition, setting a healing cadence.
When the final ‘amen’ ends Compline, the choir members exit the way they entered. But the sound of silence continues to ring in the listeners’ ears. They stand slowly and leave the cathedral without speaking until they’ve walked out the large doors, past the sign that called them to silence just a half hour ago. They leave with the small gift of silence and carry it with them into the noise of the week.