At The Economist (April 4, 2014):
RELIGION in America is clearly changing, but it can be difficult to fathom where it is going. While Evangelical Protestantism is declining and Liberal Protestantism is in freefall, some groups which demand a deep commitment—from the Mormons to the Pentecostalists—are still gaining members. Yet the fastest-growing category seems to be that of the "spiritual but not religious"–people who have a sense of connection with a higher power and want to share it with others, without signing up to formal rules or beliefs. Generally, religion seems to do best at the extremes: either rigorously conservative or free and easy.
In Seattle, one of America's least "churched" cities, academics are impressed by the success of a religious phenomenon that appeals to both extremes at once. Compline, as old-fashioned Christians know, is the last service in the daily cycle of monastic prayer. Every Sunday evening, an 18-strong male choir performs that service at Saint Mark's Episcopal Cathedral (pictured above). They attract an enormous crowd. Some 600 people, mostly young and bohemian, pack the building and thousands more listen on the radio or a podcast. The atmosphere is come-as-you-are. The pews and concrete floors are packed with worshippers who sit or lie down; some bring blankets and close their eyes, while others meditate or cuddle up with partners.
The sound is mesmerising. And the very fact that the service consists of music rather than a sermon seems to be a selling point, allowing everyone to interpret the message in his or her own way. “Whatever they’re saying, you hear but you don’t necessarily recognise it as part of the Bible or something that’s religious,” says Becky Doubles, a teacher who calls herself “spiritual” not “religious” and travels for an hour to attend. “It’s very much a spiritual experience, a beautiful way to centre yourself and find that inner peace,” said Mary Weston, another devotee.
Jodi O'Brien, a professor of sociology at Seattle University, thinks the key to Compline's success is that it "offers connection with no obligation”. Susan Pitchford, a lecturer at the University of Washington, reckons that young people may be drawn to this unchanging rite because everything else in their lives is shifting. “A liturgy that's changed only modestly in 2,000 years, and music that goes so far back as to be unconnected to any musical movements in their or their parents' lifetimes, gives them a sense of being anchored in something lasting.”
Maybe so. But for some of the bohemians and hipsters who crowd into Compline, even that statement might go too far in pinning down something which they prefer to leave vague. What people take away from Compline seems at least as varied as the styles and age groups that throng the cathedral every Sunday.