How Composers at Venerable Cathedral Are Making Space for LGBTQ+ Congregation

The Pride Choral Evensong at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine celebrates composers who identify with or support the LGBTQ+ community.

| 02 Jul 2024 | 06:09

Dan Ficarri begins to sing, signaling the choir to start on a specific note of “The Suffrages,” a prayer, with the music arranged by Ficarri himself. “Can we do this next one on ‘ta’?,” he asks. He extends his arms and raises his palms to match the music’s crescendo.

Ficarri, an organist and the associate director of music at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, is guiding the choir in the final rehearsal before their performance in the Pride Choral Evensong, a service focused on singing psalms and hymns. Accompanying him on the piano, Kent Tritle, director of cathedral music and one of America’s leading choral conductors, chimes in with notes and suggestions that the singers jot down on their music sheets.

With only two hours remaining, the choir and music directors run through the list of songs arranged by LGBTQ+-identifying or supporting composers. Ficarri has composed and written four musical pieces to be featured this evening. As an openly gay man, he does not take this opportunity for granted.

On June 23, the Cathedral of St. John The Divine staged its annual Pride Sunday Celebration with festivities, including a Pride Family Picnic, a performance of the Queer Big Apple Corps Marching Band, and one of the highlights of the evening, Pride Choral Evensong.

“I’ve worked in often very conservative churches,” said Ficarri, recounting his experience as a musician. “There was just such cultural pressure to keep that part of myself and so many others who share their sentiments, to keep themselves sort of tucked away and hidden.”

For Ficarri and many of the composers, the Pride Choral Evensong is an opportunity for members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community to find representation in a religion. With various Christian denominations often conflicting with the expression of queer identities, the Pride Choral Evensong is a testament to the progress of composers and music directors in combining traditional religious music with contemporary experiences. For these musicians, faith and their LGBTQ+ identities are not dichotomous; they go together.

“For us, we in the Episcopal church have a very different notion in how divine love and human love interact,” said Very Reverend Patrick Malloy, Dean of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, in his homily. “We believe that the love that queer people have for one another and the way queer people live in the world, and the love that God has for us are not distinct things but that our love is a manifestation of the divine love that burns for the world.”

The Pride Choral Evensong singers are a combination of two choirs: the Cathedral Choir and the Pride Choir. While the Cathedral Choir consists of professional singers regularly performing on Sunday services, the latter set of singers comprises community volunteers who allot their time and effort to the Pride Sunday performance. The twenty-six singers that make up the harmonious voices of the Pride Choral Evensong choir come from all walks of life, singing expertise, and religious backgrounds–a community that exhibits a culture of acceptance in the cathedral. Despite the Pride Choir rehearsing earlier than the Cathedral Choir, the singers come together to exchange warm smiles and embrace mere minutes before their showtime.

Linda Jones, one of the professional choir members, has been singing in New York since 2009 and for the cathedral choir every Sunday. What attracted her to the cathedral was the welcoming environment of the music staff and the cathedral itself.

“I have members of my family that identify as trans or queer...I think it’s just part of life; it’s natural; it shouldn’t be a big deal,” said Jones, commenting on the significance of the cathedral’s Pride Sunday Celebrations. “It’s important to say out loud and say publicly that, you know, this is a place where we want everybody to feel welcomed and accepted.”

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest cathedral in New York City, has been a frontrunner in activism and the representation of queer identities through outward support to the community. Events such as the Pride Choral Evensong have fostered a safe space for LGBTQ+ composers and allies to take up space in religion and showcase their talent and their passion for music.

“It’s amazing all the different kinds of people it brings together,” said Ficarri. “We get people from the church in the city, we get people that have no religious affiliation, that just want to be there to support an important and relevant issue.”

While members of the congregation are ushered to their seats by Aries Dela Cruz, one of the Evensong volunteers, Ficarri plays the organ, filling the cathedral with melodies from the English composer and pioneer for the women’s suffrage movement, Dame Ethel Smyth’s “Erschienen ist der herrlich’ Tag (the glorious day has appeared).” Holding frankincense, three clergy members walk towards the nave as the choir, Tritle, and Dean Malloy follow them.

After the choir falls into formation, the Pride Choral Evensong begins. For roughly forty-seven minutes, the cathedral echoes with chants, hymns, and psalms written by composers who celebrate their allyship or their identities as members of LGBTQ+. Featuring songs from composers from diverse backgrounds worldwide, the choir performs songs with messages of love, support, and acceptance.

While the chants’ lyrics directly come from traditional biblical verses, the arrangement of music and score is designed to involve the congregation, making it accessible for parishioners. It is a “great combination of old and new worlds meeting in the middle,” Ficcari said.

“Part of that human experience is love and being a blessing to one another,” said Dela Cruz. “The fact that a church celebrates pride, I mean, if you really think about it, there’s something kind of beautiful.”

While the Episcopal Church accepts homosexuality and transgender identities, there still lies a challenge in addressing the growing distance of the queer community from different religions in general. The Pride Choral Song is more than a showcase of talent and a celebration of composers; it is an avenue to undo religion’s negative impact on the LGBTQ+ community.

“It’s important that we try to bridge the gap between the community celebrated by pride and the church,” said Jacob Gruss, an organ scholar and an undergraduate student at Julliard who recognizes the cathedral’s efforts to bring people back to the church.

“The church has done so much damage and has hurt so many people,” said Dean Malloy, addressing the attendees of the Pride Choral Evensong. “I promise you that not everyone who bears the name of Christ wants to hurt you or thinks less of you.”

The music and voices echoed in the antique cathedral reflected the impact of St. John the Divine’s cathedral musical directors–finding a medium to intertwine traditional beliefs with contemporary values. “To be able to be my authentic self and to share my own personal creation with others in this context,” Ficarri said, “is a great honor and a gift.”