Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Special Evening of Worship and Conversation

Graphic from on
Wednesday’s service booklet
“A Special Evening of Worship and Conversation”—that was the title on Wednesday’s service booklet for the event that was intended to communicate the nature of Refuge@St. Paul’s, the Sunday evening service we are being told will be launched on September 12, 2010. (See my previous post here.) I was at the church last night, along with about 50 other people. I’m still mulling over the experience, but I want to offer some initial impressions and thoughts.

The Setting

After hearing Lou’s description of the setting used for The Wilderness at the Denver cathedral, I was skeptical that St. Paul’s could be transformed into the sort of environment created there. I was pleasantly surprised. The church was darkened, and candles were everywhere, particularly on the high altar and balcony railing. Large pieces of fabric hung in various places, some highlighted with spotlights. Red, patterned drapery attached to the pulpit canopy made the pulpit look like a Middle Eastern tent. What looked like a large white sheet was suspended from the organ chests below an east window that stood out from the surrounding darkness on a late-spring evening. A table behind the altar held burning incense. A projector painted images above the peak of the arch at the rear of the chancel. There were “stations” set up around the chancel sporting icons, more drapery, handwritten notes, and other paraphernalia. Musicians were positioned as at the 8:45 service, and the celebrant, Kris Opat, stood at the crossing for most of the service.

The Liturgy

The liturgy, which was printed in a service booklet, was both familiar and not. Generally, it mirrored the structure of a Rite II Eucharist, but, if the sentiment was often recognizable, the wording was not. According to the “Permissions” section at the back of the booklet, the text was drawn from (and modified from) a number of sources, including the Church of England and the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, a Roman Catholic organization. Lessons were taken from The Message, a contemporary paraphrase of the Bible.

Occasionally, the service seemed to stray rather far from the prayer book. For example, the Nicene Creed was replaced by an “Affirmation of Faith,” which was rather light on theology:
We believe in God,
creator of all that was, and is, and is to come,
who leads us through the wilderness to a land prepared for us.
We encounter God in Jesus Christ,
who taught and did wonderful things
as he traveled through lands hostile and friendly.
He was led by God to the Cross,
where he began the journey through death to new life,
becoming the way for all people.
We walk with God,
guided by the light of God’s loving Spirit,
who leads us into truth and life.
We wait for God,
and for the fulfillment of God’s promises,
for the time when the darkness will hold no fear
and the light will no longer blind,
but creation will be made whole once more
and God’s peace will reign for ever. Amen.
Both this text and that of the “Declaration of Repentance” (i.e., the stand-in for the Confession of Sin) were described as “extensively modified,” in part, I suspect, to stress the “wilderness” theme of the Denver service.

During the Prayers of the People, worshipers were encouraged to come forward, light a candle, offer a prayer, and stand their candle in a container of sand around a larger candle. They were also encouraged to visit the stations in the chancel and sanctuary. Although few people did so, we were given permission to take off our shoes. (This barefoot thing has never had much resonance with me. In the East, taking off your shoes is a sign of respect. In the West, it is more a symbol of personal freedom, which was clearly the case in this instance. Rather than seeing going barefoot as liberating, I have also looked upon it primarily as a safety hazard. But I digress.)

The Holy Communion part of the service, apparently by New Zealand Anglican theologian Bosco Peters, seemed more orthodox, though I did a double-take at “From your own being you sent Jesus among us, incarnate of the Holy Spirit and born of Mary our mother.” The elements were distributed in a completely conventional manner.

The final blessing included the traditional Irish blessing (“May the road rise up to meet you …), though the final line, was a jarring, gender-neutral “may God hold you in the palm of God’s hand.”

The Music

All the music sung in the service was either written or arranged by Kate Eaton, who came from Denver, along with several other musicians. Although some of the music was unfamiliar (the psalm tune and Sanctus, for example), other pieces were reworkings of familiar hymns, such as “All Creatures of Our God and King.” The music was reproduced in the service booklet, though much of it was oddly typeset, making it difficult to read in the semi-darkness. The singing didn’t elicit much congregational participation, but it was not impossibly difficult, and one could imagine getting more people to sing over time. All of the music called for unison singing. Eaton was accompanied by piano, percussion, electronic keyboard, and cello. Mercifully, percussion was used sparingly—still too much for my taste—and the overall tone was of New Age or World Music, rather than that of a Baptist revival. There were several purely instrumental interludes, and I must say that I experienced some disappointment when the music stopped.

Overall Impression

The overall tone of the service was comfortable and contemplative. The lessons and liturgy were informal and contemporary without being ordinary or condescending. Mostly, the service did not feel radical or in any way scandalous. I could raise some theological quibbles, and probably would if all services at St. Paul’s followed the plan of Wednesday night’s service, but I didn’t find the experience a threat to Christianity (or even Anglicanism) as we know it.

The music was pleasant and, at times, quite lovely. The absence of guitars, saxophones, and trumpets was a blessing. For myself, however, I would not give up part-singing of hymns for unison singing, no matter how sublime.

The church was truly transformed, though I cannot predict if I would feel this way week after week. The candles certainly contributed to the effect, and the fabric hangings managed to make the familiar architecture seem less familiar.

Personally, I could do without the incense, which leads to a constriction of my throat and makes singing difficult. When the event was over, I ran off to Wendy’s for a Frosty.

The projected images were also somewhat problematic. They were generally rather indistinct and contributed only marginally to the ambiance. Of course, had they been projected onto a screen, I would have found them positively distracting. One black-and-white image was upsetting. Because only the tops of images could be seen on the wall, it appeared to be the head of a woman seemingly buried in the sand, something from a Bergman or Teshigahara movie, perhaps.


Last night’s service was not an isolated event, and, because Lou intends it to be a prototype of Refuge@St. Paul’s, more scrutiny is indicated.

My first thought as I approached the church from the elevator lobby was that the unattended candles on the table in the hallway were a fire hazard. When I entered the church, my anxiety increased. I could think of all sorts of unlikely events that might lead to tragedy. Candles burned in church should either be in well-thought-out and isolated locations—like votive candles in Roman Catholic churches—or they should be where they can be constantly monitored. The Mt. Lebanon fire marshal would not have been happy last night. We once nearly set the church on fire from candles at a Taizé service that used considerably fewer candles, so I don’t think my concern is either fanciful or petulant.

Some things worked better than others. The use of individual candles during the Prayers of the People fulfilled a need to feel more intentional in one’s prayers. And the candles looked nice. (The small candles burned away distressingly fast, however, which might seem symbolic of something.) I was less taken with the stations, though I must admit that I was taking a census of them more than I was trying to interact with them. My offhand impression was of scenes in a Halloween-season haunted house. (They were not, however, scary.)

Kate Eaton has a beautiful, unusually low contralto voice. (Significantly, her music was pitched surprisingly low.) She reminded me of any number of my favorite female singer-songwriters. She is also Episcopalian—she is married to the cathedral dean in Denver—and therefore has a sensibility seldom found in non-organist church musicians. It will not be easy to find her clone in Pittsburgh. And I do think that a female voice is more in keeping with the spirit of the service. At the risk of being accused of indulging in prejudices, I find a female voice more nurturing and less authoritarian than a male voice, Janis Joplin notwithstanding.

On the other hand, I generally do not like any kind of soloist in a worship service, be they called cantors, song leaders, or whatever. Eaton’s singing, pleasing though it was, seemed more performance than worship. I might have felt differently had there been more congregational participation, and she did explain that, in Denver, music is fixed for a season, giving worshipers time to learn the songs. In fact, some of the music was not difficult to read, and Eaton avoided the sort of irregular rhythms that, at least for me, make most praise music difficult to sing—assuming that I had any desire to sing it in the first place.

Anyway, the bottom line for St. Paul’s is whether we can get the sort of sensitive, talented musicians we heard last night. And, of course, what will it cost us? The diocese did give St. Paul’s seed money for Refuge@St. Paul’s, but, ultimately, parishioners are likely going to have to foot the bill for the new service. In the post-service talk, Eaton indicated that The Wilderness has attracted an increasing number of worshipers, has not diminished the size of other congregations, and has resulted in some—she did not say how many—new worshipers at more conventional services. She did not discuss the economics of The Wilderness, which was blessed with a generous pledge early on.

We were told that last night’s service was a gift to St. Paul’s, though it was not clear from whom or why. Did the musicians pay their own way to Pittsburgh so they could sell a few CDs? It seemed churlish to ask last night, but enquiring minds would like to know.

Whatever qualms I might have about last night’s event, I have to admit that the service was interesting and engaging. It also was, as the rector promised, different. Nevertheless, I am skeptical that any service at St. Paul’s will attract people from all over town, as The Wilderness does in Denver. This is a city where, however irrational it might be, people are reluctant to cross the rivers. When we were regularly having Taizé services, they were poorly attended and, although having a visitor from some distance away was not unheard of, neither was it common.

I would like to see the new service simply called Refuge. Refuge@St. Paul’s is rather too cute. (Why does everyone want to use an ampersand in lieu of “at” ever since e-mail was invented?) It is also somewhat self-congratulatory. If the service proves popular but the location does not, perhaps Refuge could move elsewhere, maybe even at our own cathedral.

I must say that I am distressed that last night’s service seems not to have been about showing parishioners what they might want to have. It was showing them what we will have irrespective of how they feel about it. This is how our 8:30 (now 8:45) service came about. Significantly, when we had two principal Sunday services in the past and the early service was promoted as a “family” service, most people attended the early service. The family-friendly aspects of the service were that it was early and short. (The now defunct Canterbury Choir may also have been a draw.) The service was otherwise quite conventional. The longer, later service with adult choir and longer sermons experienced declining attendance. Now, however, our early “family” service, with its non-traditional liturgy and band, seems to be driving more and more people to the 10:30 service. And, in spite of poor attendance, the 8:45 service has not changed. Can we expect St. Paul’s to drop Refuge@St. Paul’s if it flops? I fear not.

One final quibble about last night. The predicted high temperature yesterday was 87°F. Why is it that no one thought of turning on the air conditioning early in the day to cool the church? It was insufferably hot during the service, no doubt exacerbated by the boatload of burning candles. That was another reason to go after that Frosty.

1 comment:

jmhjr4 said...

Thanks,Lionel, for your outstanding critique of the Wednesday evening service. It sounded like a lovely event.