Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Reflecting on Refuge

In my last post, I promised a longer essay reflecting on the first offering of St. Paul’s new Sunday evening service, Refuge @ St. Paul’s. In this essay, I intend to fulfill that promise. (An aside: I really don’t know what to call this service. I have been calling it Refuge most often, but that does not seem to be its official name, and another activity at the church uses that name. I have seen both Refuge@St. Paul’s and Refuge @ St. Paul’s in church literature, but the service leaflet had only Refuge on the cover. On the first line inside the leaflet, the service is referred to as Refuge at St. Paul’s. I’m not personally fond of the name, however rendered, but we should make a choice and stick with it.)

I arrived at the six o’clock service 10 or 15 minutes early. I came with Jane Little, who uses a walker. We sat a few pews back from the crossing on the Gospel side. After the service, we attended the reception that was held in the undercroft.


As is immediately obvious from the picture I posted yesterday, St. Paul’s looked different for Refuge than it does for most services. To begin with, the church was dark. Because it was still light outside, some light filtered through the stained glass, but even the light coming through the east windows—our “east” windows actually face west, so they are most brilliant in the time before sunset—did little to brighten the worship space. There were many lighted candles, but they didn’t provide much light either. The lanterns (i.e., chandeliers) were dimly lit, and their downlights (i.e., lamps pointing straight down from the lanterns or the ceiling) were likewise dim.

The scant illumination was restful, perhaps even beautiful, but it had its drawbacks. I found it very difficult to read my service leaflet and could only do so because I was near a window. A better balance needs to be struck between Milton’s “dim religious light” and the need to actually see what one is doing.

Decoration of the church was less extensive than for the Wilderness service held in May. This was actually a good thing. There was enough drapery to make the church look different without making it look like a fabric store that had experienced a suicide bomber attack. I was particularly struck by the “screen” in the middle of the chancel on which images were projected. (See the aforementioned photograph.) The screen was a translucent bit of white fabric suspended from a wire spanning the chancel. It proved functional and attractive without looking obtrusively high-tech.

Not all decoration was equally successful, however. For example, the painting nearest to where we were sitting was on the wall of the Gospel side aisle. It was illuminated by a lamp clamped to a music stand. Not only did this look jerry-rigged, but it made it impossible for two people to walk through the aisle side-by-side. The painting, however, done by Shelly Fanguy, daughter of the Rev. Mabel Fanguy, was lovely. (Shelly contributed a series of paintings for the service.)

There is little I can say about the various “stations” scattered about the chancel. I didn’t even discover the description of these in the service leaflet until Monday. Perhaps I am simply not spiritual enough to get into this sort of thing, but they reminded me of kindergarten, where, at playtime, kids have a number of options to pass their time. In any case, the explanations at the individual stations were impossible for me to read without my being infelicitously close to the printed explanations at the stations themselves. Chalk this up to aging eyes and inadequate lighting (but perhaps also too-small fonts and too-long explanations).

I should say that lighting candles with a prayer—the places where this was done were “stations” of a sort—seemed natural. I did not personally do that, but I could without being self-conscious about it. I am nonplussed by how fast the candles used for this purpose burn down. Lighting one of these candles seems more like lighting the fuse on a firecracker, except that, in the end, the candle just goes away. There seems to be symbolism here, but I don’t know what it is.

As I mentioned, Jane and I arrived a few minutes early, giving ourselves lots of time to settle in, look over the material that was handed out, and put ourselves in a worshipful mood. This was difficult to achieve. Not only was the church dark, making reading difficult, but the musicians were practicing, and people were busily moving about the chancel, presumably putting last minute touches on the decorations.

Music and Sound

It is hard to know where to begin here. Perhaps I should start with the wireless microphone worn by Kris. It should be well known by now that reception of the signal from this microphone has a tendency to drop out when the transmitter is at the crossing. This is where Kris spent most of his time, and the drop outs inevitably happened. They are annoying. Probably the antenna for the receiver should be repositioned, but this has been an issue for years, and no one has seen fit to do anything about it. Additionally, the microphones for our beltpack transmitters are all patched with tape, and, some day, they will likely fail during a service. Even if we don’t replace our sound system in the church, we need to keep it in good repair. (Perhaps, like the un-repaired steps at the upper Mayfair entrance, sound system glitches are to remind us that someone should pony up money for a new system.)

I felt rather detached from the music, which, as a musician, was uncomfortable. This was partly because I could not see all the musicians. In fact, I could see only one well, but I think there were actually three or more. The poor quality of the sound—see below—made it unclear to me whether I was listening to live or recorded music.

In general, the music sounded muddy. It was as if the bass controls on the mixer were turned all the way up and the midrange and treble controls were turned all the way down. I do suspect that this was a mixing problem, rather than a poor equipment problem, but I’m not certain of that. I don’t know if appropriate microphones were used, for instance. In any case, singing was not very intelligible, and the overall effect of the music was not what it could have been.

As for the music itself, it was mostly acceptable, if unremarkable. The use of a much-too-loud drum early in the service, however, nearly caused me to run out of the room screaming. I was so glad when it was over! It was good that none of the music was rhythmically complex, a characteristic that makes so much “contemporary” Christian music difficult to sing, particularly with those unfamiliar with it.

The service used both new and old tunes, but nothing was actually unsingable. On Sunday mornings, worshipers generally hear an entire hymn before they begin singing. This is not simply to give people time to stand up and find the right hymn in the hymnal. We play the hymn so that people can get the tune in their minds and begin singing when the time to sing has come. This is especially helpful for the musically trained, who may be listening to the alto or bass part during the introduction. (As a choir member, that is what I do.) On Sunday evening, however, we got no such introductions, and I found myself always playing musical catch-up. Moreover, on one of the songs, there was a long interlude between two of the verses. Unlike the interludes Doug plays on Sunday mornings, the music gave no clear signal when it was ending, so I did not catch the entrance to the next verse.

A personal note: I hate unison singing, and everything the people sang Sunday night was unison. This may be a personal quirk, but being able to sing regularly in four-part harmony is one reason I am an Episcopalian. It may not be the best reason, but it is one reason. (My theory is that all good church musicians are really Episcopalians at heart, no matter what church they work in.)

The Psalm that was read was not reproduced in the service leaflet or in an insert that included the readings from I Timothy and Luke. I have no idea why, but I suspect it was to save space. The reading was hard to follow, as it was “decorated” with music that tended to cover up the voice of the reader.


When I first heard of plans for the new service, I was concerned that it would not be Episcopal enough. I now worry that it is too Episcopal. Although the liturgy was not taken from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the arc of the service was that of a standard Rite II Eucharist. I don’t really know if this is a criticism, as it is unclear to me for whom this service is intended. The Eucharist and the creed (“Affirmation of Faith”) made the service definitely Christian, and it struck me that someone of the spiritual-but-not-religious persuasion might feel very uncomfortable at a Refuge service. I estimated the congregation at 75 or so, and it seemed that just about everyone took communion. I suspect that this was a very Episcopalian crowd.

In any case, any parishioner who is worried that Refuge is some new-age, non-Christian experiment should be reassured. The attractiveness of the service to Christians, Episcopalians, or the unchurched, on the other hand, remains an empirical matter. Attendance will almost certainly be down next week. Many of the curious will be satisfied, and many Episcopalians will have gone to the Pirates game.

Personally, I found the distribution of the elements problematic. Whereas the service encouraged informality and wandering about, communion felt conventional and regimented. Kris stood at the crossing with bread, flanked by chalice bearers. Two lines of communicants stretched down the center aisle. (There were candles and other stuff in the middle of the aisle that people had to walk around.) Jane, who is now used to receiving communion in her pew, decided to try walking up to receive, with a little help from me at her side. Remarkably, we accomplished this, but not without assistance. Because of the music stand and lamp partially blocking the side aisle—see under “Ambiance,” above—I could not walk beside Jane past the pier at the front of the nave. Happily (and surprisingly), there was a volunteer handy who helped get Jane past the barrier and up to the crossing. (The volunteer was from Calvary Church, as it turned out. She had come to the demonstration service in the spring and liked what she saw.)

Other Matters

It was only after Jane and I sat down that I realized that there was an insert for the service leaflet that we did not receive. Of course, everything should have been collated in advance. As I mentioned, the insert lacked the Psalm, but it contained the announcements from the morning’s bulletin.

Then, there is the matter of the offering. Appropriately, I thought, there was a basket for donations but not a passing of the plate. Kris, however, talked about donating “for those in need.” At the last Vestry meeting, however, it was decided that collections from Refuge would be used exclusively to support the Refuge service itself, something that is done for no other service. There is what I can only view as deception here. The church cannot have it both ways—are we helping the less fortunate or building our own ecclesiastical empire? I must admit that the decision made by the Vestry did not trouble me at the time, but I think we have a problem here.

There was a reception in the undercroft after the service. The fare was modest, but adequate. Jane and I rode the elevator downstairs, and we found a place for her to sit, I then went off in search of wine, cheese, and other goodies for the two of us. When I got to the table, I realized that there were no plates, only napkins. I assume this was an oversight rather than a mechanism to discourage gluttony, but it made it difficult to carry food for the two of us back to where Jane was sitting. After unsuccessfully attempting to embarrass the rector into fixing the problem, I walked to the kitchen, found two paper plates, and returned to the food table. (I’m not sure the lack of plates was really Lou’s problem, but it wasn’t mine, either.)


In light of my observations, here are some ideas to make Refuge @ St. Paul’s—or whatever we’re calling this service—better.

Lighting. We need more of it. I understand the “dim religious light” thing, but it is easy to carry this too far. Perhaps all that is needed is to increase the intensity of the downlights. In any case, some experimentation is indicated. We should also consider using different lighting treatments at different times. The uniform gloom quickly became tiresome. We may have to purchase lighting to illuminate objects like paintings on the wall. It would have made more sense to turn up the track lighting in the side aisles. Not only would this have illuminated anything on the walls, but, by contrast, it would have made the central nave seem darker.

Setup. Keep obstructions out of the side aisles and perhaps out of the main aisle as well. Objects in the aisles hinder movement, which is something the service encourages. Moreover, the fire marshal might not approve.

Make sure all handouts have been collated when they are given out.

There is a tension between making the service familiar to Episcopalians and yet not too alienating to others. The via media is hard to find here. The service leaflet referred to the “High Altar” and the “Holy Table” (i.e., freestanding altar). There is a certain schizophrenia here. Also, I found the conventional list of announcements on the back of the insert strange. If this service is oriented to outsiders—I don’t know that it is—the “announcements” should target those people and their perceived special needs. The conventional announcements could be left in a pile somewhere for parishioners to pick up, if needed.

Before and After. Setting the mood happens before the service begins. I would suggest that all preparations be completed at least by 5:50. No tweaking the set or practicing should happen after this time. Consider whether there should be soft, contemplative music before and/or after the service.

The reception felt like a reward for having pulled off the first Refuge service. That is perfectly appropriate. We should consider whether we should serve some kind of food after each such service, however. This would encourage people to share their experiences. Of course, this isn’t, so far as I know, provided for in the budget.

Sound and Music. The sound needs more presence (a technical term), and the musicians should be more visible. This would make them seem more participant than performer. Music that has no visible source should be limited to elevators. Drums should be used sparingly, if at all. Amplification for drums is almost always unnecessary in a setting like this, in my opinion.

There is a tendency in contemporary services to use music to set a mood. This technique should be used sparingly. The “decoration” of the Psalm mostly covered up the words.

Songs should have a full introduction, and interludes should have cues as to when they are about to end.

Liturgy. As one who has attended offbeat liturgies at the General Convention, I had no problem with the liturgy for Refuge. There were times when I lost my place, however, because I could not hear Kris very well and because there were distractions.

I don’t think the distribution of the elements worked well. It felt too claustrophobic. I’m not sure what to do about this. I am tempted to put the priest and chalice bearers on the other side of the altar rail, but I can anticipate objections to this. This needs to be thought through.

Concluding Thoughts

Did I like the service? Well, I didn’t hate it. I do have a been-there-done-that attitude, however, and I don’t expect to return except possibly to see what my parish is up to. Jane was more positive, but I don’t want to speak for her.

I would like to see a mission statement for Refuge. Certain elements appeal to one clientele and others appeal to other groups. I would like to see a clear declaration of what Refuge is trying to accomplish that would provide a standard against which we could measure various options.

It is too much to ask that Refuge seem like an effortless production at this stage, but that should be a goal as the service settles in. On Sunday, I think everyone was coping with discomfort and anxiety.

How does Refuge fit in at St. Paul’s? Just as Refuge needs a clear mission, so does the parish itself. Aspiring to be welcoming is not helpful operationally, except for trivial matters. The Pittsburgh Pirates have a similar aspiration, as do many establishments that are nothing like churches. Does Refuge help us do what God has planned for us?

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