Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Refuge’s Last Stand

I attended the final Refuge service on November 18. (Officially, Refuge services are suspended, but I don’t expect them ever to resume at St. Paul’s.) I had not been to Refuge often, but I was present at its birth, and it seemed right to compete the circle by attending its funeral. The congregation at the last service was clearly larger than had been expected—wine was in short supply after the event—so I was in the company of many occasional, in addition to the few regular, worshipers.

I have never been a fan of Refuge, but it was clear that not everyone felt the same way. I am sorry for the loss that may be felt by some. Alas, their numbers were too small for the service to be sustainable. I was reminded, however, that for me, Refuge, which no doubt is supposed to offer a deeply spiritual experience, simply seems self-conscious and contrived.

Some positive things can be said of the “Farewell” service. (“Farewell” was the subtitle on the service booklet.) The decoration of the church was better than at the first service, and the projection of images on the semi-transparent screen was very effective, even if the images themselves lacked obvious relevance.

A major strength of Refuge is that the service is a Eucharist, and one that mostly avoids any New-Age excess. The intimacy of having everyone stand around the altar to receive the elements is a welcome change from what is possible in a more conventional and better attended service. As it was, however, the unusual number of worshipers detracted somewhat from the atmosphere that I assume was more usual on Sunday evenings.

The music, even when I was not fond of it—that is, most of the time—was performed with sincerity and competence. The voices of Mara Underwood and Brian Sable go very well with one another. I was pleased to see that no one was being asked to sing anything for which music had not been provided in the service booklet.

And now for the not-so-positive things.

The church was still too dark for me to read the service booklet comfortably, and I found myself taking off my glasses and holding the booklet close to my face. I complained about the lighting more than two years ago, and the lighting at the last service was even worse than at the first, which benefited from a later sunset.

I had the feeling that St. Paul’s was simply the wrong size, either too big or too small. It is difficult to achieve a sense of intimacy for the whole service with people sitting in the church’s large nave and being necessarily distant from the chancel and from the musicians. Interestingly, such intimacy can be achieved in a much larger space by judiciously using only part of it and leaving most of it dark. (I recommend Easter Vigil at Washington National Cathedral.)

The music suffered from remaining within the narrow limits usual in Protestant praise music. Such music utilizes only a few themes: telling God or Jesus how great he is or how wonderful the worship of him is (for some reason, the Holy Spirit never seems to get the same respect), a morbid obsession with the cross, the ineffable comfort available to the Christian in this life, or the expectation of an end to suffering in the next. Additionally, as a singer who has not practiced with the official musicians, I object to not having access to harmonies employed, the failure to follow the written music strictly, and the irritating convention of repeating the endings of songs an indefinite number of times.

Kris McInnes’s “reflection” was, of course, atypical, given the occasion. I had the thought, however, that the search for an appropriate musician that eventually identified Brian Sable should have been accompanied by a search for a preacher whose voice was deep, resonant, and comforting. For all of Kris’s talents, he sounds like the kid down the street, but the service seemed to call for an Alexander Scourby. (If you’re too young to remember Scourby, you can listen to this example of his voice on YouTube. Refuge needs a slower pace, however.)

What is most distinctive about Refuge is its collection of “worship stations.” I must say that I just never got these. In the dark, the purpose of the stations is insufficiently perspicuous, and it is not obvious to the casual worshiper that the explanation of the stations needs to be read from the back of the worship booklet before the service begins.

We were told that the Wilderness program on which Refuge was based is a successful program. Perhaps it is, and perhaps there is an audience for this sort of service in the context of an Episcopal church. The appeal, however, would seem to be to a hip urban audience or to a university community. Mt. Lebanon always seemed an unlikely venue for Refuge, and the notion that St. Paul’s would attract worshipers from all over Pittsburgh never seemed realistic. I suspect that Refuge would never have been undertaken if all the funds for it had to come from the parish. The diocese was generous in supporting the experiment, but it is time to move on.

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