The climate in early March was Lenten to the bone at Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville--darkened stone sanctuary, penitential prayers--but the music for this particular service carried the pulse of synthesizers, filling the 109-year-old nave with the dusky syncopations of minor-key dance music.
Last time the worship music was all medieval. Next month it may be Hank Williams Sr. or an African drum corps, Ghana-style. No one knows what to expect.
Most of the 250 worshipers were, as usual, non-members. There was no customary collection plate, no prayer book needed. The sermon was three minutes long. Professional dancers and musicians filled the space with movement and sound. And it was all happening on a Friday night after work, not a Sabbath morn.
Still, despite the odd sonic twists and visual turns, the service was Episcopalian, the rhythms liturgical. Eucharist was center stage, flanked by hymns like 'Let Us Break Break Bread Together.'
Beauty as an avenue
Welcome to 'First Friday: Sacred Soul Space,' a cathedral-sponsored monthly alternative service that has emerged as an Episcopal answer to the turbulent trend of contemporary worship in American religious life.
In the last decade, the worship wars have often divided congregations over dilemmas of style. Organ or guitar? Classical or pop? All in the name of repackaging the ancient gospel and attracting new members.
Without acrimony, Christ Church Cathedral has found a third way, taking an eclectic approach, a blend of ancient and new, seizing on an aspect of worship that many Protestant churches ignore: Beauty.
'I really believe that beauty is an avenue into the heart of God,' said the Rev. Ken Swanson, dean of Christ Church Cathedral. 'These liturgies are wonderful artistic creations, and that's why people come. They are struck by the beauty of God.'
Every first Friday of the month at 6 p.m. the church opens its doors on a new liturgical adventure. It aims to wed music, dance and words to create an experience of the senses that takes worshipers to some new emotional place, while rooted in the gospel message.
'We couldn't do this on Sunday morning,' Swanson said. 'It would be too jarring to those who are used to a different liturgical rhythm.'
Tied to church calendar
Each service is tied to a theme in the church calendar -- Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost -- whatever the season dictates. But worshipers otherwise are never sure what awaits them.
There might be a moody poem by T.S. Eliot, read aloud. Or a dance enactment of the first verses of Genesis. Or a PowerPoint display of passages from the Psalms. Or all the above, bathed in rose incense, in the course of a 70-minute service.
'What happens at this service? The fact that people come says as much as whatever I might say,' said Sheldon Curry, a professional composer who is a key shaper of the First Friday experience. 'People bothering to get in the car for something on a Friday evening, even from out of town, and driving downtown and parking and coming in here means they're doing it purposefully, not by rote.'
The services maintain a thread of contemplative silence and candlelight that might segue into a near-hootenanny by the time of the final dismissal. A gallery of acoustic instrumentalists, drawn from Nashville's famous music scene and assembled by Curry, can sight-read everything from a 12th-century composition by Hildegard of Bingen to the hand-clapping gospel bluegrass of 'O Brother Where Art Thou?'
Lee Levine, a Presbyterian who attends regularly, was skeptical at first. The notion of dancers and acoustic music at church, when she was first told about it, suggested just another cheesy contemporary church brew of sentimental pap and piety. But First Friday blew her away, she said.
'I'm not a fan of the warm and fuzzy,' said Levine, who plays clarinet in the Nashville Symphony. 'What's interesting here is it definitely has a contemporary edge, yet because of the dance and the high-church parts it does take you to a meditative place. And I really like that it's on Friday night. You're starting your weekend with spiritual grounding. It feels really good, and it just makes sense.'
Gift to the city
First Friday was hatched in fall 2000. The idea was to expand the citywide offerings and ministry of Christ Church, the downtown parish that had been elevated to cathedral status in the Diocese of Tennessee in 1997.
Christ Church's membership has doubled in the last decade, standing now at about 2,000 parishioners and still growing. Membership decline -- the motivating force for many alternative worship experiments in mainline churches -- was not the issue here.
It was Swanson's dream to create a worship service as a 'gift to the city of Nashville,' something that freshly communicated the gospel. But he wasn't sure what it would look or sound like.
It took the peculiar alchemy of four other staffers or professionals to forge the First Friday sensibility -- cathedral canon Anne Stevenson, lay liturgist Alice Nichols, professional choreographer Grete Gryzwana-Teague and musician Curry.
'No one knew what it would be when we started,' said Nichols, the divinity student and psychotherapist who is responsible for much of the First Friday liturgy. 'At first we were thinking of doing something to appeal to Gen-Xers. But it hasn't really turned out that way. We're attracting a mix of people -- young people but baby boomers too,' she said. 'I think the whole service has a hospitable feel to it, a feeling of invitation.'
A series of emotional benchmarks define each service. One is a major dance sequence, just before the homily, performed by the six-member Epiphany Dance Company, a troupe that performs in various venues locally. It is choreographed by director Gryzwana-Teague, who has national experience as a dancer and teacher of modern dance and the Authentic Pilates fitness program.
'My aim is to take the theme and try to translate it into a contemporary thought, or totally pare it down,' she said. 'Using dance, music and visuals, we want to engage all the senses. So when people walk into the sanctuary I hope they get the feeling they are free to experience any part we have to offer.'
Swanson usually gives the sermons. He is used to preaching 15-20 minutes on Sunday morning. Here, he trims it to three minutes or so, a more impressionistic, less propositional discourse. The shortened sermon also gives the dance and other elements more time to flourish.
'I'll come in with a prepared homily, but I'll often jettison it after seeing the dance,' he said. 'I'll take it in a different direction because I'm responding emotionally to what we've just seen in the dance.'
Another binding moment is the litany of names that are called out and prayed for publicly during the 'Prayers for the People.' Worshipers are invited to write down names on a card and place them in a plate. The names are then read aloud -- 160 of them at a recent service.
'We know people are usually hesitant to call out names,' said Nichols, who is called First Friday's Minister of Ceremonies. 'So instead, here is an invitation to write down names to pray for -- perhaps the only time people are ever invited to write down names like that.'
Another highlight is the Sanctus ('Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might ...') during the Eucharistic prayers. The Sanctus music is written by Curry and it is accompanied by a series of sweeping hand motions that everyone is encouraged to try, a variation of American Sign Language created by Gryzwana-Teague.
Creative and imaginative
By now the service draws an estimated 250 or more. Sometimes 50 new people show up. It is not cheap to produce. It costs about $2,500 a month to pay dancers and musicians, print up a beefy leaflet (the order of service, so people don't have to navigate through the Book of Common Prayer and hymnal) and provide food and drink for the popular reception afterward.
Bishop Bertram Herlong of the Diocese of Tennessee, who is kept informed by cathedral priests about the liturgies used at First Friday, said he applauds Christ Church for 'coming at this in a new way.'
'Being creative and imaginative and different, it's attracting people who might not be coming to church,' he said. 'It's part of the cathedral plan to be a ministry to the city. They're offering not new answers but asking new questions, namely, How do you express in contemporary terms the truth of the gospel and the meaning of liturgy?'
Liturgical prayers are taken from the BCP or from supplemental sources and experimental liturgies approved for Anglican use. Some have a Celtic flavor, others are shortened for greater impact on worshipers. Some are crafted anew. The blessing at the close of the February First Friday, focusing on a Candlemas theme and the Virgin Mary (and written by Alice Nichols), declared: 'May Almighty God, who chose Mary the virgin to bear the Divine Child, open your hearts to be God's chosen vessel as well. Amen.
'May God, who sustained Mary the mother in her suffering, fill you with wisdom, courage, and hope. Amen.
'May God, who granted Mary unending life in heaven, be your Source of light in this life and the next. Amen.
'And the blessing of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of Life, be upon you and remain with you forever. Amen.'
'We keep the service within the Anglican framework,' said canon and liturgist Anne Stevenson, 'but within that framework we find the best expressions we can and try to make it particularly welcoming to people. We're looking to use the best of everything, ancient and modern.'