Jump n’ jive, poetry pulls folks in at Nashville cathedral

By on June 1, 2003

Nashville

On the first Friday of each month, after the work day is done, worshippers come to 109-year-old Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville, not knowing what to expect.

Last time the worship music was medieval. Next month it might be Hank Williams Sr. or an African drum corps, Ghana-style.

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On a recent Friday, most of the 250 worshippers were, as usual, non-members. There was no customary collection plate, no prayer book. The sermon was three minutes long. Professional dancers and musicians filled the space with movement and sound.

Still, despite the odd sonic twists and visual turns, the service was Episcopalian, the rhythms liturgical. Eucharist was centre stage, flanked by such hymns as Let Us Break Bread Together.

First Friday: Sacred Soul Space is a monthly alternative service that has emerged as an Episcopalian 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? It’s 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 Rev. Ken Swanson, dean of the cathedral. “These liturgies are wonderful artistic creations, and that’s why people come. “

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 worshippers to some new emotional place, while rooted in the Gospel message.

“We couldn’t do this on Sunday morning,” Mr. Swanson said. “It would be too jarring to those who are used to a different liturgical rhythm.”

Each service is tied to a theme in the church calendar – Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost – whatever the season dictates. 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.

“What happens at this service? The fact that people come says as much as whatever I might say,” said Sheldon Curry, a 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 Mr. 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? Ray Waddle is a former religion editor of the Nashville Tennessean newspaper.

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