U2charist, Crash the Cathedral, Facebook and more

Published October 1, 2009

HAIR TODAY, GONE TODAY. When Rev. David Giffen (above, centre) challenged youth at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Ont., to raise $500 for the privilege of shaving his head, he ended up “very bald.”

QUESTION: WHAT does it take to get more than 700 people into an Anglican cathedral for a eucharist on a Friday night?

Answer: U2charist.

Featuring the music of the Irish rock band U2, performed live by the tribute band Elevation, the service last October attracted regular members of the congregation, youth groups from across the diocese of Huron and about 100 people who just happened to be passing by.

“We were surprised that that many people came in,” says Rev. David Giffen, the vicar at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Ont. He notes that in a university town like London, it’s the bars-not the churches-that are typically packed on a Friday night.

“It was wonderful,” says Mr. Giffen, of the people who heard the music through the open doors and followed it into the cathedral. “They took a seat and joined us.”

Amanda Parker, a teacher in her late 20s, was part of the crowd that night. “It was about two-and-a-half hours and you didn’t even notice,” she says. “Everyone was up and dancing in the aisles, and we had a candle-lighting service. It was absolutely gorgeous.” Ms. Parker noticed that youth 10 and 12 years of age didn’t necessarily know the music but seemed to have a good time anyway.

In fact, the service attracted people of all ages. “I call it a trans-generational service,” says Mr. Giffen, noting that “Uncle Ron,” a 96-year-old congregation regular, was in attendance; and that the youngest celebrant was just three years of age. Importantly, the event raised $7,500 for projects in Huron’s companion diocese of Mthatha, in South Africa.

Mr. Giffen knows what appeals to people, young and old. And he’s not shy about working new ideas such as using rock music during a service. At 28, he’s the youngest priest in Canada currently in charge of a cathedral. Granted, it’s an interim position, which he assumed after Dean Terrance Dance was elected suffragan (assistant) bishop for the diocese of Huron in March. He’ll continue in this role until a new dean is appointed.

In the meantime, he’s shaking things up a bit, using new and innovative ideas such as the popular U2charist services, which he heard about when he was in seminary. In order to meet the community where it is, youth programs at St. Paul’s Cathedral make use of multimedia presentations in the services and use popular web-based technology such as Facebook to spread the word about events and connect the community.

But beyond the medium is the message itself. “The job of the church is to proclaim the gospel,” says Mr. Giffen, adding that the social justice message is a very powerful draw, particularly for youth who want to make a difference. “I am of the belief that this generation wants to change the world, they just need to be challenged. And every time they are challenged, I see them stand up and answer the call.”

The music of the rock band U2, which focuses on spiritual questions and social justice issues, attracts young and old alike. Mr. Giffen is planning another U2charist service for Oct. 23. This time, the funds raised will benefit the Keiskamma Trust, which combines HIV/AIDS treatments, art projects and education to combat poverty and disease in rural South Africa.

Usually, if you use popular music in a service, you have to pay copyright fees. Since U2 lead singer, Bono, supports the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals, however, the band has agreed to forgo any payment for the use of their music when 100 per cent of the money it raises is put towards eliminating poverty. So, Mr. Giffen issued a challenge to all the youth groups in the diocese: raise even one dollar and be invited to join a pizza dinner before the U2charist. “Even before we got into the service, all the youth groups had raised a few thousand dollars,” he says.

But it didn’t end there. Next, Mr. Giffen committed to having his head shaved…if the youth group at the cathedral could raise $500 on the day of their bake sale. “I ended up very bald,” he recalls with a laugh. “They had so much fun doing it.” Underneath all the hilarity, however, was the understanding that they were doing it “for kids in South Africa that were just like them but didn’t have the same opportunities,” says Mr. Giffen.

“Crash the Cathedral” services, which feature the music of the Holy Family LifeTeen Band, are another popular idea that Mr. Giffen has launched to attract youth. Katie-Scarlett MacGilvray, 23, describes it as “kind of like modern day church music that appeals to young people, but everyone can sing along too.”

Ms. MacGilvray was a youth leader for the diocesan synod this year and says “Crash the Cathedral” events are a great way to get youth together. “We had it on Facebook. That’s the connection nowadays for youth. And hopefully priests who hear about it will spread the word. I hope we’ll have more and more come every time,” she says.


  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

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