Church in PA Does Peter Gabriel Mass

peter-gabrielNo more miracles, loaves and fishes/Been too busy with the washing of the dishes.

— “Lay Your Hands on Me” Peter Gabriel

There was a buzz among some of my Facebook friends last week when one of my former students, The Rev. Lauren Schoek, posted an upcoming service at the church where she serves, St. James Episcopal in Lancaster, PA. It was a Saturday-night Eucharist featuring the music of Peter Gabriel. Many prog-rock-and-theology nerds (and there are more of us than you think) on three coasts were trying to arrange their travel calendars to get to Lancaster last Saturday night.

Fortunately, the service was livestreamed and archived. And examining the selection of pop/Episcopal masses on the Web site, it looks like Saint James is onto something. Peter Gabriel was just one of a long list of popular music legends the church has worked into its worship schedule. Past Eucharists have featured the music of John Lennon, Neil Young, Elvis Costello, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Chet Baker, Walt Disney films, even the Statler Brothers and the Dixie Chicks (?).

I watched the Peter Gabriel mass on the archive and was really struck with how well the music fit the service.

Gabriel’s music was mostly used in the “contemplative” portions of the service, where you might have preludes, anthems, or offertories. Selections included, “Here Comes the Flood,” “Mercy Street,” “Lay Your Hands on Me,” “Don’t Give Up,” “Father, Son,” and of course, “Solsbury Hill.” (Not surprising that they avoided some of Gabriel’s more famous MTV hits like “Sledgehammer” and “Shock the Monkey.”)

St. James has a talented and versatile music director, J.R. Ankey, who, bald and grey-goateed, bears a striking resemblance to the sixty-five year-old rocker. The band he’s put together, a cross-generational mix of drummers, guitarists, keyboardists, singers, and even a rock-n-roll cellist, did credible renditions of all the songs, with Ankey singing most of the leads.

In his homily, the rector of St. James, the Rev. David Warner Peck, suggested that the congregation has “an appetite for truth planted within us.” “We are not a place,” Peck said, “that wants to put Jesus in one box and culture in another, as if it was His kryptonite.”

Peck drew comparison between the ritual of the Eucharist and the crowd-surfing ritual of the rock concert: “What I hope we experience in tonight’s Holy Communion is an even larger version of [the communion] I experienced as a teenager in an outdoor concert in Cleveland. Where, with thousands of people I will never know or meet [again], we found something break open in our hearts as we passed Peter Gabriel over our heads.”

This feeling of shared oneness that comes over us in rock concerts, sports events, and occasionally, but not nearly frequently enough, at church services, is what Emile Durkheim called “collective effervescence.” It’s that tingle in the spine you get when everybody’s singing along with the same song, cheering for the same team, or involved and spiritually open during a worship experience.

The thing I loved about witnessing this service was how the “sacred” liturgy, and “secular” music alternately contrasted and cohered with each other. Peter Gabriel’s music often touches on religious themes, but in a vernacular style. Hearing it as part of a liturgy brings the grit, pain, disappointment, and joy of everyday life into a sacred setting. This is what we should be doing in worship: bringing our whole selves–including our quotidian culture expressed in pop songs, YouTube videos, and movie fandoms—and laying it before God.

I’ve written before about how mainline churches need to change and modernize their worship culture in order to reach out beyond the dwindling numbers of dyed-in-the-wool and dedicated-unto-death churchgoers who trickle into services on Sunday mornings. Based on some recent writings of a certain evangelical-to-Episcopal convert, there seems to be some idea that the Millennials, the spiritual-but-not religious, and the “nones” are just waiting for the right invitation to come to church. No significant change in how we do church is needed — not the organizational structure, not the theology, not the settings we meet in, and especially not the worship. Once they discover that we’re socially liberal and they can bring their doubts and queer friends to worship, they’ll start beating down the doors.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this is a delusion. There is no significant cohort of young people who are desperate to be introduced to church anthems and congregational hymnody. We need to take the words of Marshall McLuhan seriously: the medium is the message. Progressive congregations that adhere to anachronistic worship styles at the expense of cultural relevance do not appear progressive to casual observers. They just look like the same old Church.

This does not mean all ancient tradition must be jettisoned, but it may need to be reimagined and restructured for a postmodern audience. St. James Episcopal seems to have found a way to adhere to the tradition of the Book of Common Prayer and bring it to new relevance. Mixing traditional liturgy and modern pop songs may not be the only way to do it, but it might be one way. I’m sure there are multiple ways of reaching out to a postmodern, indeed, post-Christian culture. But churches need to get on with it–start taking risks and trying new things, before there’s no liberal Christian movement left to worship with.

In the mean time, I’m looking forward to the grunge mass – please watch the candles when you mosh.