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Emergent Episcopal worship in Boston

Recently, while in Boston for the Music that Makes Community conference (see my post about that wonderful experience here on my church blog), I took the opportunity to attend the Crossing – an emergent community based at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and led by the Rev. Stephanie Spellers and an able team of lay associates. This community shares distinctive, well-crafted liturgy – clearly within the Episcopal tradition, but with its own flavor. Having worshipped with them, I offer here my thoughts on a few of the key elements that give their worship its particular feel. 


1. Deep and broad lay participation. Every service at the Crossing includes many lay voices. A layperson gives a short homily most weeks.  After the sermon, other members of the congregation were invited to share brief reflections and responses. There’s also short segment called “Spiritual Practice,” in which, I gather, a member shares about something they’ve done recently to live out their faith – the evening I was there, a young woman told us a little about a recent mission trip. In addition, many of the short liturgical directions (the introduction to the Prayers, for example) are offered by laypeople. They’re clearly scripted (as they should be – scripting is good!), but still contribute to a sense of a community in which leadership is shared broadly. After attending the Crossing, I talked with a friend who is involved with that community and she assured me that this is no liturgical Astroturfing; that the liturgy and life of the Crossing really is shaped by a core group of involved laypeople collaborating with Rev Steph. (I noted that Rev Steph gets her chance to offer a little commentary and exhortation in the course of the improvised Eucharistic prayer and blessing – opportunities she uses gracefully and effectively.)


2. Use of space. The Crossing community gathers in the generous chancel of St. Paul’s nave. The space is arranged to create a sense of intimacy and familiarity. No actual sofas are involved, but there is a rug and cushions on the floor, and floor lamps provide the lighting. Light at a human level goes a long way towards making a big space like that feel cozy. The chairs are arranged choir-style, in two facing arcs, three rows each. Above, the altar, decorated with an icon and many candles; below, the steps down into the unlighted nave. During the service, there were two occasions when we were invited to wander out into the nave – to look at materials set out as part of the “Spiritual Practice” presentation, and to meditate, pray, or make art at a small art station during a 5-minute “Open Space” time following the sermon. So the nave was included as available space, but the focal point was the lighted circle of chairs in the chancel.


3. The music. The Crossing is gifted with some great musicians, who contribute tremendously to the feel of the worship. This evening they had a pianist, bass guitar, and someone playing a hand drum; this may well be the standard core group. The sound was low-key funk/jazz/gospel, and they did it well. The sung music was in keeping with this sound, which was fun, but the fact that the music ran under the rest of the liturgy too is what really gave the worship its feel. During almost the whole service, from the gathering time to the closing, one or more of these musicians was playing – sometimes just a drum beat, sometimes just quiet piano, sometimes drum and bass or piano and drum, sometimes all three. The music made many of the transitions – for example, shifting gradually into the tune for the opening chant, which was then picked up quietly by a couple of singers, which then gently called the community from chatting into singing and preparing for worship. Likewise, the end of the “Open Space” time was marked by the music moving into the key, and then the tune, of the song used to punctuate the Prayers, the next part of the liturgy. If it sounds like this much music would be intrusive, it wasn’t, mainly because the pianist in particular is very good at what he does. In any event, the musical “grooves” are clearly an integral part of Crossing worship. (The music paused for some reason while Rev Steph was gearing up for the blessing, and she called out, “Keep playing! I need a groove to bless by!” So they played, and she blessed.) 


Emergent is such a tricky movement to get a bead on. I’m glad to have had a chance to check out one Episcopal-rooted example. We welcome other accounts (or invitations to observe) Emergent worship, especially well-developed and intentional emergent worship like that of the Crossing. 

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Marie | March 15, 2010 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    My goodness, I never knew about this blog or this post. You have so accurately captured the feel of my community! I’m so glad this was your experience.

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