Disciple: Unusual Eucharists
By Christine McTaggart
God is everywhere.
It’s a lesson we’re taught at an early age, but in a day and age in which virtually every moment is scheduled, blocked out, prioritized and organized, for many, God is sought only in church on Sunday mornings (if that), and the words and rituals used in worship have become rote.
But it’s amazing what a change of scenery or routine can do. It refreshes. It invigorates. It inspires.
In several churches in the Diocese of North Carolina, they are breathing fresh life and reintroducing the beauty of the Eucharist by holding traditional Eucharists in new locations and settings or in different formats. And they’re finding that doing something different is offering new perspectives, creating deeper understanding and bridging gaps.
ST. AMBROSE: TO THE SEA
For years, St. Ambrose, Raleigh, has been going to Wade Chestnut Chapel on Topsail Island for its annual parish retreat. Though it’s not considered an “official” retreat, it’s not uncommon for between 70 and 100 parishioners to attend the weekend gathering to discuss church business and celebrate Eucharist on Sunday morning.
When the Rev. Jemonde Taylor became rector of St. Ambrose in 2012, he thought it was wonderful the congregation went so faithfully to the chapel by the beach but wondered why it was no one ever did anything on the beach. So he had the idea: The traditional Eucharist would continue to be held in the chapel on Sunday morning, but a second Eucharist and Evening Prayer would be held at sunset on Saturday evening. It would be celebrated on the beach, by the sea, with music by the church’s Jazz Mass Quartet both during the service and following it. Anyone who wished to attend – whether they had plans to or just happened by – would be welcome.
St. Ambrose’s seaside service usually features baptismal themes. A portable altar is set up on the sand, and the time is determined by the tides. (The one year no one checked the tide schedule was the year high tide came in mid-service; attendees had to grab the altar and everything else before making a run for it.) As the sun sets, the service begins with Evening Prayer before transitioning into a traditional Eucharist, all with sea breezes blowing, ocean waves crashing and seabirds flying.
After the final blessing, attendees are invited to go to the ocean and bless themselves. For those who cannot walk to the water’s edge, a cup of sea water is brought to them on the beach.
Following the Eucharist, the Jazz Mass Quartet, which plays each week at St. Ambrose, holds a concert, entertaining the crowd with jazz and pop favorites.
Both the service and the party afterward welcome the stranger. It’s not at all uncommon for folks walking the beach to stop and listen, and some even join in.
“It’s a great visible witness in the world, and something unexpected,” says Taylor. “Most people think when we’re setting up, we’re setting up for a wedding. But the people who come might be in anything from summer attire to bathing suits.”
The surprise is not just for those passing by or for whom church is new. Celebrating Eucharist by the sea has had a powerful effect on faithful churchgoers as well.
Taylor recounts the reaction of a faithful parishioner in her early 90s. “She told me, ‘Father Taylor, I have never had a feeling like this in my life. At this moment, I feel as close to God as I have ever felt. Because I am at the ocean I am worshiping God, I hear the waves…I can’t even verbalize how I feel it’s so powerful.’”
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
Taylor believes one of the benefits of doing Eucharist in an unusual way is that it breaks down “this false dichotomy of sacred and secular” and the notion that “somehow there are places where God exists and places where God doesn’t.” Says Taylor, “We recognize God is everywhere, but we limit ourselves to when and where we worship. By taking the altar and putting it on the beach and having Communion [there], it breaks down that barrier and says there is no sacred and secular – it is all God.”
On average, approximately 30 to 50 parishioners travel early to Topsail Island to attend the seaside service, though attendance is increasing each year. 2016 marks the fourth celebration, and parishioners are starting to look forward to it and ask earlier each year when the annual event will be held.
The power of the unusual Eucharist has inspired St. Ambrose to reach out closer to home as well. In addition to the seaside Eucharist, once a year they now offer “FitFest” when Sunday service is offered at Pullen Park in Raleigh.
“That’s been an interesting experience,” says Taylor. “People go to Pullen Park to run and play, and to find a church there worshiping and doing Eucharist is not something they expect to see. We do the Eucharist under an oak tree and follow it with fitness activities and a meal. It generally turns into an all-day event. It’s another great witness in the community, and they do notice.
“People are picking up that a lot of times we put God in a box, that we need to be in church to pray,” says Taylor. “To worship on a beach and go swimming afterwards feels revolutionary and new, but it’s exactly what Jesus did. He met the people where they were and went to places where people really did not expect to encounter God, and that’s exactly where they encountered God.”
The 2016 seaside Eucharist will be held on July 16. For additional information, visit stambroseraleigh.org.
ST. CLEMENT’S: RECONNECTING WITH CREATION
It was the kids’ idea. And it was one no one could resist.
When the youth of St. Clement’s, Clemmons, decided they wanted to go kayaking for an organized outing in 2015, they made it sound so great the adults in the congregation said they wanted in on the fun. The Rev. Jamie L’Enfant Edwards, rector at St. Clement’s, had already said she’d go and happily opened the outing to the rest of the parish.
The pieces quickly fell into place. Several parishioners had kayaks and were willing to share, and food was organized. Edwards planned to offer a Eucharist on the shores of High Point’s Oak Hollow Lake, the site of the gathering, while the Rev. Paul Crowell stepped up in a supply role and celebrated Sunday services at the church for those staying closer to home.
From the start, the intergenerational gathering “had the feel of a family reunion or picnic.” The mix included longtime parishioners, new parishioners, seniors, young adults, kids and teenagers, some of whom even brought a friend, boyfriend or girlfriend they might not otherwise have invited to church. Everyone circulated and talked to each other, sharing food and laughter while taking turns with the kayaks. The more experienced kayakers happily helped those new to the sport.
And, of course, there was the Eucharist.
ANCIENT CONCEPT, CONTEMPORARY SETTING
In honor of the lakeside gathering, Edwards tied the service in with the Rogation observance.
“Back in agrarian cultures, Rogation days were a time of asking God’s blessing on harvest and earth and sea,” explains Edwards. “It developed us as stewards of nature.”
She also incorporated the ancient English tradition of walking the geographical perimeter of the parish by inviting those in attendance to walk the lakeshore.
“We adapted an ancient concept to a contemporary setting,” says Edwards. “It gave us a sense of reconnecting with nature and recovering that sense of asking God’s blessing on us as stewards of the earth.”
The effect of the outdoor Eucharist and 43-person gathering was almost immediate. All who attended agreed “we have to do this more often,” and the ideas quickly started flowing in response to a reawakened desire to do things together in new settings. The parish is eagerly making plans for the second annual event.
“It did increase the sense of community,” says Edwards. “When we put the Eucharist in a different context, it allows the liturgy to come alive in a new way because we’re [really] hearing it as we’re gazing at a lake or the ocean or the mountains. That different context jars us from our routine enough to awaken us to the power of the Word.”
She believes holding Eucharist in a natural setting has its own unique power.
“It reconnects us with nature and creation, which is something that in a prior age would have been completely unnecessary,” says Edwards. “We used to live in communion with nature, but now we have to make an effort to go out in it. Having a Eucharist outside in the context of creation helps us to make a connection that should be obvious but is sometimes not anymore. So there’s a liturgical benefit, a spiritual and a theological benefit.”
There’s a community-building benefit, too, especially for those who may keep church at arm’s length or may not be comfortable attending traditional Sunday services. In a different setting, “you’re more likely to see friends invited, because it is inviting and appealing. The walls and barriers come down, literally and figuratively.”
Edwards encourages exploring the Eucharist in different settings.
“The more variety we can offer,” she says, “the more opportunities we have for people to be touched and moved and connected.”
And remember that the Eucharist is intended to be celebrated.
“Church is supposed to be fun,” she says. “It’s supposed to be a happy thing! If gathering with friends to have fun and eat food and celebrate Eucharist is hugely different from what we normally experience in a church on Sunday, maybe we need to look a little closer at what we’re doing on Sunday.”
Edwards reflects on St. Clement’s lakeside Eucharist as an example.
“It just had a wonderful spirit to it,” she says. “And you have to love any occasion where you get to do church in flip flops. There’s just no downside to that.”
St. Clement’s second annual Kayaking and Eucharist will take place on May 22. For more information, visit stclementsepiscopal.com.
ST. ALBAN’S: MUSICAL CONNECTIONS
Music has always been a part of Eucharist and, indeed, a key element of Episcopal worship. It touches the soul in ways mere words cannot, and it’s not unusual for churches to incorporate cultural influences into its worship through music.
But it is unusual for a church to reflect a multitude of influences.
St. Alban’s, Davidson, had celebrated a Celtic Eucharist for years before Music Director David Palmer joined the staff in 2013. A deeply educated and dedicated musician, Palmer saw an opportunity to take the joy found in the music of the Celtic Eucharist to a new level.
The idea actually came as the result of a request. Several of St. Alban’s parishioners had visited Costa Rica and were clearly affected by how churches there used reggae music in their services. They came home with a request of St. Alban’s that a way be found to incorporate the Caribbean rhythms into their own worship.
“I don’t know if the request stemmed from wanting to build or retain a connection to our Costa Rican counterparts or just being that moved by the music,” says Palmer, “but I liked the idea of exploring different musical influences, and so St. Alban’s decided to try it.”
Plans were made, and the first reggae Eucharist was held on a Saturday evening. The concept was an immediate hit, and attendees were eager for more.
“Churches can never have too much music in worship,” says the Rev. David Buck, rector at St. Alban’s. “Connecting with God is right-brain stuff, not analytical or driven by the interpretation of biblical texts. Music appeals to every generation.”
Palmer was delighted with the chance to branch out and explore different musical and cultural influences. New genres were added to the Celtic and reggae, including Sacred Harp, southern harmony and jazz. Every month now offers something new: January honors Martin Luther King, Jr. with gospel; February celebrates the feast for St. Valentine’s with pop-culture love songs; and April features bluegrass. And all are celebrated as a Eucharist.
“I’m not sure how incredibly unique exploring different music in a Eucharist is,” says Palmer. “But I think how we reflect the diversity of St. Alban’s congregation through music is. The fact that we offer not one musical alternative but a multitude of genres and styles is what sets apart the offering.”
The variety of musical styles is an alternative in more ways than one. For starters, they are offered on Saturdays; Sunday mornings retain a more traditional approach. No matter what the musical style being featured, each is a Eucharist.
“That’s been part of the enterprise,” says Palmer, “to see how these cultures can be used in Eucharistic liturgy.”
Last but certainly not least, the alternative Eucharist has provided another avenue by which St. Alban’s can welcome the stranger, as attendees of the Eucharist include St. Alban’s parishioners, locals from the neighborhood and even a few area music fans.
“We need to meet people where they are culturally,” says Palmer. “Music is a language that can connect with everyone.”
For the full schedule of musical Eucharists, visit saintalbansdavidson.org.
[Read David Palmer's reflections on what a death metal concert taught him about welcoming people to church in "Creating Musical Welcome Mats." ]
THE CONNECTION POINT
For every person whose soul is nourished with a traditional Eucharist, another may find God in an unexpected place. If you are considering trying a Eucharist in a new setting, at a different time or using some other alternative approach, be bold and enjoy it. Because no matter what you do, the Eucharist will be at the core, and the new context – in the words of the Rev. L’Enfant Edwards – may bring the liturgy alive in a new way and awaken us to the power of the Word, and we’ll remember God really is everywhere.
Christine McTaggart is the communications director for the Diocese of North Carolina.
Tags: North Carolina Disciple