Thursday, December 6, 2012

Transformative Liturgy

By Brett Donham

In October I participated in the most transformative worship service in my life. It was held in the St. John’s Memorial Chapel of the Episcopal Divinity School. I say “transformative” because it demonstrated possibilities of imagination and creativity that I had not experienced before. I say “participated” because, although I had very little formal role in the service I felt fully engaged, moved, and impelled by the liturgy. This was not a typical passive experience in a church. All senses were engaged; sight, sound, intellect, and emotions.

We gathered around a Baptismal font filled with water. The presider, Stephen Burns, started the service by having us repeat portions of the Baptismal Covenant following which, as we moved past the font to our chairs, we baptized ourselves again from the water in the font. Seating was arranged in choir form in the nave with parallel rows of chairs facing each other across the nave. The pulpit was at one end of the space and the altar at the other end. We faced one another as a community with the action taking place first at one end, then at another and sometimes in the middle. Lessons were read from one end and the choir led by Ellen Oak supported us in hymns from the other end. The trustees stood where they were seated for their commissioning. The hymns had a greater variety and more intensity than what I was used to. At the Eucharist we all gathered around the altar. The prayers were loosely based on the standard rubric but seemed more personal. During Communion two large drums sounded with deep sonorous tones that seemed ancient and deeply fundamental to who we were in relation to our God and to Christ.

Last week I had a similar experience at the annual service of Lessons and Carols held also in the Chapel. The seating was arranged in a V arrangement, half inclined towards the center aisle and half inclined towards the altar. The choir, sounding better than I can remember, was arranged in a shallow arc on the steps to the apse. A few of the hymns were traditional, sung by the whole gathering, some were Medieval sung in Latin by the choir and some were duets or solos. The sources of song ranged from the full congregation in the middle of the space, to the apse, to the organ loft and to the rear of the Chapel. The readings ranged from traditional to poetic. At one point Ellen started a song at the west end and slowly walked with dance movements to the east end, uniting the various sources of sound. While the music and the readings ranged over thousands of years, there was a unity and artistic wholeness in their selection. The Virgin Mary was a frequent theme.

For me it raised the question, “why can’t all services be like these were, feeding us in so many ways?”

The diocese of MA is experiencing modest growth in members of the Episcopal Church, but much of the country is seeing a slow steady decline. With few exceptions, not many people between the ages of 16 and 56 are going to church any more. One reason, among many, is that the typical Sunday service is frequently boring and takes place in a building that smells musty, is dark, and whose layout stifles creativity, energy, and life.

The new worship team at EDS of Miriam Gelfer (Dean of Students and Community Life), Ellen Oak (Director of Music), and Stephen Burns (Associate Professor of Liturgical Theology and the Study of Anglicanism), appear to have a vision to change all that and we are starting to see manifestations of the exciting possibilities. Ellen and Stephen are experts in creative liturgy and the imaginative use of space to enable it. Miriam has brought them together in an atmosphere of joy and creativity to make it happen. Miriam’s high standards and appreciation for excellent music are key ingredients. These experiments are not 1970’s feel good, hang banners and all will be changed, efforts. Rather, like the Lessons and Carols service, these experiments are being tried with thoughtfulness, integrity as well as spiritual and aesthetic wholeness. They appeal to all the senses and the intellect. The truly exciting news is that these experiments have the potential to change the Church and to make it again an exciting and life giving place for all ages to be. Seminaries are where this change must begin because seminaries have the flexibility and the obligation to immerse their students in new wants of being in community.

Not all these experiments will be entirely successful, but enough will be that EDS can build enough credible models to influence the entire church. Just as important, EDS will be sending forth graduates with a thirst to make worship more engaging and armed with examples of how to do it.

Brett Donham is the former chairman of the EDS Board of Trustees and highly regarded architect who founded the firm, Donham & Sweeney in 1967. The architect firm has designed new religious buildings such as the Wilson Chapel at Andover Newton Theological School and renovated others including St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brookline.


  1. "I felt fully engaged, moved, and impelled by the liturgy. This was not a typical passive experience in a church. All senses were engaged; sight, sound, intellect, and emotions." Thanks for sharing!

    We are fortunate at Grâce on Bainbridge Island ( to have this feeling and engagement at every service and activity. ~ Patricia Erskine

  2. Inspired in small part by the liturgical advances at St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, and in large part by the creative imagination of an active and theologically informed laity, Grace Church Bainbridge Island has been doing same these things since 1995 (and more). Congratulations on turning out some divinity students who can roll with us. And Welcome Aboard!