Congregations 2012 Report: Part 3

August 7, 2013

Making Contemporary Worship Contemporary: The 9 a.m. Liturgy at Trinity Episcopal on the Green, New Haven, CT

by Glen Segger (M.M., M.A.R., ‘95)

Churches, like people, go through life changes.  The 1947 encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, summarizes this maxim beautifully: “The Church is without question a living organism, and as an organism, in respect of the sacred liturgy also, she grows, matures, develops, adapts and accommodates herself to temporal needs and circumstances.”  (59)  In other words, that which was considered contemporary to a past generation may not necessarily be contemporary by today’s standards.  Musical and liturgical styles, like the clothes we wear, change with the times, but yet remain firmly grounded in the tradition of the Church.  How do we as a church navigate the waters of liturgical changes while remaining faithful to our tradition?  This is the question facing Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green, New Haven. 


Three magnificent churches line the beautiful New Haven Green, all of them built between the years 1812 and 1816.  Trinity, being the first Gothic Revival style church in America, distinguishes itself from the other two Congregational “meeting houses,” both built in the Federalist style.  Worshipers at Trinity are bathed in light shining through elegant stained glass windows, including three designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.  An impressive carved stone reredos adorns the high altar, set against the east end of the chancel.  Parishioners of Trinity stand in old wooden box pews with hinged doors while singing hymns accompanied by a glorious Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ.  Worship at 11 a.m. is the traditional Rite One liturgy, with music supported by the Choir of Men and Boys, the oldest extant choir of men and boys in Connecticut, and one of the oldest in the United States.  Two other choirs, the Choir of Men and Girls and a mixed adult choir, also sing at the 11 a.m.  From William Byrd to Ralph Vaughan Williams, all choirs sing the traditional repertoire of Anglican music.  Longtime parishioner and lay participant on the Trinity team Carol Davidson acknowledges that Trinity is a church that takes great pride in tradition.

The 11 a.m., however, is not the liturgy that prompted Trinity’s participation in the Congregations Project.  Surprisingly, it is Trinity’s more “contemporary” 9 a.m. liturgy that has caused the congregation to reflect on the need to get with the times.  For several decades now, Trinity has had a more informal worship service at 9 a.m. on Sunday mornings.   Music at this service is mostly led by the Spirit Singers, a choir that sings folk-like songs accompanied by piano, guitar, violin, and tambourine.  In recent years, however, the attendance at this service has been dwindling.

The history of Trinity’s 9 a.m. service is an intriguing one.  Originating at the parish house several blocks away from the church, its informal style of worship was at one time cutting-edge, foreshadowing later liturgical trends in the Episcopal Church, such as receiving Communion while standing around the altar.  In 1970, the 9 a.m. service was brought to the main church building, where a rock band and worship leader were engaged to lead the congregational singing.  Embracing the liturgical experiments of the early 1970s that would eventually form Rite Two of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the 9 a.m. soon grew to be the best-attended worship service at Trinity!  In the mid 1980s, the rock band was dissolved, and the Spirit Singers, a volunteer adult choir, was established to lead the congregation in singing.  Their folk style continued to appeal to the worshipers attending the 9 a.m. throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The style of music at the 9 a.m. continues to have a small but loyal following.  Unfortunately, only a fraction of the number of worshipers attend the 9 a.m. compared to the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s.  This has caused Trinity to examine the nature of the 9 a.m. liturgy, and question whether the congregation has undergone a liturgical and musical life change.  In other words, is the “contemporary” style of the 9 a.m. still contemporary in the real sense of the word?

With the arrival of Trinity’s new Rector, Luk DeVolder, in 2011, serious discussions and town hall meetings have been organized to examine the future of the 9 a.m. liturgy.  There have been experiments with new styles of music, including putting the Boys and Girls Choirs into the rotation.  Indeed, the music at the 9 a.m. has become increasingly blended, a mixture of old and new, reflecting the rich diversity of our tradition.  According to Andy Kotylo, Assistant Music Director, a few people have had difficulty letting go of the familiar, and the musical changes have been met with significant resistance.  Trinity’s participation in the Congregations Project aims to examine how best to enter into a new musical and liturgical era without alienating those few who find it difficult to accept the changes.

Igor Stravinsky has said: “Real tradition is not the relic of a past that is irretrievably gone.  It is a living force that anticipates and informs the present.”  To that end, Maggi Dawn, the facilitator of the plenary session that examined Trinity’s project, posed the question: “How can we be faithful to tradition without becoming traditionalists?”  In unpacking this important issue, the group considered the role of worship planner or leader.  The worship leader plays many roles in planning worship, including prophet, pastor, arranger, administrator, and performer.  Dawn, however, highlighted the notion of understanding the worship leader as curator.  Drawing from Mark Pierson’s book The Art of Curating Worship, Dawn noted how the curator of a museum or art gallery has at their disposal vast material from the past.  Moreover, in addition to the material in its own collection, the curator also has the opportunity to borrow from other museums or galleries.  This model of curator suggests a helpful way in which to understand the role of the worship leader in crafting worship for today.  The worship leader, like the curator of a museum, has the ability to choose and borrow from history and elsewhere, and then can “hide in the wings during the show itself.”

Two issues were highlighted during the plenary session.  First, when planning worship, the overarching issue should not be “What do we need?” as much as “What do we have?”  Second, we should not concern ourselves with the question of “What is appealing?” as much as “What is authentic?”  As they moved forward in examining the liturgical and musical changes to the 9 a.m. liturgy, the team from Trinity was given the challenge to discover how Trinity as a faith community understands authenticity.

In a follow-up session, various participants in the seminar offered specific ideas and suggestions to the Trinity team.  They supported Trinity’s approach of creating a time of not needing to commit to the changes, a time of experimentation to see how the worshiping community deals with different expressions of worship.  One participant noted the importance of creating a sense of play: “See what would happen if the rector showed up in street clothes one Sunday and said ‘let’s get to work!’  Perhaps you could have an instructed Eucharist.”  Another participant suggested implementing a time of liturgical catechesis outside of the liturgy.  Vicki Davis, the associate rector of Trinity, enthusiastically agreed: “We have already done much work, especially in the workshops, but need to continue to dig deeper.”

I had the opportunity to share a meal with the Trinity team near the end of the seminar.  With much enthusiasm, the Trinity team talked about the future.  They will continue to experiment with the music and liturgy at the 9 a.m.  More importantly, however, they talked about the need to engage in more focused exploration of such issues of catechesis and outreach. 

Trinity has strong roots in tradition, and the courage to experiment and embrace the new.  I believe Trinity will have much to offer to the larger Church as the parish continues to navigate the waters of liturgical change, as the community continues to “develop, adapt and accommodate” its worship for this generation and the next.

[Back to Prism]