A Eucharist that Moves in Mysterious Ways

For many people, the Irish band U2 has had an influence greater than that of typical rock musicians. With lyrics rooted in Scripture and a prophetic call to social justice, U2 songs have an impact that’s often profoundly spiritual. This effect has led to the creation of a “U2charist”: an Episcopal Eucharist that has all the traditional elements but uses the group’s music. The service also is an opportunity for attendees to learn about the Millennium Development Goals and to take action to help eradicate extreme poverty.

Recently, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tennessee, held its first U2charist and designated the offering for Episcopal Relief & Development. Debbie Key, a parishioner who initiated the event, explained that the church had been looking for “something new and fun” to do that might attract newcomers. “I’m a U2 fan, and had heard about the U2charist,” she said. “Then a local newspaper for the homeless held a U2 fundraiser and 4,000 people showed up – so I thought, ‘We have to have one of these!’”

Debbie searched online and found a U2charist “recipe” and other resources from the Rev. Paige Blair, former rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in York Harbor, Maine. Paige held several of the services in 2005, and has since helped the movement gain wider visibility through her position as the Maine diocesan coordinator for Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation (EGR).

An important part of a U2charist service is raising awareness of extreme poverty and disease worldwide, and a call to action. In addition, Debbie said, rather than looking down at a printed liturgy, “We wanted people to look up and out.” To address both aspects, her friend and fellow parishioner Phillip Hight created photo montages with lyrics that were projected onto a big screen during each song. U2’s licensing arrangement enables churches and groups to use its music for services free of charge, in exchange for donating any offerings collected to organizations working to alleviate extreme poverty.

When the U2charist took place in September, close to 100 people attended. The Rev. Vicki Burgess, Rector of St. Phillips, called the service “amazing.” For her, what stood out during the evening were “the face-splitting smiles — my own, included,” at the beauty, humor and starkness of the video images as songs such as “One,” “Mysterious Ways” and “Peace on Earth” wove together the service elements; the sight and sound of everyone looking up in wonder at the screen; and the range of people, from the young to those in their 50s, 60s and 70s, all singing, clapping and, if not dancing, moving their shoulders a little (“We’re Episcopalians,” she explained).

Vicki gave the evening’s sermon, which included passages from a speech at the 2006 National Prayer Breakfast by Bono, U2’s lead singer and a renowned advocate of the MDGs. The U2charist message is designed to raise awareness of poverty and empower the congregation to respond, such as by advocating for people in need through the ONE Campaign or contributing to an offering to alleviate poverty. That night, St. Phillips parishioners were moved to give more than $3,900 for Episcopal Relief & Development’s work around the world.

“When Debbie started talking about this, I was thinking that the turnout would be very light and I worried that she would be disappointed,” said Janet Fox, secretary at St. Philip’s. “Then, wow! Almost 100 people came — it was wonderful.” She was excited to see many congregation members there, along with a “great mix of visitors.” Janet added that one parishioner came to the U2charist who had stopped attending church a couple of years ago. “She enjoyed it very much and was quite moved, I think.”

According to Debbie, the congregation’s feedback was “very positive,” and St. Philip’s plans to hold another service next year. One visitor has since joined the church, and another church is interested in putting on its own U2charist. Vicki was thrilled at how everything came together in the music, words, images and singing, and that the church was able to “hear Jesus’ message of radical love of neighbor in this new and striking way.”

“The popularity of the U2charist really shows the power of music to inspire and motivate us,” said Xerxes Eclipse, Director of Donor Services at Episcopal Relief & Development. “It’s wonderful to see how St. Philip’s parishioners were blessed by their service, and in turn have blessed people in need with this generous offering. On behalf of the people we serve worldwide, thank you for your compassionate response.” 

Photo courtesy of St. Philip’s. Video courtesy of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and sodbuster360.