The heavy wood and stone vault of Bethesda Episcopal Church rung with the tumult of 5,000 organ pipes, 12 steady voices and the accumulated power of 350 years of religious tradition.
Sunday afternoon, the church held a Choral Evensong, a traditional Anglican musical service derived from the “Book of Common Prayer.”
“It’s the official guidebook to worship,” said Rev. Marshall Vang, explaining how it was written by Thomas Cranmer in 1549, shortly after the founding of the Anglican Church.
The last substantive edit to the book came in 1662. Now, 31⁄2 centuries later, it’s still in use in Anglican cathedrals across England, but not generally in their U.S. counterparts.
Bethesda Episcopal uses a more recently revised version for their usual Mass, but “tonight we’re trying to bring that cathedral feeling back,” said organist Farrell Goehring.
Looking around the church at bristling organ pipes, stained glass windows and the wrought iron rood screen separating white robed singers in the bright sanctuary from the 30 solemn attendees, the Old World feel was as potent as the smell of incense.
“Oh Lord, open thou our lips,” sang the choir.
Audio slide show
Gazette photographer Patrick Dodson captured the evening service in an audio slide show. Click here.
“And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise,” came the public response.
In an age of contemporary Christian radio popularity, Cranmer’s words sound as old as the earth, but at the time he wrote them, his prayers were as revolutionary as the first time a worship leader strapped on an electric guitar. Though the Church of England was formed by a frustrated King Henry VIII when the Pope wouldn’t grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Vang said it was part of a larger movement to bring the church back to the people.
Foremost, the Church of England operated in English, so the people actually understood what they were hearing.
“[Evensong] was meant to bring people together to worship in a common language,” Vang said.
So many years later, Vang is using the Old World service to bring people together in his own community. Vang took over Bethesda in January and right away started the monthly Evensong services as a way to reach out to people who don’t usually attend.
“Sometimes music speaks to people in ways a sermon can’t,” Goehring said.
The monthly services feature nearly continuous music — a lot of work for Goehring, who described playing the dozens of foot pedals and rows of organ keys as reminiscent of operating an 18-wheeler, but it tends to draw a larger crowd.
Vang said attendance at the special services varies based on the time of year and reaches 150 on occasion. Sunday’s service was small, but by all accounts, very powerful.
“I love these services,” said Amy Doern, who added the old English prayers seem more moving than a modern Mass. “These prayers have been unchanged for hundreds of years.
“When it’s steeped in tradition, you can really feel the eternity of God.”