By Phyllis Reynolds and Carol Harvey
Co-facilitators, Trinity Celtic Team
New Life from Ancient Roots: Celtic Evensong and Communion at Trinity, Ashland.
Trinity Ashland has offered an alternate service inspired by the ancient Celtic Christian tradition since the fall of 2015. It occurs the third Sunday of each month from September through June.
Initiated when rector Tony Hutchinson asked retired rector Anne Bartlett to create a Celtic Evensong service, it has grown to become a vibrant part of spiritual offerings for the church and community. Attendance quickly grew from 50-60 in early months, up to 135-145 for special occasions, to an average of 95 to 100, causing people to come earlier and earlier to find seats in our cozy 19th century church. Attendance is drawn not only from Trinity, but at least half from other churches, faith traditions, or no affiliation at all, with regulars from Medford and Grants Pass, and always including visiting clergy.
The evensong is created each month by the Celtic Team of 12-14 who plan and carry out the nitty-gritty work of each service: altar, set-up, greeter/usher, reading, chalice, clean-up, announcements, publicity, before or after social events, classes, forums, half or whole day training, festival days, labyrinth walks, and putting together the extensive bulletin for each service. The team is comprised of lay members with only three clergy, two retired, for this is meant to be lay-led with clergy crucial as celebrants and consultants, but serving at the edges. Vital also to the Evensong experience is music directed by Jodi French, gifted composer and pianist, and cantor Shelly Cox-Thornhill, mezzo soprano. The entire team is lively and diverse and has learned to operate beautifully to produce a smooth performance each month.
In an effort to fulfill Trinity’s Vision/Mission to “express God’s ever-present love, recognize grace in all creation….seek and serve Christ in all persons…. care for one another and stranger alike,” this service aims to draw in seekers of all kinds, those unchurched or spiritually wounded, as well as those of us who seek new and fresh ways to worship. It is meant to be experiential, rather than teacherly. In words from our brochure, “The Celtic Worship is intentionally heart-opening.” To help achieve our goals, “trigger” words are kept to a minimum, there are no sermons or creeds or confessions. A person from the congregation or a guest from another faith community briefly reflects on his or her own experience of Holy Presence. Poetry and prayers are earthy, holy, and inclusive. A liturgical subgroup of the team have become searchers across cultures and times, gleaners of resonant words, encouragers and editors for those who have had thin place experiences to share as reflectors. Readings, gospel choices, and prayers are all intentionally selected to enhance a focused theme established for each month. We draw selections from across time, faith traditions and cultures, from 14th C. Persian poet Hafiz, to Buddhism, to the Qu’ran, to Julian of Norwich, the Carmina Gaedelica, Seamus Heaney, John Philip Newell, John O’Donohue, Mary Oliver, and Winnie the Pooh, among many others—anything that resonates with the meditative stream, the God-in-all-of-us-and-in-all-creation.
The core liturgical structure for the service comes solidly from the Anglican tradition (U.S., Canada, New Zealand Prayer Books) and from the ancient and modern Celtic communities of Iona and Northumbria. We are indebted to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church Richmond, Virginia for the generous sharing of their well-honed Celtic service, in both materials and in person as three team members visited there in 2016. We are indebted to Trinity’s vestry for initial funding, mainly for musicians, and for a grant from the Episcopal Bishop of Oregon Foundation, which has allowed us to expand music, provide simple refreshments for special occasions, and funding for educational and special events. Generous voluntary contributions have created a savings fund which will allow the service to be self-sustaining after our grant expires in 2020.
In addition to the rewards of seeing sustained attendance and the kudos and encouragement received from people who attend, we are seeing growth of a different kind—the internalizing of meditative practice, perhaps even a deepening understanding of “Spirit.” We have seen a shift from the normal tendency for chatty pews before a service, to a unity of meditative silence in a group of 100 diverse folks, many of whom we don’t know. We have seen people who claim indifference or even hostility to the whole idea of “God,” share through a brief five minute reflection, stirring spiritual experiences in words not confessional or embarrassing, but profound and surprising. We have seen people sit silently longer and longer before the service to decompress into a liminal opening space.
Those of us who work to put the service on each month, attending to the myriad behind the scenes practical details, lose ourselves and all thoughts of stress along with the others, as pews fill silently, soft Celtic harp music begins, lights go down, candles flicker, the opening reading resonates in slow cadence, and cantor Shelly’s voice gently fills the silence with “To Christ the Seed.”’ Our thin place of Celtic Evensong begins.
“Our mission is to offer a worship experience rooted
in the Christian Celtic tradition that is welcoming…
ecumenical and interfaith.”