When Anglican Archbishop Thomas Cranmer compiled the Book of Common Prayer during the 16th century, he wanted to make the prayers accessible, so he wrote in English, not Latin, and made sure it was distributed to every church.
About 450 years later, there is another attempt to make prayers more accessible — by an Irish bard who wears wrap-around shades instead of a clerical collar.
It may not qualify as a mini-Reformation, but a Communion service driven by the music of singer Bono and his U2 bandmates is catching on at Episcopal churches across the country.
The U2 Eucharist is not some kind of youth service held in the church basement but is a traditional Episcopal liturgy that uses U2’s best-selling songs as hymns.
“It makes you, like, warm inside,” says Bridgette Roberts, 15, who is a Roman Catholic and attended a recent U2 Eucharist at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. “Usually at church, you love Jesus and everything. But this way you can express how you feel.”
Says her friend, Natalie Williams, 17: “I love Bono, and you can rock out to the music. But in church, you hear it in a different way. It’s like new.”
The Rev. Paige Blair, an Episcopal priest in York Harbor, Maine, came up with the idea and held the first service at her church on July 31, 2005, displaying U2’s lyrics on a screen by the altar. Since then, she informally has consulted with about 150 churches that have had U2 Eucharists, or plan to, in 15 states and seven countries.
Interest in the service is spreading by word of mouth alone, although Blair’s church is starting what it calls a “U2-charist team” to take the liturgy on the road.
Much of U2’s songbook is explicitly Christian and perfectly suitable for a worship service, even if some people might need time to get used to the idea, Blair says.
“Bach and Handel were the popular music of their day, and they had trouble getting played in church. The Methodist hymn writers once wrote contemporary music. Are we worshiping Bono? Absolutely not. No more so than we worship Martin Luther when we sing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
Churches increasingly have borrowed the beats and melodies of popular music — rock, country, rap — since the 1960s, just as blues and R&B once influenced gospel music arrangements. Today, an entire Christian music industry borrows from everything in pop music except sex-obsessed lyrics.
U2 somehow seems to live in rock music’s hedonistic world — without being of it.
“A lot of contemporary Christian music has such locked-down, straightforward meaning that you can’t play with it,” says Lutheran Rev. Christian Scharen, director of the Faith as a Way of Life Project at Yale Divinity School and author of a new book, One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God.
“U2 is good at the art, using language like a poet would, like the classic hymn language. Listen to their lesser-known song Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car, which is about grace. We mess up, but God is merciful. That’s playful.”
The U2 Eucharist can vary from church to church, but a key part is an offering for Bono’s campaign to eradicate extreme poverty and global AIDS.
“It’s a big reason that this has taken off as a movement,” Blair says. “It’s what Bono and the band are passionate about.”
A spokesman said U2 is rehearsing and unavailable for comment.
Permissions haven’t been an issue; churches that use U2’s music for a one-time, non-commercial service do not need permission, says the band’s record label, Universal Music Group.
At the service in Briarcliff Manor, the opening hymn was U2’s Pride (In the Name of Love). About 110 people filled the tiny church, most of whom were not parishioners. They warbled tentatively at first, as images of Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and others appeared on a large screen, but many were singing out before long. As worshipers approached the communion rail, Bono’s recorded voice sang “Let it go/ Surrender/ Dislocate” from the song Bad.
“Tonight is a call to action,” said the Rev. Timothy Schenck, the church’s rector. “It’s about living out our faith in the world, something, I’m embarrassed to admit, that Bono does better than many professional Christians.”
The Christian themes in U2’s music have been widely recognized since their 1981 album, October. But from the start, some have not been comfortable with Bono’s regular criticisms of church leadership or his unwillingness to identify with any Christian tradition.
“Bono has said repeatedly that Christianity without an element of social justice is empty,” said a 2003 editorial in Christianity Today. “We agree. But a Christian’s pleading for social justice without worshiping God regularly within the community of the church is little more than activism for its own sake.”
Still, there has been little criticism of the U2 Eucharist, even from traditionalists within the deeply divided denomination.
“The U2 Eucharist is simply another form of music used to celebrate the Lord’s supper and bring people into the presence of God through worship,” says the Rev. Canon Daryl Fenton of the Anglican Communion Network.
Stern reports for the Journal News in Westchester, N.Y.