Tucson church rises on the rock of U2

Band’s lyrics used as basis for service; Bono not included

Wearing a clerical collar and a headset, the Rev. Michael A. Smith swings his hips and, taking cues from the church band, joins worshippers in singing “Mysterious Ways” from the U2 album Achtung Baby.

A 4-year-old girl taps pencils on a pew and dances in the aisle. Her mother sings along with words projected on the front wall next to a carving of Christ on the cross. The organ remains covered at the back of the room. The hymn books are closed.

“To touch is to heal, to hurt is to steal,” sing the worshippers, as they continue the Irish rock band’s song. “If you wanna kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel — on your knees boy!”

It’s Saturday night at Christ the King Episcopal Church on the Northwest Side.

But this is not a concert. It’s serious worship, with U2 as part of the liturgy.

Following a trend among Episcopal churches across the nation, Christ the King members are seeking God in U2. Some churches call the service U2charist — a play on the word “eucharist” — but here, the service is titled “God & U2.” Church leaders say the music of U2 and its lead singer, Bono, not only is spiritual but resonates with the mainline Protestant denomination’s larger focus on economic and social justice.

“A majority of their songs are spiritually-based,” said Jeremy Knight, 25, a musician at Christ the King and lead singer for its U2 service. “With that many spiritual songs, they should be considered a Christian band. It’s very interesting because they’ve done a good job making themselves secular.”

Christ the King has been holding monthly U2 services since September, typically attracting 50 to 60 people, from young children to people in their 80s, including about five or six first-time visitors each service.

The use of a contemporary band may appear like a gimmick to attract younger worshippers, but Smith says it’s not an ad ploy. Rather, he says, it’s a new way of asking parishioners to connect with God.

“The lyrics are interesting. It’s cool how they are so related to God and church,” said 11-year-old Natalia Navarro, a student at St. Michael’s Parish Day School n the East Side. “I’d heard U2 before, but church is where I really started listening to them.”

Natalia’s mother, Nicki Navarro, who gave her age as “old hippie,” has been a U2 fan for years, but hadn’t considered the band’s spiritual side.

“It’s not just an opportunity to listen to U2, it’s an opportunity to praise and worship,” she said. “It’s wonderful.”

Smith, 43, is perhaps not surprisingly a big U2 fan. He began the God & U2 service as a way to energize a congregation that had been without a permanent leader for nearly two years when he took over as rector 2 1/2 years ago. The previous rector, the Rev. Gregory Wyes, retired after 26 years. After his departure, the congregation shrank from 700 people to about 450.

The Episcopal Church USA, which is part of the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion, has about 2.2 million members — 8,800 of them in Pima County. The denomination’s membership has been declining since 1970.

While evangelical Christian megachurches have long made contemporary music and rock bands part of the religious experience, the same is not true for the Episcopal Church. A renewal movement brought praise bands and folk music into the pews in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but using the music of a secular rock band like U2 is unique in a church that has a tendency to be staid and unadventurous, Smith said.

“By and large, one of the challenges of the Episcopal Church as a whole is relevancy,” he said. “We’re kind of in a post-Christian era . . . Bono’s material is both challenging and within the prophetic voice of what the church, in my opinion, is called to proclaim.”

Inside his office, Smith has a binder labeled “The Complete Songs of U2” and “U2 the Best of 1980-2000.” “I went through every U2 lyric and flagged and categorized them theologically,” Smith said.

Indeed, many of U2’s lyrics are from the Bible. The song “40,” from the album “War,” is taken from two psalms, primarily Psalm 40 — “I waited patiently for the Lord. He inclined and heard my cry. He brought me up out of the pit, out of the miry clay.” Bono has said the refrain from “40,” “How long (to sing this song),” is from Psalm 6.

The song “Kite,” from the album “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” parallels Jesus’ farewell to his disciples in the Gospel of John, Smith said. And another song, the gentle ballad “Grace,” from the same album, intersects with the Episcopal belief that beauty can be found in everything. In other words, everything has the possibility of being sacred, Smith said.

To the best of his knowledge, no one has been openly critical of the service, he said, though a few people have said the music was too loud, or it just wasn’t a good fit for them. But overall the service has been a successful way of evangelizing with very little advertising, he said.

Smith weaves the music into his sermons and chooses different U2 songs for each one. He eventually would like to have an alternative service every Saturday night and make U2 a component. He’d like to include a variety of world music, including jazz and steel drums.

In 2003, Episcopal ministers Raewynne J. Whiteley and Beth Maynard published a book titled “Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 catalog.”

At the national Episcopal Church’s general convention in Columbus, Ohio, last week, about 700 people attended a U2charist that focused on the band’s theme of global reconciliation. Whiteley estimates 30 to 40 Episcopal churches in the United States are using U2.

“It seems to be really taking off. It’s a way of making connections between Sunday life and everyday life,” she said.

The U2 trend appears to be occurring mainly in the Episcopal Church, according to Christian Scharen, director of the Faith as a Way of Life Project at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and author of the 2006 book “One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God.”

The link between U2 and scripture is unquestionable, Scharen says, and the way the group executes it is powerful.

“Great music, like great lives, moves us to see with more clarity the things that really matter in life,” he writes in his book. “We who seek to follow on the way, seeking to be disciples and to be faithful, can find U2 a means to have love speak in us, through us, for the world.”

Bono was raised by a Catholic father and a Protestant mother in Ireland — a country that has long struggled with strife between the two faiths.

During his recent global campaigns against AIDS in Africa, he increasingly has spoken of faith and appealed to churches, saying the only time Jesus passes judgment in the Bible is in the Gospel of Matthew, when he speaks of the poor: “As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me” — a passage Bono reiterated when he was the keynote speaker at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast.

U2 Spiritual Lyrics

• “Gloria” (from “October”): Oh Lord, loosen my lips/I try to sing this song/I try to get in/But I can’t find the door/The door is open/You’re standing there/You let me in

• “Grace” (from “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”): When she goes to work/You can hear her strings/Grace finds beauty in everything

• “In God’s Country” (from “The Joshua Tree”): She stands with a naked flame/I stand with the sons of Cain/Burned by the fire of love

• “Kite” (from “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”): Something is about to give/I can feel it coming/I think I know what it is/I’m not afraid to die/I’m not afraid to live

• “Beautiful Day” (from “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”): See the Bedouin fires at night/See the oil fields at first light/And see the bird with a leaf in her mouth/After the flood all the colors came out

• “One” (from “Achtung Baby”): Have you come here for forgiveness/Have you come to raise the dead/Have you come here to play Jesus/To the lepers in your head

• “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (from “The Joshua Tree”): You broke the bonds/And you loosed the chains/Carried the cross/Of my shame/Of my shame/You know I believed it

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Arizona Daily Star, USA
June 18, 2006
Stephanie Innes

Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday June 18, 2006.
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