Episcopal congregations combine Bono and Bible
By Ray Henry
By Ray Henry
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — As the electric guitar in the U2 anthem "Pride (In the Name of Love)" faded from four speakers, the Rev. Robert Brooks welcomed worshippers to Grace Episcopal Church with an unusual suggestion: He warned them to protect their hearing.
"If the sound's an issue, we do have earplugs available," he said.
Ushers handed out earplugs and fluorescent glow sticks for the "U2 Eucharist," a communion service punctuated by the Irish rock band's music. Episcopal parishes from California to Maine have hosted similar events, weaving U2's tunes — laced with biblical references — into the liturgy.
Streamers flew over worshippers' heads at the recent gathering in Providence. Children danced by the altar. Plasma-screen TVs illuminated the gothic sanctuary. Some people sang and clapped, while a few looked puzzled.
Brooks said the evening was designed to invigorate his once-aging congregation, attracting young people and those interested in social activism.
"We absolutely need to grow in order to survive," he said.
Weeks before the service, church members conducted what Brooks called "guerrilla marketing," posting fliers at coffee and sandwich shops, bars and colleges. About 130 people showed up for the Friday night service, roughly the same turnout as a Sunday morning. The event included an offering for local charities and enlisted volunteers for the One Campaign, an effort to alleviate global poverty that's backed by U2's lead singer, Bono.
A similar U2 Eucharist in November proved popular at All Saints' Church in Atlanta. Organizer Laurie Haynes Burlington said she and her husband planned on 300 worshippers. About 500 showed up. "We totally ran out of bulletins," she said.
No one tracks how many parishes have hosted similar events, but the service in Providence was based on a playlist created by the Rev. Paige Blair, a parish priest in York Harbor, Maine.
Her format has spread by word of mouth and on clergy e-mail lists. She's received calls from more than a dozen interested churches and helped put on the service in Providence. (Episcopal parishes seem to be the only ones that have latched on to U2 in such an organized way).
Christian Scharen, 39, a Lutheran pastor and professor at Yale Divinity School, said he has often argued to older colleagues that U2 is heavily influenced by Christianity. He wrote a book on the subject, "One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God," and says it doesn't surprise him that some congregations have caught on.
"People who have these liturgical resonances in their bones, they go to a U2 concert and they just get it," Scharen said.
Bono, meanwhile, has told interviewers that he worships God through music. He once belonged to an ascetic Christian community, and in February, he spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast. The band's early tapes were sold in religious bookstores.
Still, the band members are traditional rock 'n' rollers — they swear, drink and sing about sex. It's also not known whether U2 endorses the services using the group's songs: Blair said she received permission from U2's publishing company to use the group's music, but never talked to the band. Representatives for U2 did not return phone calls seeking comment.
In Providence, Blair delivered a homily to pitch the One Campaign, which the Episcopal Church supports. She ticked off statistics about poverty and infant mortality in Africa, underscoring her points with equal parts Bono and Bible.
"If you're a Bono fan, you know the next line: Where you live should not determine whether you live or die," she said, then reminding worshippers of a Gospel passage warning that taking care of the needy is what will separate the good from the bad at the final judgment.
The service attracted the curious, including 51-year-old Andera Soracco, a U2 fan who's Eastern Orthodox. "This is a way of bringing the outside world into the church itself," he said.
The opening hymn was "Pride (In the Name of Love)," an early hit. As the music played, pictures of famous believers, including Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., flashed on a 10-by-14-foot screen set up behind the church's altar.
Several songs included in the service sound more like angry lamentations than hymns of praise. "Peace on Earth," inspired by a deadly bombing in Northern Ireland, questions why God won't halt human suffering. "Jesus, can you take the time to throw a drowning man a line?" Bono sings.
Some Christians might not be able to relate to the shades of doubt and anger, but Blair said that struggle is evident in the Bible.
For example, Bono echoes the 40th Psalm in the opening lines of the band's song "40," belting out: "I waited patiently for the Lord. He inclined and heard my cry."