Sunday, August 11, 2013

Interview: Alex Dyer of the 'Jazz Church' in New Haven, Connecticut

Episcopal Priest Alex Dryer

Episcopal Priest Alex Dyer

Alex Dyer is Priest in Charge at the “Jazz Church” in New Haven, The Episcopal Church of St. James and St. Paul where Father Dyer in a background conversation says, “The good things about Jazz are it draws on a lot of traditions. When we say we’re a Jazz service, what we are saying here is we draw from these traditions. Not every piece we play is jazz. We do a jazz mindset. The first piece could be a traditional hymn on the pipe organ. The next one could be a traditional African American spiritual. The next one a hymn in Spanish. A lot of people call it blended worship.”
In the heart of this article is an interview with the Church’s Priest and what he says makes a character sketch of a Parish. It does this in a way that at the same time speaks to us of a part of the life of the Episcopal Church USA. But still, the basics of worship come with this statement:  Eucharist as central part of the worship and its long appeal to the people of God.

There are eight Episcopal Churches in New Haven. Regarding the appeal of our Parish, it’s hard to say what brings them into Church; I think people are looking for a lot of things. We are an active Church that is engaged in a sense of social Gospel that is re-inventing of that very thing in our day, the social Gospel. We are a Church that has its doors open. We try to live out we practice what we preach. That is also what brings worshipers to the Church, this writer observes.

An example of social gospel from the Church webpage: Every Saturday morning from 9:00-10:30 hundreds of people gather outside the Church of St. Paul & St. James for our Loaves & Fishes ministry. This ministry began with a food pantry, but it much more than a food pantry. Each person is valued and we do all we can to extend radical hospitality to all who enter through our doors.
We serve the working poor, unemployed, and all those in need by providing a bag of groceries to each person who comes through our doors on Saturday mornings.

No one is turned away and by the grace of God we now serve 150 to 250 people each Saturday. Our hospitality extends way beyond providing food.

This interview was made by telephone in more than one call from religion writer Peter Menkin’s home office in Mill Valley to Reverend Alex Dryer’s office at his Church in New Haven.

Lively New Haven 'Jazz Church" Parishioner
Lively New Haven ‘Jazz Church” Parishioner

A QUOTE: I have served in Anglo-Catholic churches that rival the best medieval mass and a church with Morning Prayer sung by a Men and Boys Choir.  I have helped start an outdoor church, primarily for people who are homeless.  Never did I ever think that I would give up a full-time salary to serve halftime at church with a jazz band.  If all we do is focus on death or fear then we do not truly live.  

  1. 1.     Please tell us something of the choices made for the pieces of Jazz played during Church services? As part of this liturgy, how does it jibe with The Book of Common Prayer service, the worship service used in Episcopal Churches? Do you find criticism for using this music, and if so, where does it come from?
The way we usually choose music is we get together with my music director. I’ve thought about the sermon and the direction we want to go. Usually weekly, but sometimes we get ahead. Then we look through sources of music, pulling from five or six authorized hymnals by the Episcopal Church. We are willing to go outside of those. Hymnal 1982, Lift Every Voice and Sing, II; Wonder, Love, and Praise; and, Voices Found (women composers); and My Heart Sings Out…are hymnals we use. You can see there are even a large number of Episcopal resources. The Episcopal Church as a whole is recognizing the diverse choices of music we have in the Church.

I would say, most Episcopal Churches, the Hymnal 1982 is the steady diet. That’s not quite as true for us. There are the old chestnuts you want to play that match the readings or the service. Even the way we play those is quite different. The Jazz Ensemble is very good at taking the traditional hymn and rearranging it.

Jazzing it, to put it in the vernacular
Jazzing it, to put it in the vernacular

Many people think of all things when we say we are a jazz church. I question them on what they think jazz is; people much smarter than I am having been defining Jazz. If you’re talking about Jazz standards we usually play those as a postlude or prelude or an offertory. But jazz standards don’t really lend themselves to congregational participation. What we’ve done is taken Jazz influenced music into participate when we are at our best.

I told my Jazz Ensemble a few weeks after we started, if the congregation isn’t singing, then you have failed as musicians. It is a key to any good liturgy, it is the work of the people, and then you have the people participate in it. Like with any style of music, whether it is jazz or a traditional men and boys’ choir, a musician must walk a very fine line. It is fine to have the music wash over you, but at some point you need to be invited to participate. Even if it detracts from the purity of the music, says a non-musician. It is my job as a priest to work between my musicians and the people (congregation). Ultimately, it is me who is responsible for making all the worship come together.  I kind of see myself as a conductor in a symphony in some ways.

Blending many different styles of worship is easier than one might think.  Worship in the Episcopal Church has changed dramatically in a generation. When people think of “The Episcopal Church,” it depends on which Episcopal Church you are talking about. There are Episcopal Churches who every Sunday sways back and forth to Gospel Music, Episcopal Churches who use Mariachi music. I think it’s very dangerous to say one church is more Episcopal than the other. The Episcopal Church is one of the roomiest in Christendom, and is learning how to fully express the diverse world in which we now live.

Living with diversity can cause some tension.  I think of my present congregation, I don’t get very much criticism. We have community conversations every couple of months or so about our liturgy and music. One person will stand up and say I love this hymn and another say I hate that hymn. Allowing people to talk publicly means that everyone was able to see how difficult my job is and the congregations was able to see the wonderful diversity they have each Sunday. One of the joys of living with diversity is you don’t always get what you want. It’s not really Burger King; you don’t really get it your way.  I don’t always get it my way either.

This style of worship is not for everyone.  There are some people that choose a more traditional church, and we get people who visit and it is easy to see that our worship is not their thing. There are many people who appreciate the joyfulness and eclectic nature of worship and there are many people who go for reasons other than music. They go for diversity, the feel of the people, and the vibe of the place.  I do get feedback and try to welcome people into creating worship that reflects our community. When I do get criticism, it is always constructive criticism. Sometimes people remind me that it’s been a while since we’ve heard a traditional hymn on the organ, which we do when it makes sense.

There are many churches in New Haven who provide excellent traditional worship.  There are seven other choices for Episcopal Churches in New Haven, and most of them have traditional services. We are one among many and so we need to be distinct or it does not make sense for us to be here. The congregation realized this need to be different just before I arrived. We were forced to carve out a deeper identity of who we were all the time.  We could no longer continue to do what we’ve always done or we would die, death was immanent and so resurrection happened. There was a lot of ground work laid before I even arrived and I consider myself pretty lucky to find a church that was willing to take such a risk.

  1. 2.     In our initial phone conversation in background, you said that yours is one of the Episcopal Churches in the Connecticut area. A distinctive characteristic of yours is that it is comprised mostly of people with limited incomes, and who are of diverse kinds. Talk to us a little of this fact, and tell us how it is that your Church survives without a larger income from congregants? Do you do without in the Church, and if so what is lacking? Give us positive sense of worship and service again, if you will, as you did with me.
Our situation is mostly limited income, but it is definitely a significant number. Our average pledge is above the national average and above the other Churches in Connecticut.  It comes in about $3,600 a year. We have pledges from $200 to $12,000. When I arrived our pledge income was about $60,000 per year and in two years we reached over $150,000.  The challenge with us is we have such a huge building. We need to answer the question, “How do we make a structure that serves its time in a different era of Church?” Ever since the 1960s we’ve hovered around 50-100 people. We have come close to closing a few times, but have been saved our endowment, which is now gone. At the turn of the 20th century, when our forbearers decided to build a huge Parish House, there were 500 children in our Parish house and they needed a place to house all the wonderful activities. The neighborhood culture changed and, like most mainline denominations, the Episcopal Church took a hit across the board. They also had perfect storm of a series of events with their rectors; that has impacted the community over time. It’s what is happening in Churches all over this country, and we were no different.

We have a beautiful building that is both a blessing and a challenge. Over the time in New Haven, many people have gone through the Parish house.  We have sprung dance floor in our undercroft and it was common to hear the sounds of Brazilian dancing, ballet dancing, 12-step meetings, or children from summer programs or after school programs.  I meet people all the time who have used the building but never attended church.

We have had a wonderful food pantry for over 30 years.  Like any outreach program, and especially when it reaches that level, it is always a challenge to connect that to the experience of Sunday morning. We’ve been working, trying to build our bridge back between the food pantry on Saturday mornings and our worship on Sunday mornings. Most of the food pantry deals with the working poor (minimum wage and need extra help). Whether they are homeless or working poor, I think there is a tension between in our political system with willingness to help and American individualism.  Churches, at our best, bridge this gap and teach us a new way to be in relationship with one another.  The Church leans more towards the communal aspect, when one member of the community is in distress it affects the entire community.

One of my favorite illustrations of our work is found in Matthew 25. There’s an innate human response when you see someone needing help. It is in other traditions as well. Church is not making a difference or change in the world, what’s the point of it? We are realizing the point of our existence is not simply to gather in a building with pretty stained glass and pay someone to say nice words. It’s way more than that and if it is not, then we are in trouble.  You have got to answer the, “So what?” question.  How is following Jesus making a difference in your life?  We are in the midst of a culture shift where churches are not the center of public life anymore.  We can play the blame game and cry about it or we can do something about it.

I think we get a little too pessimistic over this culture change and we long for a time that is gone past and may never return.  Declining church attendance is a complicated issue.  We like to blame society a lot and I wonder what our role is this culture shift. We’re figuring out, renegotiating our relationship with society. We are in the process of renegotiating how we interact with each other, and reprioritizing what we find important in Church.  For too long there have been too many churches have become passive, or even arrogant, and have not wanted to join in this conversation.

We are in the process of reinventing ourselves and I think that God is delighted. A lot of people forget that the Church has reinvented itself countless times over 2000 years.  I am more excited about it than worried about it.  I would be worried if we did not know there was a problem.

With new leadership in our and other churches, at the top level, we are becoming a more authentic Church. The gap between the way the church is and the way the church should be is becoming smaller.  Church is more in the public square—reclaiming diversity of moral voices. We are having conversations with society and speaking not from a position of absolutism, but of humility.  We are trying to shed light on the things that we think God would want to see different, and churches are not of one mind on this issue.  There are issues where many of us can join together. At least in Connecticut, one of those issues is violence, specifically gun violence. I would like to think, we are much more Public Square than we were 20 or 30 years ago.  The Episcopal bishops here in Connecticut, and others, have helped us stand up more on what needs to be worked on and challenged us to claim our voice more.  Churches should be doing things differently and striving towards bringing forth the reign of God.  Following Jesus is really difficult in some ways and incredibly simple in others.  I believe people have, and always will search for a connection with God.
I think people connect to God in a variety of ways, and community can be the most powerful expression of the Divine. Church is a time when you reorient yourself: re-evaluate your priorities and be more focused on God and our neighbors.  I don’t think that I have all the answers and I think there is power in letting people talking to each other.

The Church
The Church

The power of community and finding a voice in our diversity is a part of our jazz mindset, which pervades our congregation.  Even my preaching is a bit unorthodox. During preaching I don’t always preach for the whole time, even I get tired of hearing my own voice. Some Sundays, I will give 2 or 3 minutes reflection on the Scripture, and then ask people to turn to their neighbor and share their story—or how the Gospel works in our own lives.  I usually ask them to share a specific story or ask a specific question. That is kind of revolutionary in some ways, but it really shouldn’t be that big of deal. Providing a safe space for people to talk about who Jesus is in their life is a bit revolutionary in many churches.  One new parishioner remarked to me, “I always thought church services are where we were always talked at, but we never talked to each other.  I always thought that was a bit weird and I never knew why till now.” I think people are seeking an authentic communal experience and want something to impact their lives. In a church like ours, that is diverse in so many ways, you get to talk to someone you don’t get to talk to in your normal life and work.  We do not often take the risk of being that vulnerable in our everyday lives.

I think some churches are more willing to take risks than others. Overall, we are pretty good about taking risks. I also think we are getting better at risk taking on every level of the church, which makes it easier for us to do the same. There is a movement in the Episcopal Church because the power to change is greater than the power to stay the same, which is a gift and where can see God more clearly.

  1. 3.     Talk to us about the issues that face your community of congregants, and how that is addressed? What is the hope and faith offered through worship, and in what ways both theological and spiritual are they uplifted so that in one case they may tell others about the life of Worship and preaching offered by your Church.
Because we are a diverse congregation, there are a diversity of issues and opinions.   We truly reflect the diversity of the city of New Haven.  We are racially, culturally, economically diverse.  Holding all these points of view in tension is one of the challenges of being a leader in this congregation. For instance, the recent Treyvon Martin Case.  I know that certain people in my congregation have been racially profiled. I have had a different life experience as a white male and do not know what that experience is like. That is where I push to have people talk to each other and not rely one person to bring all these opinions together. I try to facilitate conversations and get people to talk to each other on a deeper level. I would say we are good and getting better at sharing our stories—in a deep, personal level. We are able to recognize the burdens of each other’s lives and what we are passionate.  We may be able to get a deeper glimpse of how complicated a situation can be, if we hear someone else’s story.

It is through this communal conversation with people who are different, that we are able to have a safe place for people to share their story, which is crucial to building an authentic community.  As a person who is very privileged, I think it is good for me to hear other people don’t have that same experience. I recognize, and I am forced to deal with, my own privilege and power. These experiences, hopefully, shape how I act in the future. Our conversations force us to readjust the lens in which one sees the world, closer to the lens of Jesus. If at the end of the day, my sermon does not connect to their life when they leave the church, then I have failed as a preacher.

I also find time to meet with as many parishioners as I can on a one-to-one basis.  I ask difficult questions about what is going on their lives.  Some people are more comfortable than other with sharing what is going in their lives.  New Englanders, by nature, are very private people.  I also occasionally check-in with parishioners via social media to see what they are posting and what is important in their lives, if they’ve allowed me to be their friend of Facebook.

  1. 4.     Thank you for allowing me and readers to make your acquaintance and learn that all Episcopal Churches and the Episcopal Churches in your area are not in a kind of lock step in every way. If there is anything I have failed to ask, or you want to say, say it now, please. I look forward to hearing you add to this interview in this manner of your statement without prompting by a question.

There is the frustration we share with other churches, that we’ve inherited a church structure that doesn’t meet our needs any more.  We need to discover how to be something different.  St. Paul & St. James can no longer afford to make slight alterations.  When we changed our service, we allowed our culture to be changed as well.  Lively jazz music alone would not solve our problems, but it reframed everything we were doing.  This diverse parish has new life and energy. This does not mean all our problems have been solved. It does mean that we view our challenges differently, with hope.  We are realistically optimistic about our future and willing to go where God is calling us.

The way all churches have done things for a long time is coming to an end, we can’t continue on as we have being doing for so many years. We all know this on some level and are dealing with this reality in different ways.  We all are trying to figure out what the new Church will look like, and what to get rid of and what to keep. I love Phyllis Tickle’s idea that every 500 years the Church goes through a rummage sale where we throw out the bad and keep the good.  Letting go of things is not always easy, and is harder for some people more than others.

I hope we hang onto our sense of our connection to the past. And our sense of awe and mystery that is present in the Episcopal liturgies I have seen and I hope we are willing to embrace new ways of seeing God, even if those feel in tension at times.  Blending styles of worship together can be exciting, if done intentionally and creatively.

All I know is The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and I know it is very different from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. One of the main differences is the number of choices it allowed.  I know we are going to continue in that trajectory, which could not make me happier. The Book of Common Prayer is not the problem. It is a very expansive book and allows for many liturgical styles. The Book of Common Prayer is a ten bedroom house where too many of us only use two rooms. We don’t appreciate the breadth that it has to offer us.  Perhaps we need to allow our congregations to take a tour of all The Book of Common Prayer has to offer us.

I have served in Anglo-Catholic churches that rival the best medieval mass and a church with Morning Prayer sung by a Men and Boys Choir.  I have helped start an outdoor church, primarily for people who are homeless.  Never did I ever think that I would give up a full-time salary to serve halftime at church with a jazz band.  If all we do is focus on death or fear then we do not truly live.   Taking risks and breaking up the monotony is what life is all about, communally or individually.  As a church we need to learn how to be vulnerable again and allow God to enter in those times where we take put it all on the line. This is what St. Paul & St. James has taught me and continues to teach me each day.

This work appeared originally Church of England Newspaper, London. Contact the writer:


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