Appalachian Music Meets Anglican Liturgy in East Tennessee

Appalachian Music Meets Anglican Liturgy in East Tennessee
Leslie Burrell and her young children, Lucy, River, and Sawyer, take part in Appalachian ministries at St. Thomas Church, Elizabethtown, Tennessee

By Lauren Anderson-Cripps

Guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, dulcimer, and harmonica typically ring out along with the organ and piano from the 1861 brick developing in the historic district of Elizabethton, Tennessee.

In new a long time, St. Thomas Episcopal Church has targeted on integrating bluegrass music into the Anglican liturgy, and the resonance of the two traditions has served revitalize the rector, the Rev. Timothy Holder.

When Holder arrived in 2015, weekly attendance at the 108-capacity church had ebbed to a low. After his earlier career in state and national politics and subsequent work as a priest in Alabama, New Jersey, and New York, Holder’s call to serve St. Thomas marked a homecoming for the Elizabethton native. While in New York, Holder spearheaded a liturgy infused with hip-hop — a project that drew teens and young adults to his South Bronx parish.

Upon his return to eastern Tennessee, he again considered the question of contextualization. What would it look like, he wondered, to embrace Appalachian music and the spirit of its people in the context of Episcopal liturgy?

“If we have any authenticity and appreciation for this ground, this beautiful area, the mountains, the people we agree with and disagree with, might music have something to do with being a little closer and more appreciative?” Holder said.

St. Thomas’s earliest foray into what Holder calls “liturgical bluegrass” happened serendipitously. In 2017, Holder invited several local artists and musicians to join St. Thomas for its midnight Christmas Mass, resulting in an eclectic mix of mountain gospel, African American gospel, and traditional Methodist music, all within the frame of the 1982 Hymnal and the Book of Common Prayer. Holder considers that evening a turning point for the parish.

Fr. Timothy Holder, Loretta Bowers, Teresa Bowers Parker, Dan Parker, and Johvan Bowers. Back: Carol Brodeur, server and senior warden of St. Thomas, and parish musician Annie Hopson. | Dan Boner photo

“That was the beginning, and it was a big beginning,” Holder said. “It was [happening] in the elegance of the Episcopal place and liturgy, and we realized we had anything extremely attractive.”

A far more concerted energy to weave Appalachian music into the parish’s everyday living arrived with a trio of worship companies in late 2018 and early 2019. St. Thomas hosted its inaugural Appalachian Evensong with Classes and Carols in Arrival 2018, a liturgy that provided the regular lessons, interspersed with reside bluegrass performed by area musicians.

That support was followed by its midnight Xmas Mass and then a neighborhood celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during Epiphany. Each individual company brought far more musicians by the doors and more congregants into the pews.

From the outset, Holder reported, the intention has been for Appalachian tunes to be blended into the liturgy to lead congregants in worship, not to be a functionality for an audience.

“We’re not doing this for amusement. This is who we are, this is our liturgy, this is our worship,” Holder claimed.

Now five many years into the endeavor, St. Thomas has settled into a rhythm of integrating bluegrass — some light banjo and fiddle, for example — into the Sunday morning liturgy on the to start with week of the thirty day period and web hosting Appalachian audio solutions all over the 12 months.

Throughout Introduction 2022, the parish hosted its fifth once-a-year Appalachian Evensong with Christmas Classes and Carols. The company was led by Thomm Jutz, a Grammy-nominated songwriter, producer, and guitarist from Nashville and Johnson Town, and Tim Stafford, a a few-time Grammy-successful guitarist, songwriter, author, and singer. Both equally adult males have come to be friends of the parish by means of the music ministry.

“The audio was heavenly. … We experienced folks from all about northeast Tennessee, and the church was packed,” Holder reported. “The spirit was really significant.”

Vivid quilts drape the backs of pews at St. Thomas

Above the yrs, the parish has tapped into the region’s neighborhood of regional musicians and artists, who have assembled into a unfastened affiliation dubbed the Doe River Ensemble, a nod to 1 of the two rivers that flows via Elizabethton.

“It’s whoever reveals up,” Holder claimed of the ensemble. “That’s part of the lifestyle.”

Holder’s potential to link with men and women has been integral to the effort’s good results, mentioned Dr. Timothy Sedgwick, professor emeritus at Virginia Theological Seminary, who was the adviser for Holder’s Medical professional of Ministry dissertation.

“It’s been term of mouth — particularly his mouth,” Sedgwick claimed of the church’s development. “He understands all people.”

The embrace of Appalachian lifestyle at St. Thomas has prompted unforeseen ecumenical partnerships, Holder said. Customers and pastors of other spot religion communities, drawn by the audio, routinely take part in the liturgies at St. Thomas, and Holder has been invited to discuss to their congregations.

In the meantime, the parish’s membership base has grown, mainly thanks to Latinos in Elizabethton, simply because St. Thomas is a bilingual congregation.

Holder characteristics St. Thomas’s revitalization to the Episcopal Church’s welcoming ethos and the authenticity of Appalachian music.

“It has been a unifier,” he reported. “It has been a supply for new funding, for new users, the two Hispanic and Appalachian. … There is a lovely blending alongside one another of the Hispanic society alongside with the Appalachian new music.”

Whilst church-development strategies typically emphasis on stemming decline, Sedgwick claimed St. Thomas’s endeavours comprehend the parish’s daily life as being bound up with that of its surrounding local community.

Holder “understands what it takes to join with people today and therefore deliver to the fore the group that is previously there, to celebrate that, and to help draw it forth. And which is truly what the Christian religion is all about it’s forming, if you will, the people today of God,” Sedgwick explained. “It is effective for the reason that you have a priest who sees what a parish is, what a neighborhood of faith is, and what it is to be connected to the folks and their lives in the neighborhood.”