Episcopal Diocese of Rochester
Joy in Christ, as a way of life

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How Christ Church, Rochester, brings young people through its doors with an ancient tradition

Singers at Compline

It’s hard to talk about welcoming younger people into Episcopal churches without discussing leading-edge technology and social media. While many churches have found success in reaching out to teenagers and twenty-somethings through novel channels, others - like Christ Episcopal Church in Rochester, N.Y. - have likewise seen increased attendance among these age groups through something you might call unconventional convention.

In 1997, Christ Church began observing the Office of Compline - a short, sung liturgy held on Sunday evenings in candlelight. Started by Stephen Kennedy, music director and organist at Christ Church since the mid ‘90s, Compline offers attendees a passive but profound worship experience. Mystical and musically rich, the service has gradually drawn in larger and larger crowds over the years, and many in those crowds - typically more than half - are in their 20s and 30s.

After Kennedy began working at Christ Church, he considered services that might appeal to a broad group. “One of the things that I thought would be really nice to do would be to start the Office of Compline. I knew that, like in Seattle at St. Mark’s Cathedral, it was really popular in the community,” Kennedy said. “It was kind of popping up in a few other churches around the country as a really interesting service, particularly to young people.”

When Compline began at Christ Church, the choir consisted of Kennedy and a few other people in town who were interested in learning chant from the Neumes notation - a medieval predecessor to modern sheet music. Interest in Gregorian chant was on the rise, and Kennedy said Christ Church’s aesthetics and acoustics seemed to suit the service. Few people attended, at first, but word began to spread.

“Then the whole service just started to grow gradually,” Kennedy explained. “It grew in two ways: the quality of the music making, and then the attendance. I tried another way to advertise Compline, which was to create the Candlelight Concert Series. I created this so that I could advertise in the local media about concerts, and I put those on the first Sunday of each month. And we still do those today.”

Eastman connection brings artistry - and people

In 2000, Kennedy started teaching a course in sacred music skills at Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. While there, he began to form connections with the students. Talk of a Schola Cantorum, or an academic choir, soon began at Eastman.

“Around 2006, the Schola Cantorum became a course at the Eastman School. The Early Music Department at Eastman recommended that,” Kennedy said. So, students at Eastman began participating in Christ Church’s Compline service, receiving both academic credit and liturgical experience in the process.

“Now it’s a weird situation, a fantastically weird situation, because I don’t know of any program like it anywhere where a choir from the church is also a course at a world-famous music school,” Kennedy said. “Right now, the Schola is comprised of Eastman School students, faculty from Eastman, faculty from the University of Rochester, faculty from the Rochester Institute of Technology, and musicians from the Rochester community. No one is paid.”

The addition of Eastman students brought young people to Compline - not just in the choir but in the pews. The students’ friends began to attend, and the increase in quality brought more people from the community, too. According to Kennedy, average attendance on a Sunday night is around 200, with the largest attendance to date at around 400.

“It’s just kind of everybody, young and old, and I think they’re drawn to the beauty of the entire evening,” the music director said. “When they come in, the church is lit by candles. There’s a little smell of incense from the morning. And then the church’s architecture and acoustics come to life with this timeless music.”

Christ Church’s efforts have produced a loyal following at Compline. For those like Carol Cowan, who started attending Compline after hearing the Schola Cantorum at the Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative Festival, Compline is a regular part of a weekly routine. “I\'ve been going about three years,” Cowan said. “Probably in that three years’ time, I can count on one hand the number of times I\'ve missed.”

Those who are coming are faithful followers of Compline, Cowan said, adding that the quality of the music seems to be a large factor in this loyalty. “That\'s the feeling you get when you hear it - it\'s the most marvelous thing I\'ve ever heard and I\'ve got to keep coming back.”

Cowan, who is a church organist, said she sees people of all ages among these followers. “It could be that a lot of our young people are looking for something they can\'t get anywhere else,” she said. “The music is so inspiring and just reaches our soul, and it just speaks to them.”

Transcendent ministry to youth

The Rev. Ruth Ferguson, rector at Christ Church for the last two and a half years, finds Compline to be a service that connects people to a kind of spirituality that the church doesn’t always offer - and it does so regardless of their religious background.

“What people have said to me was that at the Compline service - whether they are believers or agnostics - they’re able to connect with the transcendent in a way that bypasses the use of words or doctrine or practice,” Ferguson explained. “But they can be passive recipients of this profound movement and energy of the music. And for believers, that connects them to God.” 

For people used to a very interactive liturgy, Compline may seem more like a concert. As Ferguson sees it, however, the service feeds attendees in spiritual ways.

“I think that as a church, we have to recognize and appreciate and minister to a variety of spirituality types,” Ferguson said. “Some spirituality types are more drawn to the Word, some are more drawn to hands-on - they want to work at Habitat for Humanity or work at A Meal & More. Some are really active in our adult formation group, which is an intellectual way of grappling with theology and God. Our music piece addresses the aesthetic, the artistic, the transcendent.”

Mark Ballard agrees. He started singing with the choir back in 1999, when he was pastor at First Baptist Church in Chili. He was seeking a spirituality in his life that he wouldn’t be in charge of, and he was welcomed into the choir straight away at his first rehearsal. 

“This certainly filled that spiritual space for me,” Ballard said. “American Baptists are not what you\'d call ‘high church,’ so we don\'t get much of a chance to sing the works of Palestrina or Thomas Tallis, let alone Gregorian chant. To be able to sing week after week with top-quality musicians in such a stunningly beautiful building with such amazing acoustics, and to do it all by candlelight, touched something deep within me.”

Ballard said that not everyone was convinced that Compline could reach people, at first. “Over the years, that has changed,” he explained. The large attendance at 9 p.m. on a Sunday shows that success, he said - and the number of college-age people who attend astounds Ballard.

“This is often a time in life when young people are searching for a spiritual identity of their own, and they often withdraw or flat-out reject the faith tradition in which they were raised,” Ballard said. “For many, Compline - and by extension, Christ Church - has become their church.”

Ballard said that Compline doesn’t ask for commitment or make appeals to mission or ministry beyond the service. “But these young men and women are able to keep a connection with God that they might very well lose without the service of Compline. And I believe that is valuable in and of itself.”

It’s this kind of value that has kept Music Director Kennedy dedicated to Compline, even though the road hasn’t always been easy - he almost dropped Compline from Christ Church’s music ministry three times, he said. Getting doubters to the point where they viewed Compline as a ministry took time, though increases in attendance and healthy plate offerings helped. But for Kennedy, it’s really about the effect the service has on people. 

“When you talk to people afterwards and there’s tears in their eyes, I don’t take any personal power in that at all,” he said. “When you get a group of people together who make music with their bodies, and it allows people who are listening to have some sort of transcendent experience, it just goes beyond... it’s almost unbelievable to see people moved so much by something.”

The impact of the service on students has also been rewarding to Kennedy - he said he receives letters from some who describe the Schola Cantorum as the highlight of their time in Rochester and at Eastman, and others go on to start Compline services elsewhere in the country.

Kennedy added that the quality the students bring, which he emphasizes along with teamwork and passion in his teaching, also shows young people a different kind of church, one that some older people may find distant or papist. “Young people that didn’t grow up with maybe even any church background at all - they don’t bring that kind of judging criteria to their experience, so they just see this as kind of a synergy between art and word. And then it comes together and gives them an experience that they can’t get any other way.

“When they see that it’s really high-level quality, then they respect it more,” Kennedy continued. “I think one of the things that the church has done to really lose its footing on the planet is to disregard people’s needs by not offering them quality. I think you show people love and respect when you care about what you do for them.”

Finding balance in ministry

Though Compline is now a well-established part of Christ Church, Ferguson and Kennedy both continue working on ways to expand the ministry. As rector, Ferguson has been thinking about ways to bring a more Eucharistic experience to young people who come on Sunday nights.

“I’m envisioning a ministry where once a month, Christ Church feeds U of R students out of the kitchen before they go in for Compline - in a form of dinner church, which is this new concept of a Eucharistic sharing of a meal,” Ferguson said. “This would be a mission - a feeding mission to students. Feeding them a homemade dinner, feeding them the music of Compline.”

Finding ways to ensure balance in ministries like Compline with other church missions and programs is an important challenge, Ferguson said.

“I don’t think that it’s readily obvious to people that the music itself is a ministry, and certainly when the music is Compline, out of our prayer book, out of our tradition. So yes, there are some people who are concerned to see Christ Church doing more of the hands-on piece of serving the needs of the poor and the disenfranchised,” she said. 

“That’s, for me, a healthy struggle. We have the programs – A Meal & More, we participate in RAIHN, we participate in letter-writing advocacy, Amnesty International. We have all of these groups. I wonder if we’d be less concerned about that if we didn’t have the music program that we have. So, in a way, it’s a positive challenge.”

Kennedy added that his goal is to marry music with liturgy - to make the experience whole for people. “I know a lot of us (Americans) through our Christian traditions, we think of church as having the church part - the worship part - and then the entertainment/music part. And I came from Kansas, so that’s the way most people there think,” he said.

“What I try for us to do with all the choirs and all the musicians that we have is try to make it all really connect as being part of the liturgy,” Kennedy explained. “I try to make people think that it’s really how it’s connected, from chanting the Gospel to chanting the prayers to instruments and choirs.”

Ferguson said balancing life inside and outside the self is an age-old, important question when it comes to spreading the Gospel and living in faith. “Clearly, in the spiritual life we have to have the contemplative piece, the passive being in God’s presence. And people come for that,” she said. “When does the time come to recognize that you have to go back out of the doors, meet the cries of God, the voice of God, in the streets?” 

The priest mentioned a story about St. John Chrysostom, who was said to have been experiencing an ecstatic vision of Mary when a rumbling came at the door. “He finally goes to the door, and of course it’s a beggar and he gives some alms,” Ferguson said. “And he returns. And do you know what the voice says? The voice says, ‘Ah, if you had not gone and met me at the door, I wouldn’t have been here for you. I would have left.’” 

Kennedy said that getting people to see the other activities of the parish and wider church - getting people to go to that door and answer the call - is part of the challenge of being involved in church life.

Ferguson said strong music programs do not keep churchgoers from going into the streets, though she understands the view that some may prefer to linger in ecstasy rather than go outward. “Because we have the mystical, contemplative, aesthetic music that so feeds people’s souls, it’s always tempting just to live there.”

For her part, Ferguson continues to bring questions about the ordinary and the hands-on to her parishioners, reminding everyone of the need to find equilibrium between divine and daily works.

“We live that here at Christ Church, that balance.”