Mass appeal: Old-style service drawing young crowd

The Rev. Paul McLain waves incense at the parishioners of the Solemn High Mass at Trinity Episcopal Church, 1011 Vt. The smell of the incense aims to invoke the presence of God.

When introducing a new service these days, most churches seem to go the rock ‘n’ roll route — something new to bring in a younger crowd.

To say that Trinity Episcopal Church went in another direction might be a bit of an understatement.

When the church decided to add a new service in fall 2006, instead of looking forward, it looked back.

Way back. As in the fourth century.

The result is a unique celebration of Christianity referred to as the Solemn High Mass. A mystical meeting of old traditions in a setting where blue jeans and T-shirts are appropriate, the Sunday night service features incense, music and what the church, 1011 Vt., refers to as all of the “major propers” including the Kyrie Eleison, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Credo, the Sanctus and Benedictus and the Agnus Dei, which are chanted.

Frankincense is used abundantly at the Solemn High Mass on Sunday evenings at Trinity Episcopal Church, 1011 Vt.

Performed only during the Kansas University school year, the service, which began its 2009-2010 season last Sunday evening, has snagged a crowd young and old, Episcopalian and not, says the Rev. Paul McLain, the church’s curate.

“You’ll see some students here tonight, of course, a lot students in the choir,” McLain says before the first service of the year, which drew about 50 people to Mass and the free dinner that follows it each week. “But then you’ll see members of the congregation in all age groups, who have been attracted to the service and many newcomers. And we have people who drive in from as far away as Kansas City because it is such a unique service.”

A tradition using tradition

Solemn High Mass was introduced to Trinity in 2006 by its former rector, the Rev. Jonathon Jensen. Before leaving in June for his current post at the Trinity Cathedral in Little Rock, Ark., Jensen described his thoughts behind the addition of the old-style service this way: “We wanted to create something new that was different from what other places could offer in Lawrence. Lots of churches in Lawrence do contemporary worship, and that’s wonderful, but this is a 150-year-old downtown church that looks like an old English church and we have a fantastic organ and a wonderful chorale tradition, and we know what we can do best. And it’s not contemporary. It’s that (old style). And, so, we wanted to have this distinct offering.”

Hooked right away was KU junior Ryan Hood, who, though raised in a different faith tradition, was quite enamored with the formal style of the service when he first attended as a freshman at the university.

Anna Hoard, Topeka, and Chad Payton, Lake of the Ozarks, Mo., sing at Trinity Episcopal Church. Both singers are studying opera performance at Kansas University.

“It is a totally different way for people like me who sort of enjoy the higher style of churching — this is the highest style,” says Hood, attending in a white T-shirt and jeans. “I’ve been to a lot of churches around, and almost no church in the area that I’ve been to does things with as high, sort of formal, style as this is done. It’s very rare. It’s uncommon. Even most Catholic churches don’t do it in high style.”

Impacting the senses

The formality and style come from the service’s substance. Much of the service is sung or chanted by the choir, celebrant or congregation, including the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Communion is given to the congregation in a kneel every Sunday night. The smell of incense is present throughout the ceremony with a thurifer swinging it down the aisle during specific portions of the Mass.

“I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the idea that it uses all your senses — it just sort of inundates you with things,” Hood says. “This thing encourages you to smell and to taste, to touch and to see and to hear and just sort of be flooded with … the presence of God and the presence of everything that we care about. Yeah, it really gets you involved on a totally different level than most services do.”

That difference was felt immediately by the Rev. Ronald Pogue, the church’s interim rector. He was a novice at the execution of a Solemn High Mass, though he says he was excited at the opportunity to be at a church that offers such a service. He believes such a Mass is important to the future of the church — even though it’s such an old style.

The Rev. Paul K. McLain gives communion to parishioners at the Solemn High Mass at Trinity Episcopal Church, 1011 Vt.

“We have noticed a growing interest in ancient or meditative liturgies, particularly among the 18-30 year old age cohort. It’s one aspect of the emerging global cultural shift that is taking place,” Pogue says. “I am proud of Trinity Church in Lawrence and Father Jensen for taking this important step in opening the doors a bit wider to include those who are seeking a service like this.”