Will They Follow?

U2-themed liturgies offer a sacred spin on the music of the world's biggest band

Until recently, I believed the most heavenly experience I would ever have through music happened at a U2 concert in 1997 when I had an OMG moment as Bono blew a kiss my way while he sang “Mysterious Ways.” Fans of the band will recall that same song—from their 1991 album Achtung Baby—featured a very sensual belly dancer shimmying through the video and live concerts from that period; but the Reverend Paige Blair, rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in York Harbor, Maine, urges listeners to consider the music from the Dublin quartet in a completely different light.

“The belly dancer is great,” she says. “But listen to the wonderful intertwining of how God uses desire to draw us, tempt us and lure us closer to Him.” She goes on to elaborate on the “light” and “shadow” interpretations of the song. “There’s a dark side to the belly dancer—alluding to the dance of Salome,” she explains. As the story goes, the beautiful Salome so captivated King Herod with her dance that he vowed to give her anything she wanted. She asked—at her mother’s urging—for John the Baptist’s head on a tray. “That’s Johnny of Johnny, take a walk,” she points out. But the song is not all dark, she says. “The chorus, It’s alright…she moves in mysterious ways plays on the ‘God moves in mysterious ways’ phrase that we all use. And at the conclusion of the song, one voice is singing She moves with it, another voice is singing Spirit moves in mysterious ways—the Holy Spirit.”

Fish in the Sand
Three years ago, Blair started a GenX revolution of sorts at St. George’s by floating the idea of a ‘U2 Eucharist’ to her parishioners. “U2 has always been a Christian band. No other band has a 30-year history of singing about biblical, scriptural and spiritual matters,” she points out, referring to a quote by Bono from the book, U2 at the End of the World, in which he says, “Maybe we just have to sort of draw our fish in the sand. It’s there for people who are interested. It shouldn’t be there for people who aren’t.”

“U2 has always been a Christian band. No other band has a 30-year history of singing about biblical, scriptural and spiritual matters”

The concept of creating a service that revolved around the band’s music came at a time when Blair realized an emerging pattern as U2’s work began appearing in conversations in many different areas of parish life, from vestry meetings to pastoral care 101 classes. “There was a common experience amongst a lot of the leaders for whom U2 served as ‘spiritual directors’ in times when the church had not been a strong presence in their lives” she recalls.

Fr. Mike Woods, SJ, an assistant professor of liturgical and sacramental theology at Gonzaga University, sees some validity in a U2charist service, but stops short of endorsing it. “[The U2charists] are an attempt to reach the young adult crowd, which has an ambiguous relationship with organized religion. But U2charists have not begun anything novel here—they are typical in their structure as far as liturgy goes: Entrance, Word, Eucharist/Communion, and Dismissal,” he says. On a more theological note, Woods says he considers the service simply a form of inculturation. “It utilizes the cultural elements a certain population (young adult culture) uses to make sense of life, incorporating them into their religious practices,” he explains. “Here, it’s the music and philosophical world view (with some religious overtones) of the band U2, in the liturgy.”

Blair insists U2charists stay true to Christian teachings, guided by liturgical materials from Enriching Our Worship and other contemporary Episcopalian resources. “We stay within the Canon and we carefully consider the lyrics to make sure they’re a good fit.” A sample “Holy Eucharist for Ordinary Time” service includes “Halleluiah” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” as preludes. For the opening hymn, it’s “Mysterious Ways,” which, according to Blair, if used as a hymn to the Spirit, is a particularly appropriate song in the season after Pentecost. "Elevation" is chosen as the song of praise. For the sermon response, “One” is played. “Because the service is about participating in social justice, being remind that we are one—we’re not the same but we carry each other,” she explains. “Even if we let each other down, we’re called to be one.” Blair says in a world of extreme poverty, acknowledging the truth that we are one is a great response. “It’s a way to say, Yes, God. We just heard Your call and yes, we’ll do as You say.” To close out the service, “Beautiful Day” ushers participants out into the world.

St. George’s U2charist team goes on the road a few times each year to assist churches with setting up PowerPoint projection screens, sound equipment and reconfiguring pews to leave plenty of room for dancing. Some churches even provide earplugs for those not used to listening to concert-magnitude sound. Blair says feedback from participants, which range from die-hard U2 fans to just plain, curious elder parishioners, have been overwhelmingly positive. “We’ve turned a whole bunch of septuagenarians into U2 fans,” she says. “There’s this elderly lady who loves it just because she sees how it feeds the other members of her church family. She does wear the earplugs, though.” Blair is also amazed by the variety and diversity of the host churches citing both conservative and liberal congregations who have adopted it, including an ecumenical group that included Protestants and Roman Catholics.