By Lauren Anderson-Cripps
Guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, dulcimer, and harmonica often ring out alongside the organ and piano from the 1861 brick building in the historic district of Elizabethton, Tenn.
In recent years, St. Thomas Episcopal Church has focused on integrating bluegrass music into the Anglican liturgy, and the resonance of the two traditions has helped revitalize the parish, says its 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.
“That was the beginning, and it was a big beginning,” Holder said. “It was [happening] in the beauty of the Episcopal space and liturgy, and we knew we had something very beautiful.”
A more concerted effort to weave Appalachian music into the parish’s life came with a trio of worship services in late 2018 and early 2019. St. Thomas hosted its inaugural Appalachian Evensong with Lessons and Carols in Advent 2018, a liturgy that included the traditional lessons, interspersed with live bluegrass performed by local musicians.
That service was followed by its midnight Christmas Mass and then a community celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during Epiphany. Each service brought more musicians through the doors and more congregants into the pews.
From the outset, Holder said, the intention has been for Appalachian music to be blended into the liturgy to lead congregants in worship, not to be a performance for an audience.
“We’re not doing this for entertainment. This is who we are, this is our liturgy, this is our worship,” Holder said.
Now five 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 first week of the month and hosting Appalachian music services throughout the year.
During Advent 2022, the parish hosted its fifth annual Appalachian Evensong with Christmas Lessons and Carols. The service was led by Thomm Jutz, a Grammy-nominated songwriter, producer, and guitarist from Nashville and Johnson City, and Tim Stafford, a three-time Grammy-winning guitarist, songwriter, author, and singer. Both men have become friends of the parish through the music ministry.
“The music was heavenly. … We had people from all over northeast Tennessee, and the church was packed,” Holder said. “The spirit was very high.”
Over the years, the parish has tapped into the region’s community of local musicians and artists, who have assembled into a loose affiliation dubbed the Doe River Ensemble, a nod to one of the two rivers that flows through Elizabethton.
“It’s whoever shows up,” Holder said of the ensemble. “That’s part of the culture.”
Holder’s ability to connect with people has been integral to the effort’s success, said Dr. Timothy Sedgwick, professor emeritus at Virginia Theological Seminary, who was the adviser for Holder’s Doctor of Ministry dissertation.
“It’s been word of mouth — especially his mouth,” Sedgwick said of the church’s growth. “He knows everyone.”
The embrace of Appalachian culture at St. Thomas has prompted unexpected ecumenical partnerships, Holder said. Members and pastors of other area faith communities, drawn by the music, regularly participate in the liturgies at St. Thomas, and Holder has been invited to speak to their congregations.
Meanwhile, the parish’s membership base has grown, largely thanks to Latinos in Elizabethton, because St. Thomas is a bilingual congregation.
Holder attributes St. Thomas’s revitalization to the Episcopal Church’s welcoming ethos and the authenticity of Appalachian music.
“It has been a unifier,” he said. “It has been a source for new funding, for new members, both Hispanic and Appalachian. … There is a beautiful blending together of the Hispanic culture along with the Appalachian music.”
While church-growth strategies often focus on stemming decline, Sedgwick said St. Thomas’s efforts understand the parish’s life as being bound up with that of its surrounding community.
Holder “understands what it takes to connect with people and thereby bring to the fore the community that’s already there, to celebrate that, and to help draw it forth. And that’s really what the Christian faith is all about; it’s forming, if you will, the people of God,” Sedgwick said. “It works because you have a priest who sees what a parish is, what a community of faith is, and what it is to be connected to the people and their lives in the community.”
This story was first published at The Living Church and is re-published with permission.