St. Thomas church featured in Episcopal national magazine

Published 12:27 pm Thursday, March 2, 2023

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Editorial Director
St. Thomas Episcopal Church’s integration of bluegrass music into its worship program was featured in the March edition of The Living Church magazine.
The story, written by Lauren Anderson Cripps, noted how in recent years St. Thomas has focused on integrating bluegrass music into the Anglican liturgy, and how the resonance of the two traditions has helped revitalize the parish.
Father Timothy Holder, rector at St. Thomas, in the article shared that when he arrived at the church in 2015 the weekly attendance at the 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,” the article reads.
Holder noted that while in New York, he spearheaded a liturgy infused with hip-hop – a project that drew teens and young adults to his South Bronx parish.
When he returned to East Tennessee he wondered what it would be like to embrace Appalachian music and the spirit of its people in the context of Episcopal liturgy?
St. Thomas’s earliest foray into what Holder calls “liturgical bluegrass” happened in 2017 when Holder invited several local artists and musicians to join St. Thomas for 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 Common Prayer.” Holder shares in the article that he considers that evening a turning point for the parish.
Since then a concerted effort has been made to weave Appalachian music into the parish’s life. There was a trio of worship services in late 2018 and early 2029, then in 2018 the church hosted its Appalachian Evensong with Lessons and Carols in the Advent service. That service was followed by a midnight Christmas Mass and then a community celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during Epiphany. Holder told the magazine writer “each service brought more musicians through the doors and more congregants into the pews.”
“Now five years into the endeavor, St. Thomas has settled into a rhythm of integrating bluegrass – some light banjo and fiddle – into the Sunday morning liturgy on the first week of each month and hosting Appalachian music services through the year,” the magazine article reads.
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 the audience nor for entertainment.
“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…it’s whoever shows up said Holder of the ensemble,” the article shared.
The article noted that the parish’s membership has grown, largely thanks to Latinos in Elizabethton, because St. Thomas is a bilingual congregation.
Holder attributes the parish’s revitalization to the Episcopal Church’s welcoming ethos and the authenticity of Appalachian music.
Also, the cover of the magazine features a photo of Leslie Burrell and her children, Lucy, River, and Sawyer, as they participate in Appalachian ministries at St. Thomas Church.

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