Pop music’s Beyoncé inspires Eucharist at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco

Organizers say Queen Bey’s music opens discussion of marginalized people, especially black women

By Amy Sowder
Posted Apr 25, 2018

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is a multiplatinum-selling, Grammy Award-winning recording artist and trendsetter. Her music, lyrics and life inspire the theme of a Eucharist at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

[Episcopal News Service] They liked it, so they created a Eucharist on it.

Sometimes controversial, often empowering, pop culture icon Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s music, lyrics and life have inspired faith leaders to organize an alternative church service April 25 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

At Beyoncé Mass, churchgoers can learn about the formation of the wild (or not-so wild?) idea that this celebrated singer’s lyrics can be tied to biblical messages.

It’s a Wednesday evening service created by The Vine for faith seekers and fans to sing their Beyoncé favorites and “discover how her art opens a window into the lives of the marginalized and forgotten, particularly black women,” the cathedral’s event announcement says. Launched in March 2017, The Vine is both a service and an offer of community for city folks and spiritual seekers through contemporary worship with great music on Wednesday nights, or small “Grace Groups” throughout the city, according to the website.

The idea for this Eucharist originates from the “Beyoncé and the Hebrew Bible” class taught by the Rev. Yolanda Norton, assistant professor of Old Testament at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

The Rev. Yolanda Norton is assistant professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary, where she teaches a class called “Beyoncé and the Hebrew Bible.” Photo: San Francisco Theological Seminary

Norton plans to preach at the Beyoncé Mass at Grace Cathedral’s ecumenical service. She’s a Disciples of Christ minister who teaches at the Presbyterian seminary. Her scholarly work specializes in women in scripture, liberation and people of color. Norton was in high school when Beyoncé first came on the scene as part of the Destiny’s Child singing group.

“I mentor young black women watching [Beyoncé] come into her own, which has helped them come into their own. To me, to have these conversations allows women to examine how they fit in society,” Norton told Episcopal News Service two days before the mass.

“It’s a way of saying to dominant culture, ‘We’re here.’ Nobody’s ignoring Beyoncé, and because of that, you can’t ignore black women and our contribution to the church and to society,” she continued. “This is our reality: being called the angry black woman or being called too sexual or too black. All these issues are embodied in one figure.”

But is Beyoncé Mass just another gimmicky way to make lemonade out of lemons (see Beyoncé’s 2016 Lemonade album, a product of her personal pain) to get young people more active in church? Church of almost all denominations — you know, those places where couples walk down the aisle and put a ring on it, like Beyoncé suggests her paramour should’ve done if he liked her so much, in her song “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” — have had lagging attendance for years, but Episcopal naysayers on social media worry that this kind of themed service is a form of idolatry. They also say that Beyoncé should not be held up as a Christian example.

Addressing those concerns, organizers want to emphasize that the service’s focus of worship remains on the ultimate “survivor” long before Queen Bey: the one and only OG (original gangster) and superstar, Jesus Christ. (See her “Survivor” song when she was part of Destiny’s Child.)

“You may have heard criticisms from our fundamentalist brothers and sisters that Grace Cathedral worships Beyoncé rather than our Lord Jesus,” said the Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young, dean of Grace Cathedral, in an April 20 message to his congregation.

“As supporters of the cathedral, you know how important it is for us to be involved in the public life of our city and the world. A longing for justice lies at the heart of our identity. We have a tradition of engaging popular culture on issues of social justice that stretches back long before our controversial Duke Ellington Jazz Service in the mid-1960s,” Young said.

Ellington aside, this service is by no means one of the first pop-themed Eucharist or Episcopal services, says the Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement, who followed the Beyoncé Mass discussion on social media. His April 20 post on Twitter started: “Theme masses are all the rage!”

For example, Gunn pointed out, Episcopal and Anglican churches have hosted U2ucharist services with glow sticks and streamers across the United States since at least 2006. There was once a Dr. Seuss-charist in Canada (“That’s unfortunate,” Gunn quipped), and churches have held rave dance party masses and  pirate Eucharists. St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in San Diego has been hosting a Zydeco mass on Shrove Tuesday every year since the late 1990s.

“St. Paul said that Jesus talked about being all things to all people, that we have to preach the gospel in the way that people can hear it,” Gunn told ENS. “If a themed Eucharist reaches more people, that’s fine. My concern is that the themed Eucharist should always be most focused on Jesus.”

This is the third week in The Vine’s teaching series, “Speaking Truth: The Power of Story in Community.”

A historic symbol of the #MeToo movement if there ever was one, Mary Magdalene was the theme of a previous Wednesday night service. This independent, strong disciple of Christ was wrongly depicted as a reformed prostitute in religious art and interpretations for centuries, said Sam Lundquist, a seminary student taking Norton’s class. He’s interning at The Vine and helped the cathedral partner with the seminary to translate what was used as a 25-minute seminary chapel service into an hour-long Eucharist that will include liturgical dance.

Grace Cathedral in San Francisco is hosting a Beyoncé Mass as part of its The Vine series on Wednesday nights. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

“The church is in so much need of connecting people to the amazing Christian story in new and exciting ways. We’ve done that well for so many hundreds and hundreds of years, and this is no different. This is connecting people using something in culture. And this is just as spiritual as anything else,” Lundquist told ENS.

The class uses Beyoncé as a central figure for what black women face in society and in church; black motherhood and womanhood; the ways their bodies are judged or policed; and respectability politics, Norton said.

“We use her career and music to have those conversations to examine biblical text. It’s important to me as a biblical scholar and a minister to say to these students, ‘I want you to begin thinking what this means for the church, for your faith,’” she said.

Norton and Lundquist didn’t want to give away any surprises, but they did say one of the service’s central theme songs will be Beyoncé’s “Flaws and All” song. She might’ve written it for husband and rapper Jay-Z or for their children, but it easily translates to something intended for God, she said.

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is the first female artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with her first five studio albums, according to Biography.com. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

“She talks about being a train wreck and when I need attention, I tend to nag. I neglect you when I’m working, and you see past all that. The chorus of that is ‘I don’t know why you love me, and that’s why I love you.’ It’s an intimate conversation we can have with God,” Norton said. “God sees us, flaws and all, and loves us anyway.”

— Amy Sowder is a special correspondent for the Episcopal News Service and a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She can be reached at amysowderepiscopalnews@gmail.com.


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Comments (29)

  1. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    Just one more revolting reminder why so many Episcopalians are leaving the church in disgust. But perhaps the Episcopal Church needs someone like Beyonce to attract a few new bodies to compensate for those it has lost.

  2. Vicki Gray says:

    My mother taught me “If you can’t say something nice, be quiet.” That thought in mind, I’ll now shut up.

  3. PJ Cabbiness says:

    Disrespectful, vacuous, thoughtless, theologically unsound, intellectually indefensible, misguided, blasphemous OR creative, thoughtful, naturally diverse, clever, moving, progressive in the right way, naturally expansive and inclusive, theologically sound, intellectually expressive? I don’t know. I would encourage those who don’t normally post comments to chime in on this one along with the regular participants.

  4. Surya-Patricia Lane Hood says:

    Beyoncé is making a joyful noise unto the Lord. In my holy bible, that pleases God. In this day and age where people are turning their backs on making a joyful noise unto the Lord, I can only say I wish there were more doing that in their own way. Beautiful is as beautiful does!

  5. Taste and see. If a congregation already has a strong, well-established sense of real liturgical adoration, trying something like this is important. If it doesn’t feel right, they’ll know, and either try it differently or do something else. However, anyone seeing a Beyoncé mass or any “theme” liturgy as a way of getting people to join is very much mistaken. See Alexandre Schmemann, For the Life of the World, talking about liturgies designed around the SST or a flood in Pakistan (p. 125)

  6. Bill Louis says:

    Distressing. I’ve attended Baptist services that use a great deal of music during their worship service but Holy Eucharist is always solemn and respectful. I can’t imagine a Beyoncé Eucharist maintaining the dignity of the Sacrament. Then are they really celebrating Eucharist or idolizing the singer’s work for other purposes? As TEC continues to lose numbers it seems it will try just about anything to keep the collection plates filled.

  7. cynthia seddon says:

    I am so thankful I left the Episcopal church. People are leaving in vast numbers because the EPC no longer upholds the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. His pure love attracted people,forgave their sins,and needed no vulgarity to attract crowds to hear the message of Gods love.The Eucharist is a sacred sacrament,not to be misused under the pretext of attracting peple.

  8. Steven Giovangelo says:

    Having a “Beyonce Mass” is just another gimmick to try and get people in the doors; yes she is an outstanding singer and entertainer and I do not fault her: I fault the Cathedral decision-makers who permitted this event. The more the Church falls ‘in love’ with that which is ‘new and improved’ and au current, the more the Church continues to lose members.

  9. Terry Francis says:

    What do you expect from a church that sits in the middle of San Francisco? Enough said.

  10. Nancy Pennekamp says:

    I was deeply touched by this Mass: worship-full, color-full thought-full, pray-full, wonder-full.
    To those who are uncomfortable with variations of a BCP Rite 1or Rite 2, please rest assured that this was not a principal Sunday service but a mid-week opportunity to worship, hear the Good News, and yes, receive communion. You have Sundays, please rejoice that God is indeed with, in, and among the people during the week.

  11. Mary Williams says:

    I think it’s great! 🙂

  12. Timothy A. Spong says:

    The Rev. Norton’s denomination should always be referenced as “The Christian Church — Disciples of Christ.” It results from the merger of two formerly independent denominations: “The Christian Church” and “Disciples of Christ.”

  13. Doug Desper says:

    Is a gyrating hot pants-clad pole-dancing singer the best introduction to the Gospel with hits like “Blow” and the Jay-Z duet of “Drunk in Love”? I can’t imagine Jesus being introduced by a messenger who made a fortune with lyrics like, “We woke up in the kitchen saying ‘How the hell did this sh-t happen?'”, or “I get filthy with that liquor, give it to me”. Unfortunately, it goes down in the gutter from there but in good taste I won’t share the rest. But, GQ listed her as the “Hottest Woman of the 21st Century” so that must be the reason that she has a mass named after her. Maybe there can be a Rite 1 Beyonce Mass with all the filthy lyrics, and then a Rite 2 Beyonce Mass of the tamer ones. That way people can get whatever message they came for.

    The appeal of the Crucified and Risen Lord is enough for me.

    Will the last Episcopalian please turn off the lights in 35 years? Thanks.

  14. Jean Cavanaugh says:

    I think we are getting this all confused with worship. I think this is more of a cultural representation to speak to women, black women, where they live, work, teach and pray. We tend to put thoughts, ideas and people down when we do not understand the whole picture or story. We are too quick to judge others when they look or act differently from us. Jesus did not do that. Jesus said to those who were making judgements, and say this not as an exact quote because I do not speak Hebrew nor Greek, “let the one among you who have not sinned cast th first stone.” We all seem to be casting stones aimlessly. We are asked to “love ou neighbor”, if we profess to be Christians or Christ like then they will know we are Christians by ou love and not by our codemnations. I am an Episcopalian and I am a Christian first. I do make mistakes, everyone that is human does this, so I am not trying to shame others I am only trying to say, Love first before doing and saying harsh words to or about others. May the Love of Christ be with you.

  15. Thanks for chiming in everyone with your thoughts. One thousand people came to worship with us last night at Grace Cathedral. I wish that you could have seen their faces and their powerful responses to the work of the spirit. It’s hard to get a sense for this from any media report. Together we really were the body of Christ – all the races of the earth gathered in joy. So many people grateful to God and thankful that they can enter a church and not feel condemned. It’s funny, no one gets angry about our Mozart Mass, Brahms Mass and Fauré Mass. Our African American leaders really have something important to say. I think they will inspire you too…

  16. Bill Louis says:

    Jean, you rationalize with Scripture which can have several different meanings. I don’t believe pointing out disrespect toward the Sacarement of Holy Eucharist is throwing stones. When Moses descended from the mount with the Ten Commandments he found the masses worshiping idols and he chastised and condemned them for doing so. I see a parallel here.

  17. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    Says a lot about our country’s cultural decline to see Beyonce compared with Mozart and Brahms by the Dean of Grace Cathedral.

  18. Terry Francis says:

    Jean, not saying harsh words to people who have different opinions or beliefs isn’t a one-way street. I have seen in this ENS comment section plenty of harsh words and condemnations toward conservative Episcopalians who differ on a wide range of issues from immigration and gun control to climate change and abortion. But I don’t recall seeing you or very many others chastise or use the “let he who is without sin throw the first stone” argument toward progressives who attack people who disagree with them. Yes, people will know we are Christians by our love and not by our condemnations. But, news flash!, that goes for progressives as well as conservatives. Everyone has a right to their opinion and now I am going to give mine. To the clergy of Grace Cathedral, let me say with the utmost sincerity that this Beyonce’ “mass” is shameful, totally disrespectful, blasphemous, and a joke. To me it doesn’t matter even if it’s standing room only during services, it still isn’t right. But then I guess that’s to be expected from an Episcopal cathedral that sits in the middle of one of the most leftward-leaning, conservative-hating cities on the entire planet. If you and the people who attend these services want to delude yourselves into thinking this is pleasing in God’s sight, knock yourselves out.

  19. David Trigueiro says:

    Terry, it would have been helpful if you had included at least one example of progressives throwing stones verbally at people calling themselves conservative.

  20. Terry Francis says:

    David, all you have to do is read this ENS comment section and you will find plenty of examples. As for specific letters and names, I don’t have them because I never bother to write them down. I will be only too happy to provide you with examples when they pop up in the future.

  21. John Schaffer says:

    David and Terry; here is a comment about TEC retaining property from break-away congregations. Hate speaks for itself. “Praise the Lord, we’ll take on these schismatic, homophobic ACNA types.”

  22. Doug Desper says:

    You can just look at the Grace Cathedral dean’s statement about the Beyonce Mass on their website. He mentions “fundamentalist brothers and sisters…” The need for labeling others seems to be a constant when our liberal friends don’t want to be questioned.

  23. Eliza Marth says:

    This is wonderful news! When I am going through spiritual struggles, I often listen to Beyonce–especially songs like “All Night” and others on “Lemonade.” She models how to dig deeply and prayerfully… and I find a lot of wisdom in the way she does reconciliation. I am deeply sad to miss it, but will be joining in prayer! I’m so glad she is being recognized as a spiritual leader through her music and I pray folks can step outside of their comfort zones to see the expansive expressions of God’s Word revealed in the world!

  24. Glenn Johnson says:

    This is the kiss of Judas.

  25. Bill Louis says:

    Catherine, “Ignore problems”. Many of the articles here call for activism and lobbying for the problems you mention as well as other issues on the Progressive agenda. All of it is advocated by TEC leadership using the funds they collect from congregants.. That’s why people are leaving the church. I would be interested in how many of the Beyonce Eucharist attendees continue to attend services after the event. How many would have attejned if it was some unknown artist performing pop music? Your comments are a little racist.

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