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Episcopal church taps U2 for liturgy

The music of U2, which includes (from left) the Edge on guitar and lead singer Bono, will be featured in a special church service in Framingham. (REUTERS/Stephen Hird/FILE)

The gospel according to... U2?

The Irish rock band now has a place at the pulpit in a growing number of Episcopal churches, including a "U2charist" service in Framingham on April 29.

St. Andrew's Episcopal Church will be weaving recordings of hit U2 songs with a spiritual bent, such as "Where the Streets Have No Name," "One," "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "Yahweh," into the traditional liturgy.

The band, which has sold more than 150 million albums worldwide, has a playlist heavy with themes of social justice, and its lead singer, Bono, has an international profile as an activist. Its songs touch on violence in Northern Ireland, human rights, poverty, death, reconciliation, love, and heaven.

"I'm 60, so I wasn't too familiar with U2 before this," said Bonnie Schafer, who is organizing the service for St. Andrew's. "But we're really excited. There's many ways to worship; this is just a different way."

Song lyrics will be displayed on a large screen, so that congregants can join in.

"The words and music are very spiritual," Schafer said. "We think it will create a lot of energy and appeal to younger people."

Schafer and fellow St. Andrew's congregants decided to hold the U2 service after attending one in Central Massachusetts a few months ago. She said she found the service "loud" but enjoyable.

The Framingham church, which has 200 regular attendees, is inviting the Brazilian Assembly of God congregation that shares its worship space as well as students from Framingham State College, Wellesley College, and Andover Newton Theological School to take part in "U2charist," and a United Church of Christ congregation from Cape Cod plans to send 30 members of its youth group, Shafer said.

Some older St. Andrew's members aren't interested, Shafer acknowledged, but the service is scheduled for the afternoon, so churchgoers can still attend their regular weekly communion and liturgy.

The Rev. Paige Blair of St. George's Church in York, Maine, will preside over the service. A Boston University graduate, Blair, 36, and some colleagues hosted a U2 service in July 2005 at their church as an "experiment."

"A bunch of us were talking about U2 and how the band had been a spiritual resource for all of us," she said. "And we thought, what if we did a service based on the songs that have had the most spiritual impact on people ?"

Since then, nearly 200 Episcopal churches in the United States and overseas have hosted a U2charist, Blair said, and reported attendance figures rivaling, even exceeding, traditional Sunday morning services. Hundreds more churches have contacted Blair with requests for information.

"It's a complete surprise. I really do think the Holy Spirit is having fun with this," she said.

The music of U2 has been embraced at even the highest levels of the church -- a U2charist was celebrated during last summer's Episcopal General Convention in Columbus, Ohio, and the Church of England is scheduled to host its first U2 service this year, according to Blair.

Collections taken during the special U2 services go to charities fighting poverty, famine, and HIV/AIDS. Participants are also asked to sign on to the ONE Campaign e-mail project, which mobilizes members when foreign aid bills go before Congress.

The U2charist effort is something extra, not a threat to the traditional Episcopal service, proponents say.

"The heart of the liturgy is the same, remembering Christ's sacrifice while calling on us to make a certain sacrifice to address extreme poverty," said Blair.

Incorporating contemporary music into Sunday worship is nothing new. To appeal to a younger audience, churches have included works by Amy Grant and other Christian music performers, as well as songs by mainstream artists like R&B singer R. Kelly and country star Garth Brooks.

In Massachusetts, U2charists have been held in Cambridge, Amherst, Holyoke, and Beverly.

"It is uplifting and inspiring and geared to an audience concerned with social justice," said Maria Plati, spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. "The church has evolved into a lot of different opportunities for worship."

The diocese's Boston headquarters offers lunchtime jazz worship and a service incorporating yoga and New Age music. A New York Episcopal church offers a popular hip-hop service, which will come to Boston this year.

The US Episcopal church traces its roots to the Church of England and is a member of the Anglican Communion, a worldwide group of 38 church bodies. It is generally considered socially progressive in its views.

U2charist pioneer Blair said she has her critics.

Some have said the approach is too trendy or gimmicky, or they disapprove of rock music in a house of God.

"Folks who are critical usually haven't attended one," said Blair. "But it's not about an encounter with Bono. It's about an encounter with Jesus," said Blair.

So far, U2's lead singer has not appeared at church services celebrating the band's music.

But in a recent People magazine story about the services, he did offer his seal of approval.

"If they play it in church, great. If they play in the streets, great," he said. "As long as they play it and get the message."

The U2charist service at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church will be held at 5 p.m. April 29 at 3 Maple St. in Framingham. Reservations are required, and a light supper will follow the service. Call 508-875-5095 or log on to standrews for more information.

Erica Noonan can be reached at