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

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.


Comments (29)

  1. mike geibel says:

    Let us not overreact negatively just because Beyonce is a pop-star celebrity in a decadent Hollywood society. Using a concert to attract people to a church where the purpose is to get people thinking about “God” is a good thing. Modern music is not just a gimmick. Worship bands at evangelical and non-denominal churches are quite common and attract young people seeking guidance on to how to live their lives. We live in an entertainment driven society, but after the show is over, a song, or movie or homily can carry a “message” that lingers and generates introspection about life and “why am I here?”

  2. Thaddieus Chronister says:

    Cain killed his brother. Moses did something suspicious with his son. Lot attempted to sell his daughters and actually slept with them after the Sodom and Gomorrah incedent. Abraham lied about his wife. Isaac followed in his footsteps. Jacob lied to his brother. David committed adultry and killed for it (we also sing his songs every Sunday). Solomon was hardly a virgin. Matthew was a tax collector. Judas betrayed Christ. Peter denied him. Thomas doubted him. Paul tried to persecute his followers. Need we be reminded of all the imperfect men that has made Christian history and Bible study discussions? Oh, don’t get me wrong, there were imperfect women too. In fact, remember the lady who committed adultry? I need help recalling the words spoken to her accuser and to her after said accusers departed. There is a century-old debate about the career choice of Mary Magdalene. And I also remember reading something about Jesus hanging out with the outcasts, or maybe I just made it up. If I did make it up, it’s a good idea!

    But, by all means, let’s get bent out of shape because a group decides to use an imperfect person’s music as a tool for healing and joy. Also let’s not forget about the Episcopal church’s belief that “Jesus took our human nature into heaven where he now reigns with the Father and intercedes for us” (BCP, pg. 850). This doesn’t just include the humanity of the imperfect hymnists in our hymnal. Also let’s not forget when we say, “All are welcome,” we really mean the “all” part.

  3. leda buller says:

    This is a marvelous attempt at reaching people who would never think of darkening the door of a church. The reason I agree with it is that it is being used as a point of dialogue with a probably un-churched crowd who do not find themselves in places where Christ would be introduced. I do not attend an Episcopal church, but from my vantage, the decline of the Episcopal church is itself declining as the church attempts to reach out more aggressively to the world. The Holy Eucharist does not hinge only on tradition, but on a one-ness with God. Expecting the newer generation to appreciate Mozart and Brahms is like expecting us in an older generation to worship in Latin. Also, if we look at Beyonce’ and see someone who is not our ideal of a “good Christian”, we forget that there might be those who are involved in the Eucharist who have not so visible un-Christian traits, taking us back to leaving the judgment up to God.

  4. Andrew Poland says:

    What’s a real shame is that TEC seems to be much more interested in telling me how to vote or what side of the culture wars to be on than retaining parishioners. I have here two accounts, one of someone very close to me, and one of myself, relating our dissatisfaction with our path in the church. While perusing these two accounts, please keep this story about Beyonce-mass in the back of your head. Also keep in mind all of the other “Social Justice” headlines and stands that the church likes to make. Then maybe it may make sense to some of our more progressive types why some of us feel really isolated. The church can take a stand on every issue under the sun, they can adapt a Eucharist for Beyonce, but I can’t get a phone call to make sure I’m OK? I can’t have an hour of a priest’s time to talk, and calm down when Life gets hard?

    Someone close to me had been away from the church for nearly 30 years. Recently, I had made progress with getting her to come back. She saw this news and declared that she is absolutely done now. She grew up in this church. She stayed on through the BCP change. She sang in the choir as a girl. She had her falling out shortly after bringing children to mass and being made to feel unwelcome in the church she grew up in. Those children represented the third or fourth generation to be brought up in that specific parish. She very rarely talks about the particulars of her situation, but there were no attempts at retention once she and her family stopped showing up. She had been starting to come to church recently, but this completely flabbergasted her.

    I personally went through some really horrible and traumatic stuff not too long ago. I was pretty good about making every Sunday that I could and I spoke about what was going on with me to both lay and clergy. At one point, folks even got a chance to see a glimpse firsthand of the grizzly situation I was dealing with. I received NO pastoral care whatsoever. I needed it. I spoke about my issues and felt it was pretty well indicated that maybe someone should call me at home or pull me aside. No such thing happened. I’ve fallen out of going every Sunday. My absence has barely been noted. Apparently, my retention isn’t particularly important. Also, after reflecting on it, I thought of a number of other times where I had come to the church, contacted priests and the bishop’s office looking for help with life, mostly just looking for someone to talk to, to be turned away, given an absolute minimal amount of attention, or pushed off towards someone else.

    How is any of this acceptable? Where’s the “Social Justice” for us?

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