Accepting. Evocative. Prophetic. Conflicted.
Those were a few of the words that students shared in response to the Beyoncé Mass, a Christian worship service inspired by the life and music of its namesake, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Students are engaging with the Mass this semester as part of the Seminary Singers curriculum in the Master of Sacred Music program, taught by Dr. Marcell Silva Steuernagel.
“Not everyone likes the Mass,” said Steuernagel, who is Director of the Sacred Music Program.
“And I’ve told them, ‘You don’t have to.’ It’s about triggering a process of reflection.”
The Mass was curated by the Rev. Yolanda Norton, a Hebrew Bible scholar and the H. Eugene Farlough Chair of Black Church Studies at San Francisco Theological Seminary. When it debuted at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco two years ago, almost 900 people turned up for a midweek service that normally attracts a few dozen people.
“The Mass says to young black girls, ‘You are part of what God had in mind when, during creation, God said, ‘It is good,’” Norton told the New York Times in an article about the worship service. “By making the stories and realities of young black women and girls central components of this liturgical art, we’re affirming their realities in a world that is persistent and dogged in its attempts to reject them.”
Creators call the Beyoncé Mass a “womanist worship service” showcasing how Black women “find their voice, represent the image of God and create spaces for liberation.” The service includes renditions of Beyoncé songs such as “Survivor” and “Flaws and All” combined with the readings of sacred texts. (Beyoncé calls St. John’s United Methodist in Houston her home church.)
“We don’t do frozen chosen here,” Norton told worshippers at a performance of the Mass at Lincoln Center’s Millennium Stage in March. “This is not your grandma’s church.”
The Seminary Singers engagement began on September 11, as the class watched an online performance of the Mass, commissioned by a cohort of several theology schools led by Dr. Stephanie Budwey from Vanderbilt Divinity School. Next, the students joined in a virtual conversation with Norton and some of the singers in the Black Girl Magic Ensemble, who perform the Mass. Now the students are discussing their experience and preparing their reflections for an online panel presentation via Facebook Live, which will take place in late October or early November.
“I like the way that the service is very accepting of people who typically may get shunned in church,” said Julie Boudreaux, (MSM ’22), in the class’s September 24 meeting.
“Seeing the Mass, I realized some of my own biases between sacred and secular,” said student Allison Shutt (MSM ’21). “Initially, I thought, ‘This is going to be terrible, I’m not going to be comfortable at all,’ but the way that [Norton] crafted the different pieces, you could see the theology running through … which I really appreciated.”
Steuernagel shared how this curriculum helps fill a gap that arose from the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the Seminary Singers ensemble exists to help MSM students develop their professional skills – conducting, performing and working with a variety of musical styles – they would normally participate in creating services as part of worship life of the university, such as the Perkins Advent Worship service – “None of which we can do in person this year,” Steuernagel said.
“This was an opportunity to engage in an online aspect of ministry and the current conversation connected to Black Lives Matter and the current political and social life of North America,” he said.
He added that the class has engaged not only with the content and meaning of the Mass but also with the technical aspects of how it’s performed for online audiences.
Lucas Eaton (MSM ’21) liked the way the Mass integrated music, texts and other media in its digital presentation. Another student, Seth Luna (MSM ’22), used the word “prophetic” to describe the Mass.
“I was expecting to be pretty uncomfortable with it,” he said. “As an Anglican, when you start throwing the words ‘Mass’ and ‘Beyoncé’ together, it’s like, oh no … I was expecting it to be way out there, and it wasn’t way out there at all for me.”
Steuernagel notes, “Yolanda is emphatic in stressing that it’s a worship service not meant as a concert,” he said. “She doesn’t cite Beyoncé a lot. It’s more about the connection between the way that Beyoncé has developed this advocacy for black female empowerment and woven it into her career.”
To those who say the Mass might be “too political,” Steuernagel says that’s not in line with historic Christianity.
“Today we construe worship to be this nonperishable, pasteurized thing,” he said. “But first century baptism was highly political. It was a matter of realigning yourself away from Rome. If you want a church deeply engaged with human life, the Beyoncé Mass is a way to call attention to a significant problem.”
As a precedent for worship that draws from pop culture, Steuernagel cited the celebration of the 60th anniversary last year of the first liturgical jazz service, which took place at Perkins 60 years ago.
“Perkins has been involved in that kind of thing since the late 50s,” he said.
Some of the students expressed mixed feelings about the Mass and its presentation.
“I very much enjoyed the concept of what going on, but the actual execution, I was not that into,” said Cameron Norman (MSM ’22). “I just didn’t enjoy the music.”
Garth Baker-Fletcher (MSM ‘212) shared the importance of Beyoncé for his daughters and other female members of his family.
“I’ve watched them listen intently to what Beyoncé said,” he said. “It’s extraordinary to me how much Destiny’s Child meant to them. You have to understand that it was the Christian-European civilization that problematized and objectified the bodies [of women of color.]”
That exchange of perspectives is exactly what Steuernagel had in mind.
“Being able to sit down for a conversation with people sharing different perspectives is a beneficial practice, no matter what,” Steuernagel said.