A Glimpse of the Heart of the Advent

By Eden C. James

Published May 7, 2021

The band-led service at Cathedral Church of the Advent uses a traditional Anglican liturgy with prayers crafted in the sixteenth century, but sings it to recently composed folk-style musical settings. The Advent sits on the corner of Sixth Avenue North and Twentieth Street in the heart of downtown Birmingham. The parish was founded in 1872 and the current building erected in 1893. In 1982, the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama designed the church as its cathedral. I observed several services at the Advent during spring 2021 while the church was operating under Covid-19 restrictions.

Figure 1: West front of the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Downtown Birmingham

How is the church unique?

The Advent has long employed the traditional Rite I liturgy from the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer. A few years ago, however, they began using the eucharistic prayer and post-communion prayers from the Church of England’s 1662 (and 1552) Book of Common Prayer. In its commentary on the liturgy, the Advent’s leadership has explained that these more clearly reflect “the good news that we are justified by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone, and not through any merit of our own” than the eucharistic prayer used by the Episcopal Church since 1789. This is particularly because in the 1662/1552 rite the prayer in which communicants give themselves to God comes “only after reception” of communion (Cathedral Church 2019, 31, 49). [Editor’s note: In late June 2021 as part of a new covenant with the bishop of Alabama, the Advent announced it would return to use of Rite I.]

Figure 2: Choir-led worship in the Gothic-revival nave of the Cathedral Church of the Advent.

What do the services look like?

In spring 2021, the Advent had two different services offered each week, a band-led service and a choir-led service. These two services alternated each week between Morning Prayer and Holy Communion. The Morning Prayer service basically followed Rite I from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. As the Advent emphasizes, the service is filled with Scripture. There were many Scripture readings along with responses, and prayers that were filled with quotations of Scripture. There were also several songs used in worship. The other service was Holy Communion which drew from the 1662 and 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The first half of the service was spent in prayer, song, reading, and preaching, similar to Morning Prayer. Then, the second half of the service was devoted to the Lord’s supper.

Figure 3: Canon Zac Hicks leads the congregation in the Decalogue near the beginning of the March 7, 2021, service of Holy Communion. Screengrab from Cathedral Church of the Advent Live..

How is the band-led service modern?

The band-led service was more modern in style because of the music that was played and the vestments that were worn, or not worn. While there were traditional hymns played in the service, they were arranged by the Reverend Canon Zac Hicks and led by a band, not the pipe organ. Hicks arranged the psalms, hymns, and other songs then in a modern, folk style. He also composed his own music that is sometimes used in the service. (Visit adventbirminghammusic.com to hear some of their music.) Not only is the music modernized, but the clergy at the Advent did not always wear the traditional vestments that one might expect them to wear. In many pictures on the website, the dean and rector, Andrew Pearson, was shown wearing a surplice and stole. Yet, in most of the services that I watched, the clergy wore ordinary street clothes, such as suits, with clerical collars. While many Episcopal churches wear the traditional vestments, the Advent had chosen not to always wear them. While the choice to not wear all of the vestments and changing the style of the music may have seemed small, these two aspects played a large role in the modernization of this service.

How do they worship?

In a meeting with Hicks he stated that “the Advent is a place where you can worship through all of the senses” (Zac Hicks, in person meeting, March 30, 2021). There are beautiful stained-glass windows and different symbols in the church to see. At the Advent there were many different sounds to hear which consisted of readings, prayers, music, and even silence. While touch was slightly different due to Covid-19 restrictions, one could touch the pews, bulletins, or elements used in Holy Communion. Before there were restrictions, there worshipers also shook hands with those around them. There were also different smells in the worship space. During the time where people were more cautious of going out, going to church may have been one of the few places where they could smell something other than their own home. Finally, the sense of taste was utilized in tasting the bread and the wine during Holy Communion. Though this sense was only used every-other-week when the eucharist was celebrated, because they were no longer offering coffee or other refreshments before the service during the pandemic. While it may not be overwhelmingly obvious that worship is designed to be through all of the senses, it certainly is an important aspect to notice at the Advent.

Figure 5: The stained-glass windows flanking the altar depict the nativity and the second coming of Christ.

Conclusion

The Advent truly is a special place because of the unique perspectives and elements used in worship. Although Covid-19 greatly affected the world, the Advent remained constant in its beliefs and ministry. Its website stated, “A heart for the Gospel, a heart for those who have not heard the Gospel, a heart for those who have been burned by the church, and a heart for the city of Birmingham.” It was evident in the services that they valued the Gospel through the preaching and prayers. It was also clear that they had empathy for those who had not heard the Gospel or who had been hurt by the church especially in their prayers. The city of Birmingham represents those who have heard, have not heard, or who have been hurt and in each service I watched, they dedicated time to pray for their community. Although the Advent music and (lack of) vestments may not sound and look a typical Episcopal church, it is evident that they have a heart for the presentation of the Gospel.

Just days before I completed this article, the parish wardens announced that Dean Pearson was resigning because of “the ongoing tension he feels serving in the Episcopal Church” and that his last study would be May 16, 2021 (Hargrove and Ezelle 2021). Because of the unique aspects of the Advent within the Episcopal Church and the parish’s tension with its diocese, it will be interesting to see how the Advent operates during the time of transition and what new staff members are hired. These, I expect, will strongly influence the future of the church.

Cathedral Church of the Advent
Location: 2017 6th Avenue North, Birmingham, Alabama 35203
Services Observed: February 28 and March 7, 14, 2021
Website: https://adventbirmingham.org
Video Archives: Advent Birmingham Live.

Cathedral Church of the Advent. YouTube.
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClZQr7cg8vMUwlo3Yssx0DA

Cathedral Church of the Advent. Videos. Facebook.
https://www.facebook.com/cathedraladvent

References

The 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Accessed April 30, 2021. http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1662/baskerville.htm.

Cathedral Church of the Advent. 2021. Accessed April 14, 2021. https://adventbirmingham.org/.

Cathedral Church of the Advent. 2019. “A Commentary and Guide to Our Liturgy.” Cathedral Church of the Advent. https://adventbirmingham.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/2018-A-Commentary-and-Guide-to-Our-Liturgy-_-for-Web-6-25-18.pdf

Garrison, Greg. 2021 “Advent Cathedral Dean Steps Down Due to ‘Tension’ in the Denomination.” AL.com May 5, 2021. https://www.al.com/life/2021/05/advent-cathedral-dean-steps-down-due-to-tension-in-denomination.html

Hargrove, John and Jay Ezelle. 2021. “Dean of the Cathedral of the Advent Steps down over Tensions with TEC.” Anglican Ink. April 28, 2021. https://anglican.ink/2021/04/28/dean-of-the-cathedral-of-the-advent-steps-down-over-tensions-with-tec/.

The Online Book of Common Prayer. Accessed April 30, 2021. https://www.bcponline.org/.

Schnorrenberg, John M., and Janice Ford-Freeman. 1999. Walking Tours of Birmingham Churches Conducted from 1990 to 1999. Birmingham, AL: University of Alabama at Birmingham, Dept. of Art and Art History.

Schnorrenberg, John M., Richard Payne, Philip A. Morris, and Marjorie Longenecker White. 2000. Aspiration: Birmingham’s Historic Houses of Worship. Birmingham, AL: Birmingham Historical Society.

Eden C. James ’21 was a student in Christian Worship: History & Theology in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Spring 2021.

Updated June 28, 2021.

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