Enacting Community

By Knyla S. Knight

The Abbey is a worshiping community of the Episcopal Church with about fifty-four members and is unlike any other church that I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. The Abbey holds services at 4 o’clock in the evening at Zion Spring Baptist Church in Birmingham’s North Avondale neighborhood. These evening services are not your average Episcopal services, nor is it in an average Episcopal setting. Worship at the Abbey is characterized by a free, open, welcoming spirit, that enables a deep sense of equality and community to be achieved.

In 2015, The Abbey began as a non-profit organization that operated its very own coffee shop in which it also held weekly worship services. This became a space where all were welcome, regardless of one’s means to a job, a home, or even a belief system. Since its founding, the Abbey has been led by the Reverend Katie Nakamura Rengers. Everyone at the Abbey simply calls her Katie. In summer 2019, the Abbey closed its coffee shop but it continued to meet for worship and to spiritually and physically feed people in need.

Since summer 2022, the Abbey has gathered for worship in Zion Spring Baptist Church. The building has a very traditional Baptist church look. There is a spire and a pointed roof, exterior stairs lead up to a set of glass double doors, that lead into the sanctuary. The Abbey does not meet there, but in the fellowship hall that is below the sanctuary. It appears to be more of a free space for fellowship and for children to have a free space if need be. Occasionally, the Abbey and Zion Spring meet together for a joint worship service, as they did on Maundy Thursday, just a few weeks ago.

Simplicity of Worship

The worship and atmosphere of the Abbey is raw and dialed down. The first day that I had attended, I walked in saw that sitting alongside about eight long tables, all pushed together, were about ten to twelve members of The Abbey. The room was dark, and candles were lit, giving the room a nice warm glow. As silly as it sounds, the fluorescent lights probably would have made this entrance a little more daunting. The serene glow of maybe about 10 or so candles, gave welcome to me, an outsider, entering into a different area, space, and denomination. It was nice not being blinded by the unnatural light of fluorescence, but instead welcome a more natural light.

Worship at the Abbey is rooted in the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer, but during worship they use their own spiral-bound compilation of litanies, prayers, hymns, and songs drawn from the prayer book and other sources. I found the Abbey’s musical worship to be refreshingly raw and dialed down. At many churches today, it is easy to get wrapped up in the high tech and fashion that worship seems to be, such as all bells and whistles of a full band with about five vocalists, acoustic guitar, maybe electric or bass guitar, and drums. Along with this often comes stage lighting and maybe some haze to fill the space. That can be great and can enhance the space for worshipful encounter with God. But, at the Abbey when you only have one or two people leading, with an acoustic guitar only, it provides a true and authentic space for worship. The seemingly rawness calls for authenticity. And the way I see it, by the instruments being bare and vulnerable, we too follow in the same way, lifting up our voices in a bare and vulnerable way as well. For are not we to make a joyful noise unto the Lord? Sure, due to there being only about ten people, you are more noticeable due to the fact that you are not standing within a sea of people like the typical, mid-sized church. But there is something about being so few in number and so close to one another that it makes things a bit more intimate and personal, this helps achieve the goal of a connected, involved community.

Intimate Community

At the Abbey there is great emphasis on coming together and being under one roof, not only to join in worship but also to join in fellowship with one another. Since it is a small group, meeting in the fellowship hall of another church, the Abbey has many of the characteristics of a house church and shares with Restoration Anglican Church, which McKenzie Hogue studied this semester, many of the traits of “Prayer Meeting” model of worship identified by worship scholar L. Edward Phillips (2020).

The service is free, open, welcoming. The goal of “interpersonal encounter” is steadfastly pursued. This is a beautiful thing to be involved in because it displays another simple, yet fulfilling law that Christ instructs us to follow as Christians and that is, to do life together and to be involved in each other’s lives. At the Abbey, the various things performed in the worship services are widely shared among the worshipers. For instance, there were times where Katie’s children would ring the bell at the beginning of the service and during the eucharistic rite.  Also each Sunday before the service this inclusive community is illustrated when one of the members will give a spiritual TED talk and speak about something that has been of interest to them or on their heart that they would like to share with the group. It seemed to be a pre-sermon before the actual liturgical service.

Their desired community is most effectively achieved by the sharing of the meal of Christ and sharing it together. During the eucharistas the bread was passed, we received the bread with the words “The body of Christ, the bread of Heaven.” from the person on our left and then after receiving the bread passed it on speaking the same words to the person our right. This same task was accomplished with the wine, with the words, “The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” To me, this appears to be yet another act of everyone contributing together to connect with one another, being connected through the body of Christ that is shared and received. In the midst of that, we get to receive Christ and remember that he is Lord of all. One of the joys in that is being able to celebrate that together.

The members here were very accepting and obtained such an open-like policy for everyone to worship freely and authentically. It was also neat to dip the bread into the chalice of wine, marrying the two bread and wine together before consuming them during the eucharist. I have never done it that way before, so that was special. I had only ever had the foam-like cracker and tiny cup of juice all packaged and sealed. However, I really liked the dipping, especially to symbolize to myself that these two separate objects together represent Jesus’ body and to join them together is such a meaningful depiction. Passing the bread and wine from hand to hand not only involved us in honoring and commemorating Jesus’ last night with his disciples, but also provide a time to share with one another. This was a time to be involved with one another by the lateral actions of passing, speaking, receiving, and communicating.

Table at the Abbey on Palm Sunday with bread and wine for the eucharist, palm leaves, and worship books. Photo: Knyla S. Knight, April 2, 2023.

At the Abbey, not only is everyone is welcomed, they are also heard. Throughout the service, it is such an open and free space that people will comment if they feel led or feel the need. Whether that be a question or a simple statement or even if someone wanted to agree with something that has been spoken, they can just come out and say it. Someone else would even respond to the first person’s response and perhaps conversation and deep thought had been spun off of what had originally been spoken or sung. To me, it shows that everyone has a voice. It also tells me that if someone has a question about something, there are no barriers to where they can’t get clarification right there and then, if need be. The only concern I had was that the comments sometimes seemed to me to get out of control a little too easily, distracting the from the speaker or whatever act may be happening at that moment.

Listen. Love. Preach.

At the Abbey, Christians worship God in a deeply interpersonal and communal way. The Abbey holds fast to the call from the Lord, displayed through Jesus, to be hospitable and seek out as well as serve Christ in all people. This is expressed in its motto: “Listen, Love, Preach.” They have observed and hold fast to the fact that the Holy Spirit is most active outside the walls of what we know as traditional churches. They extend love to others, not only within the service. For as Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Mark 2:17). And by extending such a powerful virtue, hearts may be touched by and for the glory of God. The Abbey holds fast to Jesus’ model and long for his mission to be their mission as well.

The Abbey
Address: 528 41st Street North Birmingham, AL 35222 (Zion Spring Baptist Church)
Services Observed: March 12, 19, and April 2, 2023
Website: https://theabbeybham.com/
Video Archives: https://theabbeybham.com/
Affiliation: The Episcopal Church
Worshiping community established: 2015


The Episcopal Church. 1979 The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Hymnal Corporation. http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/formatted_1979.htm

Phillips, L. Edward. 2020. The Purpose, Patter, and Character of Worship. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Knyla S. Knight ‘25 was a student in Christian Worship: History & Theology in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in spring 2023.

Published April 29, 2023.

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