Bustling on Monument Circle
  • Friday, June 15, 2012

By Lauren Anderson

Shortly after Christ Church Cathedral’s sextons open the parish doors at 8 a.m., they welcome a stream of people arriving for daily Morning Prayer. The group could be different from day to day — a mix of parishioners, church staff, clergy, people who work in downtown Indianapolis, a homeless person — but they count on about ten to show up for the quiet, prayerful gathering in the nave.

And then the flood of daily activity begins. Set in the center of Indianapolis, the church will see a continual flow of people throughout the day: for daily Eucharist, Evening Prayer, Evensong, choir rehearsals, committee meetings, and the occasional drop-by from out-of-town visitors.

The Very Rev. Stephen Carlsen, dean and rector, says the bustle of activity is simply an expression of the cathedral’s mission to be “a house of prayer for all.”

“We see people in the church every day all day,” Carlsen said. “We have prominent leaders of the community sitting next to homeless people in the pews.”

It’s an enviable picture of an Episcopal parish.

Christ Church Cathedral traces its roots to 1837, when it was founded by the Rt. Rev. Jackson Kemper, renowned missionary bishop. Twenty years later, the church placed its cornerstone on the historic Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis. Today, dwarfed by surrounding skyscrapers, the cathedral remains the oldest building on Monument Circle, contributing to the church’s inherent sense of tradition and history.

This year marks the 175th anniversary of the cathedral’s founding and first Eucharist, a milestone the parish will be celebrating throughout year, Carlsen said. Now serving 375 people in four different Sunday services, the cathedral maintains two foundational commitments: a rich musical tradition and pursuit of service and missions.

Since its founding, Christ Church Cathedral’s commitment to the Anglican musical and choral tradition has earned the church an international reputation.

“Cathedrals have a history of expressing the beauty of God through their building,” Carlsen said. “Ours is through liturgy and music.”

Built into the fabric of worship, the rich transcendence of music and liturgy strike newcomers as they enter.

“People find that pure music goes beyond themselves and that’s what people are looking for in their worship experience,” said Dana Marsh, the cathedral’s director of music. “It speaks to the soul without having to put words to it. It’s not in your face or marketing methods of conversions. It happens very naturally.”

Carlsen likewise recognizes that the appeal of music enhances the parish’s outreach. For many, even those who would not ordinarily step into a church, music is what draws them initially.

“People come and find us through music,” Carlsen said. “Then they stay and deepen their faith.”

Among those drawn to the music and liturgy are young adults, who tend to favor the most traditional Sunday service. Marsh sees 20and 30-year-olds embracing ancient forms of worship as a larger trend in the Church. As someone whose work involves training musicians and passing on the Anglican musical tradition to the next generation, Marsh considers this a promising sign of its preservation.

Fortuitously, young people are propelling the church’s music ministry. The cathedral boasts four choirs: a men and boys’ choir, a girls’ choir, a mixed-voice adult choir, and Coro Hispano.

Robust music ministry takes work to sustain. For the boys and girls participating, the choral program is a heavy commitment. In addition to leading the church’s four Sunday services, the choirs travel, record, and perform regularly. In a busy week, choristers will spend four or more hours in rehearsal. In one recent week the choirs spent two days recording. In another they performed at Washington National Cathedral.

“It’s certainly a busy program,” Marsh said. “But by the time a child going through the program finishes, [he or she] will know over 200 pieces of music, spanning over four centuries. They will be able to sing next to professionals without having to apologize for their inexperience. The program takes them to a professional level very quickly.”

While continuing to build on its music ministry, the cathedral also continues in its longstanding tradition of serving locally, nationally, and globally. The church tries to provide parishioners with hands-on opportunities to serve, which has contributed to its heavily lay-driven mission and outreach ministry.

The Rev. Drew Klatte, a deacon who serves on the missions committee, says the church’s efforts are rooted in the core principle of forming personal connections. While committed to giving grants to local, national, and international ministries, the church maintains relationships with those individuals and organizations.

“We believe mission isn’t just about us going somewhere; it’s about personal connections,” Klatte said. “At Christ Church, we talk about it in terms of a covenant relationship, wanting to have personal involvement with these people.”

Many of the cathedral’s mission partnerships have sprung out of these personal relationships. Christ Church has maintained a longstanding partnership with the Diocese of Central Ecuador, formed after a priest from the cathedral visited Ecuador in hopes of bringing more of the Anglican tradition to South America. Since the 1990s, the church has sent parishioners to Ecuador for various medical and construction projects, and plans to send another group this year.

Since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the parish has participated in relief efforts through Episcopal Relief and Development’s fund to rebuild Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. The church also supports the school and parish of St. Andre’s Church in Mithon, Haiti. After the earthquake, the church sent teams to lead trauma workshops and participate in other rebuilding work. Klatte, who has visited Haiti frequently since the earthquake, says he and a group of parishioners likely will visit Haiti again soon.

Locally, Christ Church bases its outreach on the same principle of building personal connections with other organizations. Klatte said the church is focusing on establishing sustainable relationships with local agencies that go beyond giving a one-year grant, involving the congregation in long-term giving and serving.

“We form personal relationships with the groups and people we work with, and it really does put a human face — or God’s face — to the mission that we do,” Klatte said. “We have helped bring concerns of the world back to the church. We at Christ Church can be rather proud of that.”

Lauren Anderson, an intern at The Living Church, studies journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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