How a Retired Anglican Priest and a Young Church Music Director Created ‘Liturgical Folk’

In 2015, when retired Anglican priest Nelson Koscheski shared one of his religious poems with the young music director at his Anglican church in Dallas, he never expected the poem to become a folk song. Koscheski thought the poem, which is about the Transfiguration, might make a good hymn, but would probably end up like most of his others—glanced at perfunctorily and then disregarded.

But the music director, Ryan Flanigan, was so moved by the poem’s beauty that he set it to a simple folk tune, which he incorporated into the church’s Transfiguration Day service.

“For the first time, I realized that my poetry was a form of ministry,” Koscheski says.

Since then, Flanigan, now 39, and Koscheski, 77, have written almost 50 hymns together. Under Flanigan’s direction, the cross-generational partnership has grown into a multifaceted folk music project. The two named the project Liturgical Folk, and in 2017 released their first two albums through the producer Isaac Wardell, who works with acclaimed religious musicians like Josh Garrels and Sandra McCracken. Liturgical Folk released their third album last fall and their fourth this February.

They are not alone. Rather, they are part of a growing number of Anglican musicians who are rearranging traditional hymns, adapting liturgy to contemporary music and writing songs of their own, says Bruce Benedict, the chaplain of worship and arts at Hope College in Michigan and founder of Cardiphonia, which resources the greater church with liturgical music.

“Liturgical Folk is really just sort of one group of folks that have been doing this for 10 or 15 years,” he says.

How did this movement come about?

In the late 1970s, a group of Anglican churches in the US absorbed a group of the more charismatic evangelical Vineyard churches, says Benedict. Over time, worship leaders at these merged churches began writing music that incorporated both the language and liturgy of high church with the contemporary sounds of nondenominational congregations.

Individual churches produced their own regional sounds, Benedict says. Some leaned toward contemporary praise bands complete with electric guitars and drums, like Marty Reardon, the worship pastor of Trinity Anglican Church in Atlanta, Georgia; others tended toward more classical sounds, like the music coming out of Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama; and still others adopted a folk or bluegrass style, like Liturgical Folk.

While this charismatic liturgical resurgence—as Benedict unofficially christens it—is akin to the retuned hymn movement that came out of the Presbyterian church in the 1990s, it is slightly different. For one thing, these Anglican musicians are not merely setting old hymns to contemporary music. They are also rearranging liturgy and the Psalms and, in the case of Liturgical Folk, writing entirely new hymns that incorporate the language of liturgy and Scripture with a modern twist.

Indeed, this, along with Flanigan’s emphasis on teaching about liturgy at his concerts and the financial heft behind Liturgical Folk, distinguishes the group, says Benedict. Liturgical Folk is partially funded by the Anglican Mission in America, a church-planting organization that has its headquarters at All Saints Dallas, the church where Flanigan and Koscheski met.

Still, this resurgence remains a reaction to what some people feel is lacking in modern, evangelical worship music, says Zac Hicks, a songwriter, author, and canon for worship and liturgy at Cathedral Church of the Advent.

“We’re at a moment right now where people are really fascinated by Anglican liturgy,” Hicks says. Whether that’s a fad that wanes remains to be seen.

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Source: Christianity Today