The pastor of a San Francisco progressive Episcopal church is defending his support for holding the first-ever “Beyoncé Mass.”
No kidding – a “Beyoncé Mass.”
“I know there are people who will say using Beyoncé is just a cheap way of trying to get people in the church,” said Jude Harmon, the founding pastor of the Vine, a ministry of Grace Cathedral Church. “But Jesus used very provocative images in the stories he would tell to incite people to ask hard questions about their own religious assumptions. He regularly provoked. We’re following in the way of Jesus.”
The event was part of a series the church called “Speaking Truth: The Power of Story in Community,” which it said would tell stories of those traditionally marginalized in Christianity, such as women and people of color. You know, women like Beyoncé.
The series began with a program on Mary Magdalene called “The Original Nasty Woman.” The ministry equated Mary Magdalene to Hillary Clinton saying “strong, smart women being insulted and marginalized by agents of patriarchy is as old as time.” The church claims that if Mary Magdalene were here today, she would be “wearing a pink hat and marching with all who wear that epithet, ‘nasty woman,’ as a badge of honor.”
No explanation was offered as to why the devoted follower of Jesus was seen in such a light.
So, what was the “Beyoncé Mass” like?
More than 900 people came to the celebration of the “traditional” service using the music and social philosophy of the pop star. Normal evening services draw about 50. There was purple lighting, a Beyoncé soundtrack playing as the worshipers took their seats and a screen counting down the minutes until the “Mass.”
There were readings from Luke and the Psalms, followed by the Beyoncé songs “Freedom” and “Flaws and All.”
The music was right out of the canon of Beyoncé and her former group Destiny’s Child, starting with the girl group’s hit “Survivor.”
There was a sermon by the Rev. Yolanda Norton of the San Francisco Theological Seminary from her current course, “Beyoncé and the Hebrew Bible.”
“Empire never falls lightly,” Norton said in her sermon. “Sometimes we call it racism; we call it empire. You call it homophobia; we call it heterosexual aggression; and tonight, we call it empire.”
The service featured a sermon about liberation struggle, readings from a speech by civil rights leader Ella Baker, scripture readings by black women and a communion service.
In the days leading up to the event, Harmon said that although the “majority of responses from members have been overwhelmingly positive,” some objections to the service had been raised via phone calls, email and social media.
In case you’ve been out of the world of pop music for awhile, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is one of the world’s best-selling musical artists, with over 100 million records sold and 22 Grammy awards. Her 2016 album “Lemonade,” launched with a Super Bowl half-time performance of “Formation” at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, was her most critically praised and was considered one of the year’s best records. Its release was accompanied by an hourlong film with themes of African American history, revenge, female empowerment, love and forgiveness.
“It’s all about finding the appropriate context,” explained Harmon. “Everything Beyoncé has said and produced isn’t appropriate for every venue. But Beyoncé has 20 years of work. Of course you can find things that fit the context of the Mass.”
But was it Beyoncé worship?
Norton rejects that claim: “Our goal is to have a worship experience that honors the fact that we’re all created in the image of God.” She suggested of critics, “You might want to remind them that God is in all the world and that Beyoncé is made in God’s image. The church has not treated women of color fairly and it is time to face this truth.”
“I’ve been asked time and time again, ‘Why Beyoncé?'” Norton told parishioners, “I believe in Beyoncé because she reminds us you have to do things your way.”
She added: “When we talk about womanist biblical interpretation, Beyoncé felt like a natural fit. If we look at the trajectory of her person and her relationships, we can see so many issues black women face and how it can affect how we interpret the text.”