I have just returned from Chicago where I attended a conference hosted at St. James' Cathedral. The title of the conference was "Cultivating Excellence in Liturgy, Music, and Preaching: A Conference for Musicians and Clergy." This concept came from an inspiring sermon delivered by The Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton, Bishop of Maryland, last summer as part of the annual conference of the Association of Anglican Musicians. Bishop Sutton spoke of the need for the Episcopal Church to return to its identity of being known for its excellence at worship. He urged us to create a new three-legged stool for our church based on liturgy, music, and preaching. Strength in all three of these, not just one or two, but in all three, he believes, will stop our membership decline and help us reach more people with the great news of the Gospel of Jesus.

In Chicago, we took time to explore each of these three areas individually. One of our own former clergy, The Rev. Erika Takacs, was one of the keynote speakers. No surprise to those of you who know her, Erika gave a brilliant, humorous, and well prepared talk. At a dinner one night, the people sitting at my table declared her a rock star for today's church!

In one session devoted to preaching, The Very Rev. John Downey, Dean of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Erie, Pennsylvania, spoke of questions he asks of himself for every sermon he prepares. One of those questions -- "Is the Gospel being shared in what I have to say?" The next day, another presenter shared her thoughts on his question. She encouraged us as church musicians to ask ourselves, "Is the Gospel being shared with the music we are using at each service?" I will admit that I have never thought of asking myself that question. I usually ask questions about whether the music we are doing is something we are able to do well, does it relate to the readings of the day, and is it appropriate for our space/congregation/size.

But I think the question she posed is one that I need to ask first from now on. It will help to remind me again that our music is not chosen for entertainment, but rather to deepen the worship experience.

We worshipped with a lovely Choral Evensong sung by the Cathedral's magnificent choir, had two services of Morning Prayer, a candlelit service of Compline sung by a professional Schola, and concluded with a liturgy using mostly piano and drums. The point was that excellence was not limited to one type of liturgical or musical style, but rather should be carefully prepared, constructed, and executed. Several bishops were present as well as clergy and musicians from throughout the United States and Canada. It was a wonderfully rewarding time with many great ideas presented for us to consider.

While this was a rather shortened conference, I return deeply grateful for the richness of the Episcopal Church's liturgies and its long standing tradition of being authentic and intentional in the style of worship we use. This is something that we should never take for granted!