At first glance, Barry looks like an aging rock star: pushing 50, spiky bleached hair, British accent, crooked teeth, an assortment of earrings and bracelets. He might have stepped right out of the R & R film spoof, Spinal Tap. What a first glance doesn’t tell you is that Barry has a Ph.D in Philosophy, he teaches at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena on the intersection of culture and art, and is now an Episcopal priest. He may have started out playing with the band AC/DC, but currently he delivers papers on Christianity in the 21st century, and leads an alternative worship service at one of the cardinal parishes in Los Angeles. 

One enters the chapel through the traditional doors, but that’s the last thing about this experience that is traditional. The chairs were rearranged to face the band, set up midway along one of the side walls. Every chair was taken, including extra folding chairs, and people sitting on the kneeling cushions at the altar rail. People who couldn’t find a seat stood wherever there was space, even behind the altar. Some people attending had been in the earlier traditional service, but many came in their flipflops and shorts, and the average age was considerably younger than that of the traditional service. Revolving works of visual art were projected on the wall above the altar. Likewise, a six-foot cross with illuminated panels, behind the band, also displayed changing abstract, images of color. The service music was comprised of rock standards that had been reinterpreted with a Christian bent, and performed by Barry with an excellent band and back-up singers. We were repeatedly invited to join in singing. Communion was baskets of cubed sourdough bread and chalices of sweet wine, passed from person to person. Barry’s rambling sermonette, delivered from his stool, guitar in hand, compared Martin Luther King and Jesus to receptacles of living water that never run dry, as opposed to the six empty stone water jars from the water into wine passage (John 2: 1-11). The water jars, Barry said, were emblematic of empty religious rituals, no longer able to sustain life- perhaps his feelings about traditional worship. 

Was it church? I am fairly certain it was not intended to be. Barry was only recently ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. He had been ordained in a non-denominational church twenty years ago and felt he didn’t need ordination to legitimize what he was doing. Apparently, his bishop urged him to consider ordination, said it would help people take him more seriously. Finally, he agreed, but warned his bishop that he would not wear a collar. Barry eschews all the symbols of church and religious hierarchy, but deeply believes something real and transforming happens when people in community open their hearts and minds and throats to the power of Jesus Christ.

But is it church? It seemed to me more performance or at least personality-centered than the earlier liturgy. But then why did I find myself crying with unusual abandon when, at the end of the service, the band broke into a really good rendition of Bob Dylan’s classic song, “I shall be released.” I see the light come shining from the west down to the east. Any day now, any way now, I shall be released. I am not sure if this is the future of church, but I was indeed released.