Last month nearly 1,000 people gathered at Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal congregation in San Francisco, to participate in a worship service notably referred to as the Beyoncé Mass. Several of Beyoncé’s songs, including “Survivor,” “Flaws And All,” and “Freedom,” were sung throughout the liturgy. The service included a reading from Ella Baker and two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, the traditional English prayer and a modern Womanist version. The timing of the mass fell just weeks after Beyoncé’s stunning two-hour performance at Coachella (#Beychella), the first time a black woman headlined the event.
Conservative Christians had a field day attacking the Beyoncé Mass–and the Episcopal Church as a whole–on social media. At their mildest some critics simply insisted that such a gathering could not be a true worship service but merely a “Christian Beyoncé concert.” Others condemned the gathering as blasphemous, even satanic, for its idolatrous celebrity worship. When I shared my support of the service on Twitter, I was nearly instantly served a serious dose of mansplaining–that just because I was ordained didn’t make me an authority on such matters and that perhaps I should “take a break from Christianity” and “return to the basics.” Whatever that means.
The main criticism, at least the ones folks were willing to articulate, was that a Beyoncé Mass could not be a faithful expression of Christianity. What nobody said but what any of us could read between the lines is that folks can’t stand the artistry of a strong, talented black woman taking up space in the church.
In seminary I participated in a U2charist. Similar in concept to the Beyoncé Mass, the service included a number of songs by the band U2 throughout the liturgy. I don’t remember anyone making a fuss about it. I searched the Internet for criticism equally venomous to that hurled at the organizers of the Beyoncé Mass but came up short. Granted the U2charist was started in the early 2000s when social media was not what it is today, but even still it would seem that we possess greater tolerance of–and even dare to celebrate–pop music in worship if the ones creating it are male and of European descent.
The Beyoncé Mass was not some kind of last-minute, thrown-together church response to #Beychella by pastors hoping to trick people into coming to church. It was born from the reflections and experiences of students enrolled in a course entitled “Beyoncé and the Hebrew Bible” at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The course was created and taught by womanist scholar Rev. Yolanda Norton who says of her class’s framing, “Beyoncé’s unique status in the world gives me the unique opportunity to narrate the realities of Black women in the church and in the world.”
Who has the authority to parse out that which is sacred for another? For far too long those with power have pushed out the perspectives, stories, and experiences of anyone who isn’t white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, and Christian. Isn’t it time that we open our minds and hearts to that which is outside of the narrowly-defined idea of “sacred” and make space for Spirit to move in all its mystery?
Rev. Katey Zeh is an ordained Baptist minister, a nonprofit strategist, writer, and speaker at the intersections of faith and gender justice. She is the co-host of Kindreds, a podcast for soul sisters. Her book Women Rise Up will be published by the FAR Press this year. Find her on Twitter at @kateyzeh or on her website kateyzeh.com.