Q&A: Music, worship at General Conference

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Coordinating worship and music for General Conference is much more than choosing a few hymns, tying the lectionary to the sermon and rehearsing the choir anthem. It takes months - no, make that years - to ensure worship is inspiring, interactive, international and inclusive. UMNS interviewed 2012 General Conference music and worship director Marcia McFee about her role in designing a worship experience that reminds participants of their call to follow Jesus.

There will be 28 worship services during General Conference, including Morning Prayer, noon Communion and evening services. Tell about the opening worship - featured music, celebrants, anything unusual this time around.

Opening worship will set the stage for our journey throughout the 10 days. We'll find ourselves on the shores of the Sea of Galilee through audio and video technology to help immerse us in the place where we can hear the call of Jesus once again: "Follow me." A combined Florida choir of more than 400 people will sing as part of the overture, "Shall we gather? At the shoreline? Can you hear the voice of God?" This beginning phrase of music will follow us throughout General Conference, always reminding us why we are here doing this work. The Scriptures, then, for each day are all stories of Jesus at the Sea of Galilee.

Are you trying to tie these Scripture themes (Jesus teaching on the shore, walking on the water, calming the storm, inviting Levi to dinner) with particular days that delegates will deal with specific issues? How did you decide what stories to feature on which days?

I first simply kept the 10 chosen stories in chronological order - the way they appear in the Gospel of Mark. Then I began to look at the schedule for various special services such as Memorial, Ecumenical and Act of Repentance. Most fell exactly on the story that would be the most poignant for that ritual action. For instance, the Scripture that says, "All those with ears to hear, listen," fell on the night of our Act of Repentance for the church's complicity in acts of cultural genocide of Native American and indigenous persons around the world. "Listen" seemed an appropriate step in the journey of repentance. The church must be "conscientized" and hear the stories in order to claim them and repent.

The Memorial service is connected to the post-Resurrection story of the women at the tomb encountering a messenger reminding them that Jesus already planned to meet them back at the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection. "Don't stay at the tomb! Go to the shoreline where you first encountered Jesus." That service is called "Encounter."

You described the symbols that will be metaphors for our work together - sailcloth, grasses, river rock and water. Why is it important to use symbolism in worship? What do you hope will be the take-away for delegates because of this symbolism?

I believe symbols are the primary language of worship. Even our verbal language is more poetry than prose in liturgy. Symbols take what is "ineffable" or hard to grasp and makes these concepts concrete. They give us a way to associate deep mysteries with tangible things. This is what happens with traditional symbols such as water, bread and light. The other symbols we will use at General Conference, besides the traditional ones, will give us a way to make tangible more difficult concepts such as "healing." Salt was used by biblical people as a way to heal as the two sides of a wound were drawn together. It was also used in rituals of covenant making. Salt, which can come from the sea, gives us a way to talk about the healing and wholeness that we all pray for, especially around our relationships at General Conference.

Talk about the musicians who will work with you during General Conference. Are any of them veterans of previous General Conferences? How did you select them? What special gifts will they bring to the event?

A veteran is my dear friend and collaborator, Mark Miller. While he was not able to take on the responsibility of co-directing with me for the whole conference as he did last time, he still agreed to compose the opening music for the conference. New to General Conference are the musicians that comprise the group that will lead us throughout. The "house musicians" are made up of amazing United Methodist talent from across the connection. Many are clergy, and all are worship professionals in our churches. This will be the first time they will all play together! They are led by my new collaborator, Chuck Bell. He is an extraordinary talent, versatile in style, and has a degree in making music for movies! He brings an on-the-spot composing and improvisational ability. He is one of the most spiritually centered musicians I know.

Another veteran is Ted Lyddon-Hatten, a United Methodist pastor and visual artist with whom I worked at the last General Conference. He will be transforming "the world" every day in a changing exhibit just outside the plenary hall using many of the symbolic objects from worship. He is also creating a baptismal pool for the plenary space that will be a wonderful and changing visual focus throughout. Todd Pick, a new artist for General Conference, will be handling the stage visuals and drawing our worshipful attention to the altar. In early March, Ted, Todd and I, along with a video crew from United Methodist Communications, took some of the objects we will use on the stage to a beach just outside Tampa that looks a lot like the Sea of Galilee and shot photos and video to use on the triple-wide digital backdrop. I hope the lines of outside and inside are blurred and we really feel we have gathered in a holy place.

Two other members of my "core team" are the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards and the Rev. John Thornburg, both liturgical scholars in their own right. Early in the process, these theologian/musicians were instrumental in helping me flesh out the theme and exegete the Scriptures, and they will be on-site, caring for our guest liturgists and "presiders" for lunchtime Communion.

Some liturgies will be in Swahili, French and Portuguese. Nearly 40 percent of the delegates will be non-English speaking. How will you involve everyone in the worship experience?

We are using various languages as much as possible in singing and speaking, and some languages of worship need no translation. This is why the worship I design is highly visual and usually has more ritual action than copious amounts of words. There will also be times when people can talk more intimately together in small groupings so delegates will speak their own languages at that point. Every morning, we will have a prayer invoking the Holy Spirit's presence by someone speaking in a non-English language. I don't believe we need to translate this experience into English. I've done this at many conferences, and people tell me how powerful it is, even though (and maybe especially because) it is in a language they cannot cognitively understand. There is understanding, anyway!

Talk about some of the choirs who will be part of the worship experience. How many auditioned? How difficult is it to select choirs? What set some apart from others?

We have choirs coming from close and very far away - from California to the Ivory Coast! It is really a diverse collection. All of these choirs sent in audition recordings, and the decisions were incredibly difficult because we had more than 200 deserving choirs apply. Diversity is the main factor: geographically, from small to large churches, style and ethnicity. This United Methodist Church is so amazingly diverse, and we want to celebrate the many ways God is praised all over the connection. These choirs give an incredible gift to the attendees of the conference. They fundraise and pay all their expenses, and the time they actually get to sing is minimal for the effort it takes. They see this as their mission: to offer music that restores the souls of delegates who are working so very hard on our behalf.

How do you involve worshipers as participants, not observers?

We sing together, pray together and move together. I strongly believe liturgy is the "work of the people," so I try to create as many opportunities as possible for interaction and participation. I also believe worship happens in the whole of the worshiping space, so sometimes the action is centered in different places in the room. I want people to feel that they are immersed in an experience, a journey, of worship of the living God and that the Spirit is moving among the congregation.

What excites you most about leading worship at General Conference?

As difficult as the task is in all the planning, preparation and coordinating, it is the passion I feel for the purpose of our worship that brought me back a second time. For me, our worship is meant to build up the body of Christ for our work in the world and to offer an encounter of the holy, living God that inspires, challenges and teaches us and forms us as disciples of Jesus Christ who "go and do likewise" in the world.

The opportunity to be a part of facilitating worship that can help this General Conference body be built up for its work beyond those walls is a great honor. I know worship cannot heal all things, cannot suddenly create harmony and health within the body, but it can give us an experience of affirming together the very purpose for our living - to bring about the reign of God "on earth as in heaven." We will pray the Lord's Prayer every day as part of Morning Prayer. It is that line for which we strive, that our worship will be what early Methodists said about their gatherings - that we experience "a little heaven on earth."

* Dunlap-Berg, a UMNS volunteer during General Conference, interviewed McFee for this Q&A.

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