I strongly support the separation of church and state. But what about the separation of church and stage?
It seems like every other place of worship around here does double duty as a performance space for decidedly secular theater and music groups. What, I wonder, would Fitzhugh Coyle make of it all?
Actually, I know exactly what Mr. Coyle would make of it. I recently came across a pamphlet he wrote 148 years ago. It is titled “To the Congregation of Trinity Church, Washington, D.C.”
Trinity Episcopal Church was the James Renwick-designed church at Third and C streets NW that was demolished in 1936. Just after Easter in 1866, Coyle, a prominent Washingtonian who worked in the hardware field, published what can be described only as a screed.
What had inflamed him? It was the previous Sunday’s service. Three members of the German Opera — Messrs. Habelman and Steinecke and Madame Johannsen — had been invited to sing with the Trinity choir and perform some of their repertoire.
To Coyle, this was an unacceptable commingling of the sacred and the profane. He wrote that he was against any “German or operatic element introduced there which will overshadow our native talent, or in any manner convert our house of worship into a music hall, to which crowds will pour, either to save the cost of their opera tickets, or to quiet their consciences by listening to performances in God’s house.”
Coyle continued: “I ask you my friends if there was ever witnessed in this or any other Christian land, a more shameful desecration of the house of God than was displayed on Sunday night within the walls of Trinity? It was enough to mantle every Christian cheek with shame, and fill every Christian heart with sorrow; and you may rest assured that any heart which did not feel the keenest inward rebukes, had a bishop been present, would have had those rebukes outwardly administered, and that too in no measured terms.”
This sounds familiar to the Rev. John Beddingfield, rector of All Souls Episcopal Church in Woodley Park.
“That fellow’s sentiment is age-old but still very contemporary,” Father John said. “You still find people who would raise those issues.”
The motto at All Souls is “Traditional worship. Progressive thinking.” It has a modern outlook, even if there are lots of “thees” and “thous” in the service. The church is host to the Arcturus Theater Company, currently doing a Noel Coward reading, and an a cappella group called the Capital Hearings, whose repertoire includes Verdi and Lady Antebellum.
“As the priest, I feel like I do kind of owe it to both communities to be honest about when it’s a church event and when it’s another event simply taking place at the church,” Father John said. “I wouldn’t want to false advertise. I wouldn’t want to sort of try to get folks in to see a play and then hit them over the head with the Bible, though I’m delighted if they come back.”
As the music director at All Souls, Ben Hutchens is tasked with coming up with music selections each Sunday.
“We live with this constant tension of old versus new,” he said.
Fitzhugh Coyle was certainly tense. He was mad that the Germans sang Schubert’s “Serenade,” which Coyle slammed as, “nothing more nor less than a sentimental love song.”
In highest dudgeon, Coyle proclaimed: “I protest against all innovations, and in the name of my God, in the name of my Church, and in memory of all the old hallowed associations clustering about our house of worship, I protest against this crowning shame!”
Ben said some of today’s congregants aren’t happy when he chooses Victorian-era hymns, finding the lyrics too florid. Some don’t like older metrical hymns. Others don’t like hymns with too many verses. They want to get on with their Sunday.
Like Father John, Ben finds nothing surprising or old fashioned about Fitzhugh Coyle’s complaint.
“What I say to folks today that disagree with the choices I make is ‘Come back next week,’ ” Ben said. “Chances are great that you will, in fact, find a more pleasing selection, because what we do is ever-changing. The world of music is diverse and varied.”
Added Father John: “Martin Luther scandalized the church by using popular tunes of the day and turning them into hymns. This isn’t new. I think every generation has to navigate that conversation once again.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.