By Jeff Brumley
Sunday mornings at All Souls Charlottesville are fairly common for an Anglican congregation.
The Book of Common Prayer and the Revised Common Lectionary are standard, creeds are spoken together, the Eucharist is the central focus of the liturgy and the minister blesses the congregation before it scatters back into the world.
But the Charlottesville, Va., congregation isn’t an Episcopal church. It’s Baptist — in fact it’s a plant of the Baptist General Association of Virginia and is celebrating its fifth anniversary in 2014.
This isn’t a Baptist church in the Charleston tradition, a structured expression of worship often distinguished from the more revivalistic Sandy Creek tradition. It goes beyond that to include wine in communion and the view by some, including Pastor Winn Collier, that worship and life ought to be expressed sacramentally.
“You would think it was Anglican,” Collier said. “I know this is a little odd in the Baptist world.”
A little, but increasingly less so, according to experts on Baptist polity and worship practices.
While being contemplative and having an intense focus on the sacrament of communion are not necessarily the same, a growing number of Baptist churches are exploring elements of both in an era when Christians and “nones” are rejecting highly produced, modern worship experiences.
The result can be the adoption of Taizé services, adding periods of silence to worship, breath prayer and other contemplative practices, said Molly Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan.
For others, it can go much further than that, she added.
“Some of the ancient traditions have come to the fore as people realize some of the noisy parts of worship do not allow the heart room to engage,” Marshall said.
Some are finding the movement to be especially attractive to younger Christians, said Rodney Kennedy, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio, and author of Gathering Together: Baptists at Work in Worship.
“They want more than motivational speeches or topical sermons,” Kennedy said. “They want worship that requires work and effort from them.”
But that desire can also cut across generations by attracting those who are drawn to services that connect them with ancient Christianity, Kennedy said.
“Sacramental worship puts us in touch with the communion of saints,” he said. “The benefit of this approach is that we become the actors in worship and not the audience.”
‘A lot of Anglican leanings’
At All Souls, Collier is adamant his church does not represent anything novel and was not established simply to market to a demographic interested in the trappings of the contemplative movement.
Instead, it was an approach to church that Collier brought with him from Clemson, S.C., after being approached to plant a church by the local Central Virginia Baptist Association, which partners with the BGAV.
“I just have a lot of Anglican leanings myself,” Collier said.
But even that doesn’t make the sacramental focus at All Souls unique, he added. Being intentionally sacramental and liturgical merely conforms to what a number of Christian traditions have been doing for centuries.
“There’s nothing novel or new about it,” Collier said. “We don’t see it as a new model of church, or just some contextualized way to tap into the culture’s desire for something transcendent.”
‘A blessing to our neighborhood’
Yet, it is attracting new worshipers.
When All Souls was planted in the midst of the University of Virginia community in 2009, it had roughly 15 members who met as a house church. Today it boasts attendance around 160.
Part of that growth comes from being intent on ministering directly to the needs of the immediate area in which the church is located — and for a time that was next to the art department at the University of Virginia.
“We found that musicians lacked performance space and artists lacked display space,” said John Chandler, an elder at All Souls.
So they provided spaces for both and the church became known as a haven for the creative in Charlottesville.
“As a result of that posture to artists and musicians, we have attracted a high number of artists and musicians to the congregation,” said Chandler, leader of the Spence Network and a columnist for ABPnews/Herald.
The church has since moved to an elementary school and is in the process of discerning how to meet the needs of the surrounding community there, he added.
“Our commitment is to give 20 percent to missions beyond ourselves to make ourselves a blessing to our neighborhood,” Chandler said.
‘A sense of reverence’
The church has also attracted a mixture of other people, across ages and ethnicities, who for one reason or another find traction in a Baptist church with Anglican leanings, Collier said.
For some it’s a meaningful new experience, for others it’s an opportunity to return to the worship of their youth, if not the denomination. And there are couples for whom All Souls provides a balance between the liturgical and sacramental on one hand and congregational autonomy on the other.
“We also have people from mainstream, evangelical backgrounds finding themselves here,” Collier said. “They are searching for something that has some gravity to it, or a sense of reverence and is more participatory.”
For Chandler, a former Baptist pastor who grew up in traditional Southern Baptist churches in North Carolina, the lure of All Souls has been its attention to the Christian calendar.
“With the reordering of time and space, you begin to think about the rhythms of the year and the rhythms of the week, and time takes on this worship quality about it,” he said. “It really teaches us a way to look at our lives differently.”
Far from being concerned about the approach being taken at All Souls, the BGAV welcomes it because it adheres to traditional Baptist values, said J.R. Woodward, national director of V3, the BGAV’s church-planting movement.
The common denominator of being Baptist — the authority of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, priesthood of the believer — is modeled at All Souls just as it is in other kinds of Baptist congregations, he said.
“From our end we value the gifts of the team and they know their context,” Woodward said. “Liturgical churches simply tie into the age-old church.”
Collier said All Souls, like himself, makes no apologies for its Anglican influences but also fully embraces its Baptist identity.
“I can say this is where God placed us and we are trying to participate in the broader movement of God in the world,” he said. “But we are Baptists — that’s the reason I am not actually Episcopalian or Orthodox.”