by Paul Thomas, student reporter

When we Congregations Project participants walked into Marquand Chapel on Tuesday morning, we encountered an open floor rather than chairs. Without singing or speaking, we participated by looking, walking, touching, writing, praying. With seashells in hand as a symbol of pilgrimage, we made our way through the labyrinth laid out on the floor. As Nicholas Lewis played a haunting melody on the clarinet, we centered our minds, hearts, and bodies before the hours of plenary sessions ahead.

This labyrinth liturgy, and the lack of speaking or singing therein, framed the following plenary sessions in a fascinating way. In the first plenary, Professor Maggi Dawn introduced a term from ethnomusicologist Steven Feld: acoustemology, or the relationship between knowledge and sound. Just as the sound of an unaccompanied solo clarinet informed our centering experience in the labyrinth, the sound of a congregation’s liturgy informs its encounters with the Divine. Tyson House Lutheran Episcopal Campus Ministry in Knoxville, TN asked the group how best to share its own beloved liturgical acoustical environment with others. The student congregation of St. Olaf College focused on the look, sound, and feel of a hallway, asking how it could provide spiritual formation for non-attendees. First UCC in Northfield, MN looked for specific ways to expand the sound of its liturgical repertoire, with the goal of “arts-infused worship” in mind. Finally, Colbert Presbyterian Church in Colbert, WA envisioned an educational ministry for college students highlighting the shared sensory experience of worship and liturgy. Throughout the day, the discussion oscillated between practical and theological concerns, as we asked questions about sound, space, movement, and participation.

Speaking and singing were restored for Evening Prayer. Each beautiful hymn, psalm, canticle, and response represented a different congregation’s liturgical practice. Through worship like this, perhaps we are creating an acoustemology unique to this conference, drawing into greater understanding of our diverse communities. As we use music to minister to the diversity in our own communities, we practice hospitality, testimony, and ritual engagement – all part of the work of evangelism as described by Dorothy Bass in her opening remarks to the conference. “Hark, the glad sound” indeed.