Sunday, October 04, 2015

Holden Evening Prayer: Some preliminary notes on an ELCA liturgy

This background on the Holden Evening Service, a Lutheran vespers liturgy similar to Taizé, consists of research notes I put up for future reference before I knew it would be adopted for Lenten services. It includes background and links to video of several services, but it makes no effort to introduce the Holden service to readers other than myself. If I weren't already familiar with the service, I'd begin by watching the video from St. Olaf College linked below at -- pe (01-20-16)


At Wednesday's ad hoc meeting of worship leaders of Springfield's new ELCA congregation (Atonement-Faith-Luther Memorial) after choir practice, Pastor Larry mentioned Marty Haugen's Holden Evening Prayer service as an example of innovative worship settings we might consider.

So I went home and looked it up on YouTube. It's lovely.

Haugen is a Lutheran composer and liturgist who has written widely for ELCA and Catholic publishers and has several hymns in WOV. He wrote the Holden liturgy during the winter of 1985 and 1986 at Holden Village, an ELCA retreat in Washington state. It's quiet and meditative, with an emphasis on lighting candles and seeking light in the darkness, and it's commonly used in Advent or Lenten evening services. The music is simple and repetitive, and the melodies are catchy, pitched so they're accessible to untrained voices.

In all, it's a lot like the Taizé services they used to have at the Dominican motherhouse and First Prez in Springfield, and it might be something we could promote in the larger community -- this type of worship experience has been especially appealing to youth since its origins in the French monastic community of Taizé after World War II, and it has demonstrated appeal in Springfield.

In Springfield the Dominican service during Advent was especially well attended, and I think a similar Lutheran service might also attract worshipers from the larger community. In areas where it has caught on, like Minnesota and the upper Midwest, the Holden vespers and a more recent service called "“Holden Prayer Around the Cross” appeal to the same broad-based, ecumenical desire for more spiritual forms of worship.

"When Taizé worship began to catch on in Europe, the youth of that continent came in a flood to the tiny French town where the prayers, the silence, the candles, and the chant-like music seemed so enchanting," says a journalist in St. Paul-Minneapolis. "And they’re still coming. Perhaps [the Holden services] will become North American Lutheranism’s embodiment of that same genius."

Audio and video clips --

First Lutheran Church, ___________?, Dec. 24, 2012 (28:02)

St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn., Saturday, June 1, 2013

Shepherd of the Hills, Sylva, N.C.

Taizé and the Holden vespers --

There's a brief account of how the Holden Evening Service developed out of Taizé on the website, maintained by a newspaper called MetroLutheran until recently published in the St. Paul-Minneapolis metro area. (Can you imagine a metro area with enough Lutherans to support a monthly newspaper?) It's by Michael L. Sherer, and it's headlined:

Slow down, settle in, light the candles, listen

Sherer fills in the background like this:

There is no “right way” for a Lutheran to worship. The authors of Lutheranism’s charter document, the Augsburg Confession, correctly described worship forms as “adiaphora” (things not essential to faith).

That having been said, there is no denying some worship forms have more impact than others. Why that should be might form the basis of a research thesis for a liturgical scholar. It doesn’t take a scholar, however, to know that certain music, certain ritual, certain sacred space can move us to tears — or leave us cold.

The Roman Catholic brothers who organized what became the Taizé movement in France hit upon an unlikely approach to worship several decades ago. Their standing-room-only services draw worshippers of all ages — including a significant contingent of young people. What goes on at a Taizé service? Silence, quiet meditation, the lighting of candles, and music that draws on repetitive refrains so easy to grasp that one doesn’t even need a printed resource.

The Lutheran faith community at Holden Village, a retreat center high in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state, has been borrowing from the Taizé model for decades. The popular “Holden Evening Prayer,” a creation of Twin Citian Marty Haugen, has been used for evening worship services far beyond the mountain retreat center. Many congregations use it at mid-week during Lent.

Marty Haugen on writing the service

Background on Haugen and Holden service at on the website It's on a CD with "Now is the Feast and Celebration," a widely used Lutheran communion setting that's also heavy on catchy tunes and lots of congregational participation. According to the blurb on the website:

Holden Evening Prayer was written in 1985-1986 while Marty was the musician-in-residence at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center in Washington State, this lovely setting of vespers follows the traditional form while using contemporary and inclusive language. Contents include "Service of Light," Evening Hymn-"Joyous Light of Heav'nly Glory," "Evening Thanksgiving," "The Annunciation," "The Magnificat," "Litany and Prayers," and "Final Blessing."

In 2012, Marty Haugen told how he came to write the vespers service in the winter of 1985 and 1986, when he had a residency at Holden. He said they were snowed in, and they were "all over the map" because they weren't satisfied with the vespers music in LBW, which was still fairly new and not universally welcomed at the time -- so Haugen began experimenting with an evening prayer liturgy.

"With nine feet of snow," he said, "you had nothing to do after vespers but to sit around and critique the vespers."

The key -- E-flat minor (six flats!) -- was very strange, but Haugen said it worked with the voices on hand at Holden that winter, and it worked with the text he wrote at the same time he composed the music.

Haugen's advice to singers and music directors: "What you take into your parishes is pieces of paper with notes on them. It's the singers who make it come alive in your communities for you."

All of this, and more, is in an audio file in a web document called "Genesis of Vespers '86 (Holden Evening Prayer)." It was added July 11, 2012, to Holden Village's online collection


"Holden Prayer Around the Cross"

Notes from the article cited above, Michael L. Sherer, "Slow Down, Settle in, Light the Candles, Listen: New Lutheran Worship Liturgy Invites Participants to do Just That." MetroLutheran 28 June 2010 Sherer mentions the Holden vespers primarily for the light it sheds on a new service that came out in 2010 and is primarily concerned with the new liturgy, called "Holden Prayer Around the Cross" -- my unedited notes, mostly verbatim quotation from the article, follow:

Now comes a new creation from Holden. Begun as an evening liturgy for use at the retreat center, “Holden Prayer Around the Cross” is being made available to the wider Lutheran community. Music editors at Augsburg Fortress (AF), the ELCA-related publishing house, embraced the approach, which actually consists of simple liturgies and a collection of easy-to-sing hymns. In recent months AF has offered a package of resources built on the latest incarnation of evening worship at Holden Village:

■ Holden Prayer Around the Cross is a 140-page paperback liturgy handbook. Co-authored by one-time Holden Village director Susan Briehl and former Village musician-in-residence Tom Witt, it provides elements suitable for an evening liturgy. (Only a worship leader would purchase this book.)

■ Singing Our Prayer, a Companion to Holden Prayer Around the Cross, is a hymn collection including 44 selections. (The publication comes in a full-score edition, designed for musicians, and a “user edition,” subtitled “Shorter Songs for Contemplative Worship” and produced in an inexpensive stapled version designed for quantity purchase.)

■ There’s a companion CD that samples the music in the printed booklet.

For information about the resources, go to


[Twin City church musician Tom] Witt says the ambience created when “Holden Prayer Around the Cross” is used is really quite extraordinary. “The music, the quiet, the candles, the darkness — they all work together.” The repetitive nature of some of the music has to be “grown into,” he admits. “It can seem boring at first — until you relax and focus. Prayer might emerge out of that.” Witt says you have to “nurture people into” this approach.

“I’m surprised at the age range of people who respond to this [style of worship],” Witt confided. “Teenagers and young adults, for example, don’t just want peppy praise music. They sit in the dark and light candles and are deeply moved.”

Perhaps Witt shouldn’t be surprised. When Taizé worship began to catch on in Europe, the youth of that continent came in a flood to the tiny French town where the prayers, the silence, the candles, and the chant-like music seemed so enchanting. And they’re still coming. Perhaps “Holden Prayer Around the Cross” will become North American Lutheranism’s embodiment of that same genius.


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