The Center for Liturgy and Music at Virginia Theological Seminary

The Center for Liturgy and Music was launched on April 21, 2015, with a festive Evensong at Immanuel Chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary.  The premise of this venture is that vibrant and engaging liturgical practices, including diverse, energetic music and passionate, effective preaching are the driving force of a vital parish.  The Center exists to serve clergy and musicians by helping them to discover resources and to develop and enhance skills in liturgy, music, and preaching. Over the years we have heard clergy and musicians lament a lack of liturgical resources, particularly for those serving small and medium congregations–resources that could enrich the liturgical and musical life of a parish. We believe that when leaders are fully equipped congregations are strengthened and parishioners are transformed from being mere “members” into dynamic disciples.


When the Rev. Dr. William Bradley Roberts was called to VTS as Professor of Church Music in 2008, the Rev. Dr. Ian Markham, Dean and President, set as a goal for Bill to turn around the perception that VTS didn’t value liturgy and music.  Shortly after that meeting, Bill informed the faculty that he was interested in creating a center for liturgy and music.  Bill and I met several times over the next couple of years, brainstorming the needs the church and how a center such as this could aid parishes in their worship.  In 2010 we approached the Dean with more concrete plans for opening a center at VTS which would impact local church musicians who practice their profession as ministry; congregations with limited resources who seek to implement imaginative liturgy and music; and clergy-musician teams who are equipped to transform worship and impact evangelism.  We spoke of the needs of clergy and musicians and what VTS could offer to the wider church.  The closing of the Office of Liturgy and Music at the Episcopal Church Center in New York and the College for Preachers in Washington, DC, several years ago was also forefront in our minds.  Dean Markham was enthusiastic about the possibility of such a center and asked us to continue working on our plans for the Center.

Our preliminary work on this project resulted in the Center for Liturgy and Music being incorporated into the strategic plan of the seminary.  The context for the inclusion of the Center included these points:

  1. Average Sunday attendance in Episcopal parishes is declining.
  2. Worship in many parishes has become dull and does not attract and hold new people.
  3. Liturgy and music often lack creativity and imagination.
  4. Leaders don’t know where to turn for assistance.
  5. There is seems to be a disconnect between faith and the practice of liturgy and music.
  6. Existing support groups (Leadership Program for Musicians, AAM Mentoring Program) lack funds to provide direct support and have asked for our help.
  7. Diocesan liturgy and music commissions have been disbanded or are increasingly inactive.
  8. The Association of Diocesan Liturgy and Music Commissions, which used to provide support for small parishes and missions, no longer exists.
  9. The “Worship Wars” continue, pitting clergy against musician, as well as one style of music or liturgy against another.

As work continued on plans for the Center, a conference was held in the summer of 2011, in which eight clergy-musician teams were invited to the campus of VTS.  Two basic criteria were used in the selection of these teams:  1) The clergy and the musician had learned to work together harmoniously and effectively; and 2) The congregation of each team was doing something exciting in liturgy and music.  This was a by-invitation conference in which all participants were presenters.  Each team made a 30-minute presentation to describe their working relationship, including how they had resolved conflict. The participants in this conference included:  Jason Abel and the Rev. Ann Gillespie (Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia); Dr. Marilyn Keiser and the Rev. Charlie Dupree (Trinity, Bloomington, Indiana); John Vreeland and the Rev. Jim Dannals (St. George’s, Fredericksburg, Virginia); Thomas Smith and the Rev. Susan Burns (Redeemer, Bethesda, Maryland); Dr. Howard Helvey and the Rev. Jason Leo (Calvary, Cincinnati, Ohio); Dr. Darryl Roland and the Very Rev. Peggy Patterson (St. John’s, Wilmington, Delaware); Ruben Valenzuela and the Rev. Paige Blair (St. Peter’s, Del Mar, California); Dr. Stuart Forster and the Rev. Joseph Robinson (Christ Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts.  In addition to Bill Roberts and me the staff for this conference included the Rev. Penny Bridges, Dr. Ray Glover, the Rev. Dr. David Gortner, and the Rev. Erika Takacs.

There were many thought provoking discussions over the three days.  In small group deliberations one of the groups noted the importance of trust, humility, and a willingness to learn as cornerstones of the healthy clergy/musician relationship—that when the individuals involved are spiritually healthy, their relationship will also be healthy and that health will spread to congregational life.   Other groups emphasized the need to keep disagreements private in order to avoid destructive triangles with the congregation.  It was an exceedingly rich time of community, learning, and discussion, and informed many of the decisions that were made for the Center.

In addition, a professional DVD, “Creating Worship that Works: Clergy and Musicians as Partners in Mission,” was produced from the content of this conference and is now commercially available from the AAM website.  We were very grateful to the following organizations and people who supported this production: Washington, DC Chapter, AGO; Anglican Musicians Foundation; Virginia Theological Seminary, the Rev. Dr. Ian Markham, Dean; the Rt. Rev. Shannon Johnston, Bishop of Virginia; the Rev. Pierce Klemmt, Rector, Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia; St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, the Rev. Stephen Shepherd, Rector; and Anne Karoly, Director of Lifetime Theological Education at VTS.

In the spring of 2013 we received the go ahead from the administration to start on official plans for the establishment of a Center for Liturgy and Music.  I was contracted to be the Director of the Center to work along side faculty consultants, the Rev. Dr. William Bradley (Bill) Roberts, the Rev. Dr. James Farwell, Professor of Liturgics, and the Rev. Dr. Ruthanna Hooke, Professor of Homiletics.   The Rev. Dr. Kyle Babin, then a seminarian, came on board as the assistant.  That position is now held by Dr. Christopher Reynolds, Organist/Choirmaster at St. Paul’s, Richmond.

In order to determine what would be useful to clergy and musicians, particularly those serving smaller parishes, we invited leaders, bishops, priests, and musicians from parishes and dioceses around the country, both small and large, to come to the seminary and spend two days brainstorming.  This symposium was held at VTS in October, 2013.  We brought in a consultant to facilitate our conversations.  Present at that gathering were the following:  The Rt. Rev. Neil Alexander, Dean, School of Theology, Sewanee; the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, Bishop, Washington; the Rt. Rev. Ted Gulick, Asst. Bishop, Virginia; the Rt. Rev. Shannon Johnston, Bishop, Virginia; the Rt. Rev. Wayne Smith, Bishop, Missouri; Josh Edwards, Musician, San Diego, California; Marilyn Haskel, Musician, St. Paul’s at Trinity, Wall Street; the Rev. Elise Johnston, Rector, Georgetown, Kentucky; Dr. Carl MaultsBy, Musician, Tampa, Florida; Marti Rideout, Musician, Columbus, Ohio; Kyle Ritter, Musician, All Souls’ Cathedral, Asheville, North Carolina; Andrew Sheranian, Musician, All Saints’, Ashmont, Dorchester, Massachusetts; the Rev. Greg Syler, Rector, St. George’s, Valley Lee, Maryland; the Rev. Mary Thorpe, Rector, Epiphany, Richmond, Virginia; the Rev. David Umphlett, Rector, St. Mary’s, High Point, North Carolina; Jose Reyes, Seminarian, Virginia Theological Seminary.

The objectives for the symposium were to 1) validate the mission and purpose of the Center; 2) identify broad category resources offered by the Center; 3) define potential delivery channels; and 4) confirm action steps and goals.

Each participant spoke to his/her particular context.  The bishops were asked: In your travels around your diocese you, more than anyone, see what is happening, musically and liturgically in the parish.  What do these parishes need in order to become vibrant?  What patterns of difficulty do you see?

Some of the thoughts expressed by the bishops included the following: “Sometimes the liturgy and music fit the room in which he is visiting.  Sometimes they are trying to make it fit another room.  He also sees a lot of performance anxiety.  Another mentioned that “musicians in small congregations have little training in liturgical music.  Many of these congregations also have priests that could use training in liturgy and music.”  He noticed that these clergy “tended to care less about liturgy and music and were not making use of the resources that they did have.”  Still another noted that “we really need to spend energy on helping people sing whether it is congregational singing, clergy singing or ensemble singing.  A big part of liturgical renewal must be to help people sing better and sing more.”  Another noted the category of teaching, that this includes “teaching from the clergy and the musicians as well as teaching for the clergy and the musicians.  The teaching office has been underutilized at the parish/mission level.”

From the clergy and musicians we heard about the needs of African American parishes; the ways in which paperless music can enhance the musical offerings of a parish; the role a cathedral can play in diocesan ministry; the challenges in Latino congregations; along with many other concerns.

It was a packed two days and the result of the gathering was an extensive catalog of the ways in which the Center for Liturgy and Music could benefit clergy and musicians in the church.  The ideas generated by this group helped to identify the key points for the Center:

  1. Create a desire for worship renewal in the church.
  2. Provide a plethora of liturgical and musical resources.
  3. Train people in imaginative and authentic liturgical and musical leadership.
  4. Inspire creativity through exposure to the breadth of the possible

These four verbs are in the forefront of everything the Center produces on our website, in our workshops and conferences, and in our consulting work.


The first order of business for the Center was to design a website that provides a wealth of resources to clergy and musicians in the wider church.  That website,, is updated weekly and contains an abundance of ways in which those who work in parishes can find tools to assist them in their ministries.  A popular feature of the website is Ask Ambrose.  In this section we answer questions from clergy and musicians.  We have been queried about instrument ranges, how to set Lent apart from the other seasons, when one makes the sign of the cross, along with many other concerns.  In addition, the Resources section contains information in music, liturgy, and preaching.  Within this section you will find a scriptural index to LEVAS II, strategies for recruiting choir members, instruction in plainsong, psalmody, designing effective service leaflets, preparing Eucharistic vessels among other offerings.


Hosting one-day workshops on subjects of interest to clergy and musicians is one of the missions of the Center for Liturgy and Music.  Recently folks in the Washington, DC/ Maryland/ Virginia area have attended the following workshops:

  • Singing the Music of Holy Week

This workshop gave participants a chance to work on their chanting skills, from the Exultet to the Mozarabic chant.  This master class led by the Rev. Dr. William Bradley Roberts has been repeated to great acclaim by those in attendance.

  • Worship Matters: The Art of Hymn Selection

Led by Bill Roberts and me, participants delved more deeply into the Liturgical Year, learned about philosophy of hymn selection, discovered resources for hymn selection, and worked in small groups to select hymns for a given set of propers.

  • Worship Matters: The Art of Psalm Singing

This workshop, scheduled for March 3, 2018, was cancelled due to weather.  When participants gather on April 14 they will learn about the different ways of singing psalms and the resources available to these methods.  It will be led by Bill Roberts and me.

  • The Ritual Use of Incense

Led by the Rev. Dr. James Farwell, Professor of Liturgy at VTS this workshop focuses on the whys and hows of using incense.  Participants will have some hands-on experience in “swinging smoke.”

We anticipate doing some of these workshops as webinars later in the spring so that clergy and musicians in other parts of the country can access these resources.


One of the main goals of the Center is to convene  – to gather together experts in liturgy, music, and preaching who will share their knowledge so that participants learn best practices and are empowered in their ministries.

  • Raising the Song: Creating Communities that Sing

The first official conference hosted by the Center was Raising the Song: Creating Communities that Sing.  Funded by VTS along with Melodius Accord and a Vital Worship grant from the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, the goal of Raising the Song was to teach invited participants the tools needed to enable congregations and other communities to find their singing voices.  We engaged three presenters, recognized as outstanding teachers in the leadership of song  –  Dr. Alice Parker, Marilyn Haskel, and Dr. Ÿsaye Barnwell.  We sought participants who were passionate, engaging, self-motivated, enthusiastic with an innate musicality, and who possessed a teaching sense.  After receiving applications we chose thirteen participants who came to VTS in October, 2015, to work with our presenters.  There was lots of singing and each presenter spoke to her particular philosophy of leading song. After the symposium each participant returned home and was charged with initiating a new project that employed the skills learned at the symposium. The participants returned to campus in October, 2016, to report on their projects, using videos, recordings and oral presentations.  Both events ended with public hymn sings led by the presenters.  One participant said, “Song leading will be added to the curriculum of the undergraduate sacred music program that I coordinate. I will also implement my own song leading in a variety of settings, such as concerts, hymn festivals, banquet performances, guest speaking engagements, clinics, etc. that I lead.”  Another noted, “ The most profound thing for me was the variety of perspective that each clinician brought.”

  • The Once and Future Prayer Book

Shortly after returning from a meeting of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music in the fall of 2016, I had a conversation with the Rev. Dr. James Farwell about the possibility of hosting a conference at VTS on the future of the Book of Common Prayer.  The SCLM had been given a mandate by General Convention to devise a process for a possible revision of the ’79 book.  We believed that it would be important for a group of liturgists to gather in order to explore how the church had evolved from 1928 to 1979 and how the common prayer in the church had changed since 1979.  We partnered with the Rt. Rev. Dr. Neil Alexander, Dean of the School of Theology at Sewanee, and the Rev. Dr. James Turrell, Professor of Liturgy at Sewanee for a two-part conference.  The first, held at VTS in June, 2017, took a look at the fifty-one history between the 1928 and 1979 books and featured keynote addresses by the Most Rev. Frank Griswold and the Rev. Dr. Lizette Larson Miller.  Panelists from the fields of language, the arts, music, as well as ecumenical guests rounded out the conference.  Sewanee hosted the second part of the conference in October, 2017, and delved into the rites themselves.  A special issue of the Sewanee Theological Review will be published and will contain all of the papers for these two gatherings.

  • The Once and Future Hymnal

During the planning process for the prayer book conference, Bill Roberts and I decided that it was also time for a critical look at the Hymnal 1982.  The SCLM had been given a mandate to devise a process for a possible revision of the hymnal, but declined to act upon this mandate until the question of prayer book revision was decided.  This conference was reported on in detail by AAM member Jason Overall and that report was published in The Journal in January, 2018.  His report is also available on the Center’s website along with detailed reports of the two prayer book conferences.


In addition to workshops, conferences, resources on the website, we are available for consultations.  We have consulted with parishes looking to hire musicians, both full and part-time; we have consulted with churches whose leadership desire to take a serious look at their worship practices; we are available to speak with groups about a variety of topics ranging from hymn selection and psalm singing, to designing Easter Vigils without a cast of thousands.  We have gone to diocesan gatherings to encourage and teach about energetic congregational singing and have worked with diocesan liturgy and music commissions.  We have a presence on social media with a Facebook page and publish an e-newsletter seasonally.  While our particular focus is on those parishes with limited resources, we believe that our mission serves parishes of all sizes.

We hope you will go to our website ~ and look at the resources available.  Sign up to receive our e-newsletters and watch for conferences and webinars.  Worship should be the top priority of the church no matter what the size and the Center for Liturgy and Music stands ready to help parishes enliven their worship so that members are transformed into disciples.