Fran McKendree, a songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist who performs for Episcopal Church youth events, retreats, workshops, and other gatherings, has had a taste of stardom. His 1970s rock and roll band, McKendree Spring, toured with major acts and performed in Carnegie Hall.
“One of the things I'm really grateful for is I had that experience, a taste of all the fame and glory. Not to a great extent, but it was enough. I was grateful that I had that experience in my 20s,” he said. “In the church, I don't feel any need to make it about me.”
Instead of focusing on him, Mr. McKendree said, “I try to do music that connects with people on a lot of different levels, and I try to involve people as much as I can.”
He has also fashioned his own Episcopal worship service, which he will lead at Trinity Episcopal Church, 316 Adams, Sunday at 6:15 p.m., after a simple dinner there at 5 p.m. that will include food for those who eat gluten-free or have other special dietary needs; suggested donation for the dinner is $10, and the worship service is free.
In the service, “I'll begin with maybe 20 minutes or so of welcoming and gathering music,” Mr. McKendree said. “We can sing together, feel welcomed. The invitation is out there to participate; you don't have to if you don't feel comfortable. We'll do some interactive things to get folks connected, then move into the actual liturgy itself.” The service has contemplative music, poetry and scripture, silence for stillness and centering, some images projected onto a screen, and prayer. And, of course, Mr. McKendree's music is played throughout the ceremony.
“What really brought me to feel that the Episcopal Church was a good home,” Mr. McKendree said, is “it has a pretty big umbrella. I resonate with the theology that is at the core, and that all are welcome. It's a denomination that I think really honors the arts, particularly music and visual arts and all that, so it felt like a really grounded way, a deeply grounded theology, that also had windows wide open.”
“He is very comfortable with the mystery of God, and he makes the mystery of God more accessible to a lot of people,” said Trinity's rector, the Rev. Elizabeth Hoster. “You don't feel like you have to sign a statement of faith with his music.”
“One of the things that I try to do with the service is to be a welcoming experience, so you can share in that sacred time, but not a ritual piece that might be exclusive for some folks,” Mr. McKendree said.
“In concerts, they're hardly concerts; they're like coffeehouses,” the Rev. Hoster said. “He just really interacts well with people, engages people, and brings them up. One time I was one of the people that got to go up and sing with him.”
The Rev. Elizabeth Hoster is the Rector at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Toledo.
McKendree Spring “used to play a bunch in Ohio,” Mr. McKendree said. After the band broke up in 1976, Mr. McKendree spent “a couple years as a solo artist” for Arista Records. “I got to the point where I was feeling really unfulfilled, and went to the well and it was dry, so I began to look for some other ways that I might find something that was fulfilling and affirming and enriching somehow.”
What he and his wife found when they were living in New York City, after he had not performed for a couple of years, was an Episcopal church. “The very first Sunday that we went to that church in New York, it began with a ballerina coming in from the back.” That appreciation of the arts appealed to him, as did the “great choir, great music program,” he said. And when “the priest came down from the altar to read the scripture from the center aisle—I had been brought up a Catholic—the movements, music, the word among the people, that really moved me.”
The McKendrees soon moved to Cape Cod and joined an Episcopal church there, “so that's when I started to get active,” Mr. McKendree said. “I started playing again at that point, and got involved doing music with the youth group and got invited to do some events on the regional and national level, and that opened a network for me of going around the country.” That was around 1983 or '84, he said. He continues going around the country to this day.
McKendree Spring reunited and released a live album in 2006 and a five-song recording in 2010. Their final concert was in May 2013—“we had a great time,” Mr. McKendree said—and a DVD and CD of that will be available in May 2014.
Mr. McKendree also is involved in an annual event of the AwakeningSoul organization that weaves, art, music, worship, nature, community meals, intentional conversation, and silent reflection, its Web site says. The organization will host “Seeking the Sacred Thread, Celebrating the Heart of Life,” with the Revs. John Philip Newell and Barbara Brown Taylor, in November in Asheville, NC.
“I feel really fortunate to be able to continue making a living doing this and earning a living from this work,” Mr. McKendree said. “I'm always with great people and I get to travel a saner schedule.”