In Depth

What is Beyonce Mass?

Songs ranging from Formation to Flaws and All used to frame religious narratives

Christianity may be on the decline worldwide but worshippers in the US are flocking to a groundbreaking service called Beyonce Mass. Combining progressive theology and pop music, the Mass is a celebration of God… and of former Destiny’s Child star Beyonce Knowles-Carter.

So exactly what is it?

Launched in San Francisco last year, Beyonce Mass is a Christian “womanist worship service that uses the music and personal life of Beyonce as a tool to foster an empowering conversation about black women”, according to the organisers’ website.

The Mass is making its debut in New York this week, with a Wednesday service at the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn and a Thursday event at St James Presbyterian in Harlem.

The service features black women singers, dancers and officiants along with a sermon, scripture readings and the Lord’s Supper.

And it uses Beyonce’s story and songs, from Formation to Flaws and All, to frame religious narratives - and those of black women - through a Christian lens.

“I haven’t been involved in the church for years, but stepping back into that space felt amazing,” Lydia Middleton, dean of Black Student Affairs at the Claremont Colleges in Los Angeles, told the The New York Times (NYT).

“It felt warm and inviting, and I left feeling healed. By the end of the service, people were weeping, people were joyous, people were hugging each other.”

How did it start?

Beyonce Mass grew out of a chapel service led by Reverand Yolanda Norton, chair of Black Church Studies at San Francisco Theological Seminary, where she taught a class called “Beyonce and the Hebrew Bible”.

The course examined female-centric interpretations of the Bible and how black female identity is represented in scripture, with a focus on how Beyonce’s “personal life, career trajectory, music and public persona reflects aspects of black women’s stories”.

The first major Beyonce Mass was in April 2018, when “900 people turned out for a midweek evening church service that typically draws 50 participants at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco”, reports the NYT.

Why Beyonce?

Norton says that having Beyonce serve as the inspiration for the Mass was a personal choice as well as a scholarly one.

“As her life evolves, my life evolves,” said the 37-year-old cleric. “I can hear Beyonce songs, or Destiny’s Child songs, and know what stage of life I was in.”

The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) reports that during a Beyonce Mass service last year, Norton told the congregation: “I’ve been asked time and time again, ‘Why Beyonce?’

“I believe she reminds us that you have to do your thing your way, you don’t do it on demand, you don’t do it for your oppressor, you don’t sing when they want you to sing... you sing when God calls you to sing.”

The concept has been applauded by Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary, where Norton is currently a scholar in residence.

Douglas said: “Black artists have always been central to the struggle for black freedom…Beyonce is a part of this legacy. There is this natural correspondence between the kinds of things she does in her music and the black church.”

But the service isn’t about worshipping Beyonce, Norton cautions.

“Absolutely not, and I’m a card-carrying member of the BeyHive,” she said.

“People think we’re worshipping Beyonce, none of that is true. This is a way to have different kinds of conversation.”

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