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Metro Lutheran - Compline Choir Marks Tenth Year

Group furthers ancient tradition of prayer at close of day

Russell Tokheim (With significant material provided by Michael Brown)

"Be present, merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of life may find our rest in you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen"

Excerpt from the Compline Service in the Lutheran Book of Worship

How does a thousand-year-old tradition of prayer at the close of the day “play” in the early years of the 21st century? Quite well, according to members of the Compline Choir of Minnesota which is beginning its 10th year this month.

Around 8:55 every Sunday evening, 20 black-robed men silently enter the choir loft at Central Lutheran Church, downtown Minneapolis. At precisely 9:00, the first notes of an organ prelude gently accent the silence. Contrary to the current trends in church growth with “contemporary” worship, the compline service preserves ancient traditions of simplicity, restfulness and timelessness of text and tune. This chanted service of prayers remains unwavering from the traditions that have been kept by monastic communities around the world for over a thousand years.

Compline is the last in a continuous cycle of daily prayers and worship known as the Divine Office of the Church, to which matins and lauds (morning prayers) and the more familiar vespers (evening prayer) also belong. In the text of the compline service, the act of going to sleep at the end of the day is analogous to the eternal rest found in Christ at death. “As we confess our sins, examine our consciences and offer the actions of the day to God, we are assured that God continually watches over our lives, even as we sleep,” says Michael Brown, a three-year member of the Compline Choir.

The power of these quiet and contemplative moments draws the diverse community of men who make up the Compline Choir. They are members of Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and other congregations around the Twin Cities. They’re a diverse group in age and careers. The auditioned members range from 25 to 65 years of age and are engaged in careers from the ministry to architecture.

As the men assemble to rehearse and sing every Sunday night they are united as one by the history and spirit that dwell in the words of the service. Charles Parsons, director of the choir, often comments on the natural expressiveness of the group as they shape musical phrases and breathe in unison without instruction, as if they had been singing together for hundreds of years.

The Compline Choir is assisted in its ministry by a number of people — from a sound engineer in the church’s radio studio to the announcers at WCAL (89.3 FM) to a reader who assists with the spoken words. For WCAL, located at St. Olaf College in Northfield, the Compline Choir broadcast is a top-rated program, and station managers get calls from frustrated listeners on the rare occasions when the broadcast is preempted.

How did the Compline Choir of Minnesota get its start? Back in 1992 Charles Parsons, then music director at Central Lutheran, presented the idea to The Rev. Steve Cornils, then senior pastor at Central. The idea met with enthusiasm from the pastor as well as church council. But, Parsons and Cornils were concerned about gathering enough male voices to sing together past the first year. Both were pleasantly surprised as the group grew in number and ability with little year-to-year turnover.

As Parsons cycles through the hymn and psalm repertoire, many of the original members of the group can recite the exact dates that the group has previously worked on a particular tune (much to the amusement of newer members). One would never guess that this solemn ensemble, singing in the sanctuary, is the same jovial group whose members trade endearing barbs with one another and spout a never-ending stream of religious and musical puns.

The ten-year-old choir has developed many traditions of its own, including a devotional time led by a different member of the group each week. Bass Shawn Mai, a pastor at Walker Methodist Health Center and long-time member of the group comments, "I’m touched by the personal devotional times that mark the moment before the broadcast, and I’m lifted by the good humor that permeates so much of our time together. Through the tragic events this fall in our world and through the events in my own life there is a reminder of the consistency of God's presence as we chant this ancient liturgy in regular rhythm."

Tenor Bruce Setterholm explained that Compline provides for him a sense of closure of one week’s events and thoughts as well as a time of spiritual renewal and preparation for the week to come.

The Compline Choir of Minnesota is sponsored by Central Lutheran Church. The half-hour radio broadcast may be heard live September through May on WCAL (89.3 FM) beginning at 9:00 p.m. Visitors are welcome to attend the peaceful service in the church’s sanctuary. CD recordings featuring the choir are available for purchase from choir members.

Copyright © 2002 Metro Lutheran

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