NEWS PROFILE: Liturgical revolutionary still bringing art to church

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

NEW YORK _ On Christmas Day, while most ministers were telling their flocks once again the Nativity story, United Church of Christ minister Al Carmines was at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel officiating at the wedding of actress Rue McClanahan and actor Morrow Wilson.

While some pastors might be a tad intimidated by the eclectic liturgical brew _ part Protestant liturgy with dashes of McClanahan’s Choctaw tribal culture _ and the 500 arty guests and media _ it’s precisely the mix the 61-year-old minister, award-winning composer, writer and liturgical revolutionary has relished for decades. For Carmines, God and actors, religion and art, and the innovative and traditional go hand in hand.

Carmines is best known outside New York for his widely acclaimed oratorio”Christmas Rappings,”a modern rendition of the Christmas story. The work combines the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth with music ranging from Salvation Army songs to tangos and jazz.

Since its 1969 premier at New York’s Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village,”Christmas Rappings”has been performed across the country _ from small churches in small towns to New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine to the CBS Sunday morning show”Camera Three.” But Carmines is almost as well known for his role in promoting close ties between artists _ especially in the theater world _ and the church, and for worship innovations that were part of the liturgical renewal movement of the 1960s.

In 1961, Carmines became assistant pastor at Judson Memorial, expecting to stay for two years. He ended up staying for 20. Working with neighborhood artists and actors, he founded and directed Judson’s Dance and Poets theater.”We began to change the worship service,”he recalled recently.”We took out the pews and began having agape meals. We started using contemporary music and readings in the service.” At first, Carmines said, the actors and church members who weren’t in the arts were suspicious of each other. Eventually, the two groups came around.”Actors get hungry,”he recalled with a laugh.”So they came to the agape meals. They began to hunger for spiritual substance. The church members started to enjoy the actors. Soon half of the church members were artists.” Carmines’ work has left an”enormous legacy for not only everyone here at Judson but for everyone who thinks about religion and the arts,”said Peter Laarman, Judson’s senior minister.”Al taught us that humor and art aren’t forbidden in sacred spaces _ that the Holy Spirit works through any artistic vehicle _ if it’s done with integrity.” Carmines, who retains much affection for Judson, left the church in 1981 because, he said,”the arts program had become a bit less important.”Since 1982, he has been pastor of Rauschenbusch United Church of Christ which worships with Trinity Presbyterian Church in New York.

But it wasn’t a straight shot from his small-town upbringing to Manhattan’s avant-garde cultural scene.

Carmines was born in Hampton, Va., and fell in love with music at an early age, playing the upright piano in his grandmother’s house from the time he was 3 or 4 years old. At the same time, Carmines was being drawn to religion, going across the street to worship at the Central Methodist Church.”At church, I couldn’t see above the pew in front of me,”he said.”I could only see the organ pipes. This sounds strange and bizarre, but I thought the voice of God came from the organ pipes. It was the beginning of my interest in music and in God.” By age 10, Carmines was performing for church groups and Lion’s Clubs. At 12, Carmines began playing for a dance studio after school and on Saturdays.

But his performing days came to a halt when Carmines entered high school in 1950 and embraced fundamentalism after attending Youth for Christ rallies sponsored by the Rev. Billy Graham’s organization. “I felt it was a sin to go to the theater or the movies, dance, or play music other than hymns,”said Carmines, who remained a fundamentalist until his junior year at Swarthmore (Pa.) College, where he majored in philosophy and English literature.

What drew Carmines away from fundamentalism? “I grew interested in theater,”he said.”In English class, I’d be asked to read aloud the leading roles in plays. I became fascinated with acting.” Along with learning about drama, he studied history.”I realized all the terrible things `religious’ people had done in the name of religion and questioned my faith.”He became an agnostic.

But he couldn’t completely shake off his fundamentalist beliefs. One night, Carmines went to see”The Story of Sadie Thompson”(with Kim Novak) _ the first movie he’d seen in 4 years.”I paced back and forth in the lobby,”he recalled.”Finally, I decided Kim Novak was worth going to hell for.” Carmines’ religious conflicts were resolved during his senior year when he read the work of theologian Paul Tillich.”Tillich made me understand that religion is imbued with art, drama, music and science,”he said.”I had dinner with Tillich and told him about my doubts. He said that anyone who was asking such questions was incurably religious.” After graduating from Swarthmore, Carmines entered Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1958.

Seminary, he said, was an exciting time. In addition to studying with two of the time’s theological giants _ Reinhold Niebuhr and Tillich _ he pursued his interests in the arts, taking music courses at the Julliard School and acting. He once earning $35 for playing a segregationist minister in a film, he said.

But in 1962, when stage director Larry Cornfield asked him to compose some music, Carmines discovered he was also a composer. Since then, he’s composed more than 150 musicals, many of which went from Judson to off-Broadway and on to regional theaters.

His works have ranged from”In Circles,”a musical rendering of writer Gertrude Stein’s work, to”Camp Meeting,”a fictionalized account of Abraham Lincoln running against an evangelist for a seat in Congress, and”Wanted,”a spoof lampooning J. Edgar Hoover, among others.

The arts express the”ultimate concerns of human beings,”Carmines said, adding these concerns _ birth, love, death, faith, suffering _ are the substance of religion. The arts and religion”have much to teach each other,”he said.”Religion teaches art not to be so arrogant _ not to claim that it’s the absolute truth. Art teaches religion that its dogma should be open to change.”


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