Anyone who remembers Robert Preston’s portrayal of con man Harold Hill in The Music Man can be forgiven for casting a wary eye at the Rev. Randolph Charles. He may be a priest, but something about the phrase “Music Story Method” suggests we’ve got trouble, right here in River City.
But Charles, the longtime rector of The Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington, D. C., is not selling band uniforms to children. He’s describing a unique approach to small-group prayer that he developed while writing his doctor of ministry thesis at Seabury Western Seminary.
“We all listen to music,” Charles says. “Sometimes we have a strong emotional response to it. That response can lead us into a deeper experience of God’s presence in our lives. When we share that experience with others, we can strengthen relationships and build community.”
With those insights as his foundation, Charles set to work on a format that would allow participants to share and discuss, in spiritual terms, the intense emotional experiences they had while listening to a favorite piece of music.
His Music Story Method works something like this:
One member of a group of four to six people arrives at the group’s first meeting with a five-minute piece of recorded music that has moved them deeply in ways they would like to explore. He or she plays the music for the group, and then discusses the ways in which it has moved them. Members of the group, at the facilitation of a group leader, then ask questions aimed first at clarification, and then at helping the member who chose the music to understand his or her experiences on a deeper level. Later, the other members of the group discuss their own responses to the music. The session ends with reflections on what the group has learned. The process takes about an hour, and sessions continue until each member has shared a piece of music.
“It’s very compact,” Charles says. “It’s a way to stimulate theological reflection and to get people in a community to share their spiritual journeys. And it’s manageable. It doesn’t cost anything. The group leaders would need to be trained, but anybody who has good small group skills and discernment skills can do this. It’s really something you can do in almost any congregation.”
Charles was inspired to explore the role of music in people’s spiritual lives when he met an office worker on the street who told him that she organized her work day around the chiming of Epiphany’s bells, which ring on the quarter hour.
“She was expressing a spirit of gratitude … not making a proclamation of faith, but stating that those bells were important to her life,” Charles said. “That’s one of the things that got me thinking about the way a deep, core response can lead to something more than enjoyment or edification.”
Charles completed his course work in 2000-02, but was waylaid by life beyond Seabury while in the process of working on this thesis. He thought he might have to abandon the project until he met the Rev. Susan Harlow, director of Seabury’s DMin program in Congregational Development at the General Convention of The Episcopal Church in Anaheim in 2009. Harlow convinced him to take up his work once again.
As part of his research, Charles interviewed 20 people—ten parishioners, five downtown office workers who visit the parish regularly, and five downtown poor who come to Epiphany for The Welcome Table, a Sunday morning breakfast for the hungry. All 20 said that they had had “strong, spontaneous and emotional responses to music.”
“The whole thing turns when you ask them whether they would call it a spiritual experience,’ Charles said. “Nineteen of the 20 said yes. I asked them where they could identify God in it. They said, ‘I felt whole,’ or ‘I felt accepted’ or ‘I felt forgiven.’
“Then there are other questions: Did it lead you to any specific action or insight about your faith? Have you shared it? Would you be willing to? It is easy to go deeper.”
While writing his thesis, Charles was in frequent contact with Harlow and Milner Seifert, his thesis director.
“They probably read my thesis three or four times,” he says. “They helped me significantly in focusing my message. I hadn’t done any academic writing in a long time, so I really appreciated their support."
His DMin now in hand, Charles plans to use the Music Story Method more at Epiphany and “field test” it in other contexts. “If every other month I could work with four parishioners, it would begin to have an impact on the community,” he says. “The more we can teach people to be more attentive, to listen to the music, to listen to our hearts, to listen to God, and to listen to each other, the stronger our faith communities will be, and the more clearly they will be grounded on God’s presence.”