On a rainy Sunday night, the streets of downtown Raleigh were deserted and many bars and pubs empty, with the exception of one: Tir Na Nog, which held about 60 singers, belting out tunes and sipping pints of beer together.
They sang “Wagon Wheel” and “Lean on Me,” but mostly they sang traditional Christian hymns, like “Just as I am,” an a cappella version of “Be Thou My Vision,” and “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.”
“Beer and Hymns,” started by the Revs. Claire Clyburn and Hollie Woodruff almost a year ago, attracts an eclectic crowd of various ages, backgrounds and beliefs. It’s one of dozens of groups around the country that combine religious music with a pub atmosphere, in this case complete with a folk band of flute, violin, bass, mandolin and guitars.
Several people at Tir Na Nog said they learned about beer and hymns events at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, which celebrates justice, spirituality and art and is inspired by similar international events like Burning Man and the Greenbelt Festival in the United Kingdom. Throughout the festival, several hymn sings occur accompanied by alcoholic – and nonalcoholic – beverages.
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Woodruff compares pub culture to being a part of church history. Many believe that popular hymns today were based on popular drinking songs of earlier centuries, especially those by famous hymnists such as Martin Luther and Charles Wesley.
Other church music historians have called that a myth, although some hymnists borrowed from secular tunes.
Chris Simes of Raleigh said beer and hymns is part of a movement that is “less organized, and more organic.” Doubt is expected, and a lack of a traditional building allows freedom and a different focus.
Simes admitted to having a hard time swallowing graphic war theology described in such hymns as “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“These old songs have terrible, crusty theology,” he said.
David Anderson, who attended with his wife and newborn, agreed. Even so, he enjoys the different context of worship and was attending for the first time.
“We’ve been trying to come for a year,” Anderson said.
Courtney Crute and her former roommate and newly-married friend Kimberly Spence-Jensen sat toward the back with a group of family and friends. Spence-Jensen said she likes to bring friends along, even those without a religious background.
Crute cradled a glass of white wine and said that she comes from a Methodist background. “I’m getting back into church,” she said. “I come for the good Christian music.”
Starting a movement
Woodruff, who is currently an interim minister at Wake Forest Christian Church, attended the beer and hymn sing at the Wild Goose Festival two years ago and introduced herself to the woman sitting next to her.
That woman was Clyburn, and the two quickly realized their similarities, such as being ministers who live in downtown Raleigh.
“We should bring this to Raleigh,” Woodruff said to Clyburn.
At their first event, 150 people turned out. Tir Na Nog had initially suggested giving them the back room, but the crowd simply did not fit. Now, the evenings average about 100 singers.
There are rumblings that a similar event will start in Chapel Hill and Black Mountain. An Atlanta hymn-sing sprung out of the Raleigh event.
Clyburn clarified the difference between bars and a pub setting, which emphasizes community. The events are a good way to engage people around the commonality of hymns.
“We always intended it to be ecumenical and a place to invite anyone from any tradition or no tradition at all,” said Clyburn.
Woodruff admits she is not sure why people come on such an inconvenient time as Sunday evening.
“I think it’s what the beer represents, not worrying about what you’re wearing or thinking. It’s just a casual environment,” she said.
“This is it’s own entity, it belongs to Raleigh. There is no guidebook.”