History of Hymns: 'We Are the Church'
By C. Michael Hawn
“We Are the Church”
by Richard K. Avery and Donald S. Marsh
The United Methodist Hymnal, 558
I am the church!
You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus, all around the world!
Yes, we’re the church together!
The church is not a building,
the church is not a steeple,
the church is not a resting place,
The church is a people.*
*© 1972 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Presbyterians ministers Richard Kinsey Avery (1934-2020) and Donald Stuart Marsh (1923-2010) collaborated on more than 150 songs. The Avery and Marsh duo performed together beginning in the late 1960s through the 1990s, breathing new life into classical worship structures and hymns and introducing the then-emerging forms of worship and more modern songs in conferences and national assemblies. They were favorites for thirty summers at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian assembly at Abiquiu, New Mexico (Wallace, Marsh, n.p.). Both died in New Mexico ten years apart.
All generations have embraced this childlike song as a clear description of the nature of the Christian church. A close examination of the text reveals that this hymn is not childish in its implications. Indeed, the authors offer a clear ecclesiology lesson that articulates the nature of the church. First published in the composers’ Songs for an Easter People (1972), the music reflects the growing use of informal folk styles influenced by the Viet Nam era protest song and the folk masses of the post-Vatican II (1962-1965) era. The text clearly expresses a no-nonsense message that breaks with the refined poetry of classic hymnody in favor of simple language and a candid, even blunt, message.
Beginning with a series of emphatic assertions in the refrain, the authors establish that the church is the people, both locally gathered and worldwide in its scope. Stanza 1 further clarifies the nature of the church by specifying what the church is not: it is not a “building,” a “steeple,” or a “resting place.” “The church is a people.” Stanza 2 focuses on diversity in the church—“many kinds of people” with “many kinds of faces” and “all colors and ages. . ..” The final clause captures an essential dimension of the church—“all times and places.” A similar phrase repeatedly found in the Presbyterian (USA) Book of Common Worship (1993) is “all the faithful of every time and place.” It appears prominently in the Preface to the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy . . . ) in the Great Thanksgiving, the eucharistic prayer:
Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with choirs of angels,
with prophets, apostles, and martyrs,
and with all the faithful of every time and place,
who forever sing to the glory of your name:
Holy, holy, holy . . . (Book of Common Worship, 1993, p. 70).
There is a cosmic presence of the faithful both in heaven and on earth. Those living and those departed who form the “great cloud of witnesses” are foundational to the nature of the church. This short phrase at the end of the second stanza captures this precept.
Stanza 3 presents the church as an active entity: “marching,” “bravely burning,” “riding,” “hiding,” and “learning.” While contexts of these participial references are not entirely clear, the church “marching” probably refers to Civil Rights struggles in the United States. Regardless of how one interprets this stanza, the church is not confined to a building but is active in the world. Stanza 4 describes the range of expressions—the sounds that emanate from the people who gather in the church: “singing,” “praying,” “laughing,” and “crying.”
The final stanza references Pentecost as described in Acts 2:1-4:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them (NIV).
The result is that those assembled “told the Good News through the world. . .,” an evangelistic mandate.
California native Richard Avery received degrees from the University of the Redlands (B.A. 1956) and Union Theological Seminary, New York (M.Div. 1960). He was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), noted for his forty-year pastorate at First Presbyterian Church, Port Jervis, New York, near New York City. For three decades, he shared this ministry with his companion and life partner, Donald Marsh, who served as the congregation’s choirmaster and director of arts (Wallace, Avery, n.p.). His obituary notes:
Pastor Avery was the founder of a ministry to poor people called the Hope Center in Port Jervis, a small city 70 miles northwest of NYC, and a member and chairman of the Board of Directors of Mercy Community Hospital. Under his pastoral leadership, the [First] Presbyterian Church [of Port Jervis] was a prominent center for creative forms of worship, music, and drama, providing many concerts and theatrical events for the community (Avery Obituary, 2020, n.p).
Ohio native Donald Marsh was the primary musician of the Avery and Marsh duo. He grew up in Singapore and Indonesia, where his father was an accountant for rubber plantations. Marsh attended Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College), Westminster, Maryland, Theodora Irvine School of Drama, New York City, and the University of Houston (Texas), where he earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in art, drama, and music. He was also ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Before coming to First Presbyterian Church, he worked in New York City as an artist in theater, nightclubs, and television production, founding the “Presby Players,” a joint venture between First Presbyterian Church and Port Jervis community. The Presby Players presented 75 major performances ranging from Greek drama to Broadway musicals (Wallace, Marsh, n.p.).
A tribute to Marsh at the time of his death noted:
Gifts of the nearly five decades Don thrived in Port Jervis overshadow his death. And that’s the glory of the man. While most of us will be measured by a few lines in our obituary, Don’s legacy can be seen in the dozens of productions he directed at the First Presbyterian Church. Don was widely applauded as the founder and head of the Presby Players; he was believed to be the longest-running director of a church arts group in America.
Don Marsh’s record is staggering. He directed two full productions each year; created the church’s High Tea concerts; and for years wrote a new musical to be performed at the annual Thanksgiving weekend Holiday Fair. All this in addition to directing the choirs for Sunday services. The chapel that has long been home to the Presby Players is named Marsh Hall (Farlekas, 2010, n.p.).
After forming the publishing company, Proclamation Publications, their first collection was Hymns Hot and Carols Cool (1967) followed by More, More, More (1970), Songs for the Search (1970), Alive and Singing (1971), Songs for Easter People (1972), three volumes of Hymns and Carols (1974-1979), and Songs for Special Occasions (1980).
Sources and Further Reading:
Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993).
Chris Farlekas, “Chris Farlekas Reflects on the Glory of Don Marsh, a PJ Legend,” Recordonline, Middleton, New York, 16 April 2010, https://www.recordonline.com/article/20100416/COMM/4160308 (accessed March 25, 2020).
Jerry L. Van Marter, “Don Marsh Is Dead at 86,” Presbyterian News Service (Louisville, Kentucky), April 27, 2010, https://www.pcusa.org/news/2010/4/27/don-marsh-dead-86 (accessed March 25, 2020).
“Rev. Richard Kinsey Avery,” Obituary, Santa Fe New Mexican (March 22, 2020), https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/santafenewmexican/obituary.aspx?n=richard-kinsey-avery&pid=195747251&fhid=7148 (accessed March 25, 2020).
Robin Knowles Wallace, “Richard Avery,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/r/richard-avery (accessed March 25, 2020).
Robin Knowles Wallace (assisted by Carlton R. Young), “Donald S. Marsh,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/d/donald-s-marsh (accessed March 25, 2020).
Verses marked NIV are from the New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.