Psalms of Silence

Is a veteran choir director about to be sacrificed on the altar of modernism?

Within the weathered walls of Trinity Episcopal Church, the rich opening swells of Bach's "Fantasie in g minor" fill the sanctuary and announce the evening choral service. Ed Franklin, draped in colorful vestments, effortlessly works the keyboard of the restored Pilcher pipe organ despite the cast that encases much of his left arm. The majestic music seems a perfect match for the church, all stained glass and carved stone and thick-grained wood.

From the back of the room, the members of Trinity's choir file in solemn procession to their place before the altar. As the service unfolds, their voices blend in a seamless mix that adds luster to the ceremony. Franklin directs the music from the organ bench. The motley collection of scrubbed young families, elderly couples and street people in the solid oak pews absorbs the harmonies in silent communion.

Except for the more bedraggled believers, the scene has changed little since Trinity's heyday as Houston's premier Episcopal church in the 1930s and '40s. While other congregations have modernized their services to make them more accessible to younger worshipers and attract new members, Trinity remains a bastion of tradition.

Most of the current members of the congregation prefer it that way, some commuting long distances every Sunday to savor the Trinity experience. "It's one of the main things I enjoy about the church," says Karen Dodwell, who has worshiped at Trinity since 1985 and co-edits The Trinity Windows, the monthly parish newsletter. "It connects us with the church's history."

Franklin, who derisively refers to the use of electric instruments and a more freeform, charismatic approach to the service as "camp music" and "happy-clappy stuff," has been directing the choir for the last 15 years. A demanding boss, he's whipped his 25 singers into top form: This summer, they're touring England for the second time in four years. "This choir is the best in the diocese," Franklin says with pride.

That may not be the case for long. After the choir returns from the trip in late July, Franklin will no longer be at the helm. On February 3, Claude Payne, Bishop of the Diocese of Texas, issued a "godly judgment" that first praised Franklin's skills -- then fired him.

The move, which came after months of turmoil at Trinity that culminated in the removal of the rector, has bitterly divided the parish and driven some parishioners away from the church entirely. Several members of Trinity's vestry, which functions as the board of directors, want to defy Payne and keep Franklin in his position. Others are equally adamant that Franklin must go. "Once the bishop issued his godly judgment," says vestry member Max Patterson, "I believe we had an obligation to follow it."

Just why Payne has demanded that Franklin be fired is the subject of much speculation, because the bishop has said little other than that he's acting in Trinity's best interest (Payne did not return several phone calls to his office). "Ed, I have never questioned your sincerity or your professional confidence," he wrote to Franklin after issuing his edict. "In my heart of hearts I simply think a change in the role of organist/choirmaster for Trinity is best for that congregation's health and wholeness."

That rankles active church members such as Chris Reid, who serves on the vestry and also sings in the choir. "We keep hearing that the bishop is doing this for our own good," says Reid, who points out that Payne has almost never set foot in Trinity since taking office in 1995. "I don't think the bishop has the first clue about what's good for Trinity parish."

Payne may not be thinking as much about Trinity's fate as about other, bigger-picture concerns. The clash over the choirmaster reflects ongoing conflicts within the Episcopal church over competing priorities and issues of power and authority. For the bishop, who has committed himself to dramatically increasing the number of church members in his diocese, there's more at stake here than a single part-time job. However, Franklin's fate reflects the personal impacts being felt from the larger struggles of the church.

The vestry hasn't yet ironed out the details of Franklin's departure, which in theory takes effect after the choir gets back from England next month. For one thing, members want to ensure that his firing won't jeopardize Franklin's health insurance -- the organist recently had an operation to clear up a severe staph infection in his elbow and may be in a cast for months. Still, while some remain optimistic that Franklin's job with Trinity can somehow be salvaged, most, including Franklin, think otherwise. "It's over," he says.

If so, his departure could spell the end of Trinity's choir, which is fiercely loyal to Franklin. Three members, angered by the strife, have already left. Others see little place for them after the tour is completed. "As it stands today, we have no future at this church as of July 31," says choir member Janet Flasch. "After we come back from England, that's it. Sayonara."

And if the choir goes, the entire traditional music program and worship service that so many Trinity parishioners hold dear may eventually dissolve into the footnote that similar programs have become at other parishes in the area.

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