For many U2 fans, the band’s music is akin to a religious experience. The Rev. Bill Miller takes the concept literally.
Miller is the rector of Christ Church, a 1,200-member Episcopal congregation in Covington. He’s also a devout U2 fan who sees parallels between the band’s lyrics and his own theology.
“Their philosophy is very much aligned with Anglicanism and with the Episcopal Church,” Miller said this week. “It’s not in your face. It seeks to be more open. It’s ‘we’re all on this journey together.’ Questions are not only allowed; they are encouraged. They are how we discern truth. That spoke to me profoundly.”
He also admires the work of Bono’s philanthropic organization, One.
“I love how Bono has figured out how to effect change in the world: You reach out to people who are different," Miller said. "You reach out to people who may not share the exact same political or theological position as yourself. It’s such a timely message for us right now.”
Four days before U2 headlines the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Miller will deliver a timely message of his own.
At 11:30 a.m. Sunday, he’ll preside over a “U2charist” at Christ Church — a religious service featuring the music of U2 in place of hymns. His sermon will be based on the song “One.”
He’ll also give a talk on “The Gospel of U2,” about the band’s theological underpinnings, at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the church, 129 N. New Hampshire St., Covington.
Come Thursday, he’ll board a bus borrowed from Christ Church’s affiliated retirement community, Christwood, and ride with other north shore fans to see U2 at the Dome, proudly wearing the jersey of the Celtic Football Club, a soccer team from Glasgow, Scotland, with ties to the church and U2. The round-trip ticket to ride includes a Guinness, in honor of the band’s Irish roots.
“It’s going to be a fun week,” he said.
Miller, who grew up in Houston, arrived at Christ Church two years ago from his previous posting in Hawaii. He is not married, has no children and is not the sort of pastor who steers clear of earthly pursuits. His 2014 book “The Beer Drinker’s Guide to God,” a collection of humorous essays about love, life and liquor, notes that he “appreciates both God and strong drink.” Inside, he chronicles his failed attempt to meet Miss Universe, among other romantic misadventures.
Music plays a major role in his life. He co-founded Padre’s, a music club in the tiny west Texas arts enclave of Marfa. He’s produced jazz festivals as part of his ministry at congregations in Texas and on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. While attending seminary in Chicago, he haunted South Side blues joints. “They know my name in a couple of venues,” he said.
The walls of his Covington home are decorated with framed posters from Padre’s. A picture of Miller with the members of Def Leppard, snapped backstage after he delivered the invocation at the Houston Rodeo, occupies a place of honor on a mantel. Two of his three dogs are named for Willie Nelson and Mahalia Jackson.
Miller first saw U2 live in 1987 in Houston during the original “Joshua Tree” tour at the Summit arena (now home to televangelist Joel Osteen’s megachurch). “You could not walk 10 feet without running into an Episcopal priest,” he recalled of the show.
At the time, Miller led the youth ministry at St. John the Divine, the Episcopal church in a wealthy enclave of Houston where he was ordained. He launched a Sunday school program called “The Gospel According to U2” that proved extremely popular.
His favorite U2 song is “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” from “The Joshua Tree.” “It’s their most profound theology,” he said. “In it, they encourage the question, which is really for me what the spiritual path is all about. We’re on this journey, and we’re not sure where it starts or where it ends.”
“Pride (In the Name of Love),” the band’s tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., also speaks to Miller, who has taught classes on King. He admires “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” inspired by sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, as a “powerful song of awareness. When they look at the world and see injustice, they name it,” he said.
But he also loves “When Love Comes to Town,” the band’s rollicking collaboration with B.B. King,” “just cause I like it.”
“When Loves Come to Town” likely will be on the playlist for Sunday’s service, along with “Gloria,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “Bad” and more.
Crispin Shroeder, a professional musician who is also the pastor of the north shore’s Vineyard Fellowship, helped assemble the set list and will join jazz pianist Matt Lemmler and the rest of Christ Church’s Celebration Band for the service.
“When I first thought about doing this, I knew I needed somebody like him,” Miller said of Shroeder. “I had the idea as a priest, but I’m not a musician. I needed somebody who shared my vision and could pull it off. And our band is so great and so flexible, they’ll work with anybody in any style.”
The “U2charist” program reportedly originated with Rev. Paige Blair at her Episcopal church in York Harbor, Maine, in 2005. Since then, dozens of Episcopal congregations have staged their own “U2charist” services, but Miller believes Christ Church will be the first in Louisiana to do so.
U2 permits its music to be used, he said, provided that money collected in the offering is donated to a charitable cause. This Sunday’s offering will go to Episcopal Relief & Development, the church’s philanthropic arm.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Miller said. The band “is supportive of what’s happening. They recognize that faith partners can be very helpful in what they’re trying to do.”
In May, before the New Orleans stop of U2’s “Joshua Tree” 30th anniversary tour was announced, Miller traveled to see the show at NRG Stadium in Houston.
“There were lot of other people there for whom it was a religious experience,” he said. “But there were some people who don’t quite get the depth of what was going on. That’s OK.
“I left that concert having a renewed hope. Their music is so provocative and encouraging. And their message becomes more and more timeless.”