By Ralinda Gregor
This article was originally published by the American Anglican Council and is used with permission
Image copyright fernandoortega.com. Used with permission.
When Christ the King Anglican Church launched in Albuquerque, N.M. in October, the new AC-NA parish started out with some unique resources. Not only were they able to lease an empty church building and move in immediately, but they also brought their artist-in-residence with them, contemporary Christian recording artist and worship leader, Fernando Ortega.
Ortega and his wife Margee, newcomers to Anglicanism, joined St. Mark’s on-the-Mesa Episcopal Church three years ago and made the move to Christ the King with the Revs. Roger and Libbie Weber and the majority of the congregation. Ortega had been on the church staff less than three months when the parish realigned with AC-NA.
The Webers were unfamiliar with Ortega’s music when he came to their parish three years ago, but a few parishioners soon let them know about the God-gifted musician in their midst. “He’s been a blessing to our parish,” said the Rev. Libbie Weber, assisting priest and wife of the rector, the Rev. Roger Weber. “Roger and I had been seeking the depth and history and mystery and beauty of Anglican worship, and our thoughts and feelings seemed to parallel those of Fernando and Margee who were looking for the same things. We needed a music worship leader, and he needed to stay home more with his wife and his daughter Ruby who just turned one.”
Ortega began studying piano as a child and earned his bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of New Mexico. From the late 70’s to 1993, he served in music ministry at a number of churches, including a Baptist church in Albuquerque, Congregational Christian and Assemblies of God churches in southern California, and First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, Calif. which was pastored by Chuck Swindoll. From 1993 to 2009, Ortega worked mainly as a concert and recording artist, and has released 14 records. He also served as a frequent worship leader for Anne Graham Lotz Ministries.
Ortega came to Anglicanism over time. “I started questioning what worship was,” he said. “What are we doing when we gather here as believers?” He and Margee visited several Episcopal churches in Southern California, including St. James in Newport Beach, and were intrigued by the beauty of the liturgy and the symbolism in the service. “It ties us to the community of believers from centuries before,” he explained.
One of his more recent works, “The Shadow of Your Wings,” is influenced by the Book of Common Prayer, although Ortega was not yet an Anglican when he wrote the music. When preparing to sing for the funeral of a Presbyterian minister who was a close friend, he picked up a Book of Common Prayer and read the burial rites. “I couldn’t believe how that assembling of passages and verses was so comforting when you lose someone. As a music minister I’ve been to a lot of funerals and so much of what’s said is inappropriate. It doesn’t acknowledge the grief and tragedy of death and then appropriately acknowledge Christ’s victory over death and the hope we have in his resurrection. I found all that in the Book of Common Prayer,” he said.
He started writing songs that were based on the burial rites, the Holy Week liturgies and morning prayer. Those songs eventually became an album that has been popular among Christians both inside and outside of Anglicanism. While recently visiting Emmaus Bible College and Wheaton, Ortega found that his album had captured the attention of Christian college students as well. “I asked them what kind of music they liked and they said â€˜anyone who can teach us the old hymns.’ And one guy said preferably Anglican hymns! They’re interested in the Book of Common Prayer, and most of them are not Anglicans.”
Ortega’s music is inspiring Christians across the country and at his home church as well. Christ the King Church is seeking to take the best of Anglican heritage and present it in a fresh way, starting with music and hopefully expanding into the arts, according to Weber. Ortega’s Christian faith and broad experience as a music minister is helping the parish look at worship with fresh eyes. His insight is instructive to those who are trying to rebuild Christ-centered, missional Anglicanism in North America.
Ortega has always been drawn to traditional hymns even though some of the churches he served in used only contemporary music. “I would just arrange the hymns in a modern way,” he said. He believes that many of the songs in the 1982 hymnal have a contemporary feel with a guitar or piano accompaniment. Ortega also incorporates hymns from other Christian traditions, including some Baptist and Pentecostal hymns. The singer/songwriter cautions music ministers not to use contemporary or traditional music that is poorly written or “theologically thin.” He also encourages young songwriters and music ministers to write new and thoughtful songs. “I’ve been inspired in Advent to write music. I wrote a Trisagion. I had never even heard the term Trisagion until about three weeks ago,” he said. While Ortega appreciates the beauty of the liturgy, he also recognizes its drawbacks. “When worship is following a liturgy every week it can easily become very rote, and I see it on the faces of some people who just kind of go through the motions,” he said. “I think there’s a sense of inward discipline that has to take place. We have what we call gathering songs ten minutes before worship as a time to reflect and prepare for the service.”
Ortega also pointed to Advent as a time to reflect and prepare, mentioning that he recently assembled most of the hymns for his first service of lessons and carols at Christ the King. “It was all about our need-Christ come again and reign, help us to make room for you in our hearts … I appreciate being able to live my life based on that narrative.”
To listen to Fernando Ortega’s music, go to www.FernandoOrtega.com.