CAPE ELIZABETH — The prayers alone call to mind the seaside cliffs of Ireland, the grassy moors of England or the wild Scottish highlands.

Invocations are filled with earthy and evocative references to the rhythms of the ocean, the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

Add the plaintive wail of cello, the uplifting lilt of flute and the calming glow of candlelight, and St. Alban’s Episcopal Church is transformed into a modern outpost of the Celtic spiritual tradition on the coast of Maine.

“It’s about experiencing God and Christ in our hearts, in each other and in all creation, which seems particularly appropriate in coastal Maine,” said the Rev. Tim Boggs, pastor of St. Alban’s.

This month, Boggs started offering a weekly Celtic service at 5:30 p.m. Sundays. It’s the latest effort by a Maine faith community – in this case one of Maine’s most active Episcopal congregations – to attract new members and promote understanding across diverse beliefs and traditions.

Response in the first three weeks has been strong. An evening service that sometimes drew fewer than 10 people now attracts 80 to 100 participants.

“I think we’re on to something,” Boggs said.

Boggs calls the welcoming, nondenominational service “Celtic Eventide,” using the Old English word for evening. He’s hoping to attract faithful Christians, fallen-away believers and those who’ve never attended church from across Greater Portland.

“Our common notion of church involves a fair amount of teaching and preaching. It’s informational,” Boggs said. “This is more about experiencing God’s presence in a quieter, more spiritual way.”

Boggs launched Celtic Eventide at an opportune time, during the Christmas season, when both the spirit of celebration and the yearning for connection are strong.

“We’re offering a quiet and contemplative experience in a hectic season that’s been taken over by the secular world,” said Boggs, who was a senior vice president at Time Warner Inc. before he became an Episcopal priest.

SPIRITUAL VITALITY

St. Alban’s membership has blossomed in recent years to include about 300 active families from Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, South Portland and Portland. Its vitality is fueled by strong lay involvement, community outreach programs and Sunday school participation, Boggs said.

St. Alban’s has grown at a time when other Episcopal congregations in Maine have struggled. Churches in Waterboro, Richmond, Mars Hill and Caribou have closed in recent years, while the Episcopal church in Biddeford is now a community center.

Bishop Stephen Lane, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, praised St. Alban’s Eventide service as a creative way to reach a modern audience by delving into the church’s heritage, which is rooted in the Church of England.

“We’re having to learn to be ‘church’ in a new way,” Lane said. “Gone are the days when we could sit back and wait for people to come to us. The church still has a great and important message. We’re stepping out in faith to see where it leads us.”

The vibrancy of St. Alban’s was on display this year at its annual Christmas pageant, which featured about 40 children from 25 families – all under age 11. “I like to say it’s a generously spirited place,” Boggs said.

St. Alban’s also makes a point of welcoming individuals and families of all stripes, something Boggs experienced four years ago, when he and James Schwartz, his partner of more than 20 years, moved into the church’s rectory.

“We were welcomed wonderfully,” said Boggs, 64, who was ordained eight years ago.

Inclusiveness and acceptance are at the heart of the Celtic Eventide service.

“We hope this will be a rich experience for frequent churchgoers and those who have never attended church, indeed all who seek God’s grace in their lives,” Boggs wrote in the program for the first Eventide service. “As always, we will welcome the faithful, the seeker, the doubter, the hopeful, the troubled and the joyful. Come as you are, for God’s embrace is wide.”

AN OPEN TABLE

Boggs dresses more casually and without full vestments for the Eventide service. He celebrates the sacrament of Communion at an open table, inviting anyone who’s inclined to share the blessed bread and wine.

He also moves the altar closer to the congregation for the Eventide service to enhance the sense of intimacy and the potential for communal grace, both of which are emphasized in prayers and readings.

At the first Eventide service, Boggs recited “A Prayer for the Evening,” written by the Iona Community, a contemporary Celtic movement in Scotland.

“Let the quietness of your peace enfold us, all who are dear to us, and all who have no peace,” Boggs said. “The night heralds the dawn. Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, new possibilities.”

Boggs also borrowed from contemporary Celtic writer John O’Donohue for the final blessing.

“Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore, may the relief of laughter rinse through your soul,” Boggs said. “As the wind loves to call things to dance, may your gravity be lightened by grace. Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth, may your thoughts incline with reverence and respect. And may the blessing of God – Creator, Christ and Comforter – be with you this fine evening and remain with you for evermore.”

In addition to Celtic prayers, songs and music, the Eventide service includes dedicated moments of quiet reflection, some accompanied by music. Local professional musicians who have agreed to perform at the service include Robin Jellis on cello, Nicole Rabata on flute and Mike Albert on oboe.

People who attended the first Eventide service said they were enticed by the idea of incorporating Celtic traditions into modern worship.

“It was definitely a draw for me,” said Nancy Ball, a Cape Elizabeth resident who has been a member of St. Alban’s for more than a decade. “I often think of coming to the 5:30 Sunday service, but I talk myself out of it. Today, I didn’t talk myself out of it.”

Mary Townsend, another Cape resident, brought her 19-year-old daughter, Abby Donnelly, to the first Eventide service.

“It’s a little more reverent with the candlelight and the time for reflection,” Townsend said.

Both women appreciated the deeper spirituality of the Eventide service and identified with the larger themes of unity, peace, justice, respect for all people and love of nature.

“It makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger,” Donnelly said.