Friday, June 24, 2016

Where did the music go? [UPDATED]

A hard hitting post here on singing in church and how it has all gone horribly wrong.

Or has it?

What do you think?

Some great comments, thank you, making all kinds of useful observations and interesting points.

My thoughts (in no particular order of importance):

- we place great weight on music with our expectations: convey truth, inspire, other connections with emotions, convey liturgical words, connect one part of written liturgy to another part;

- at any given time in the present, it can be difficult to work out what current favourites will last and what will be forgotten (cf. trying to do this in past times ... who knew that Tallis, Handel compositions would last ... who could work out which of hundreds of hymns written by Watts, Wesleys, Newton would be the dozen or so that are regularly sung in 2016?);

- what we think of as "great" hymns and songs is a mixture of lyrics and music (e.g., reading Jonathan Aitken's biography of John Newton at the moment, Amazing Grace only really "took off" when the tune we are familiar with became associated with it; also, it first gained popularity in the States and only later in the UK);

- while there is an "absolute" standard or standards we can apply to words (faithful or not to Scripture, orthodox or not re creedal belief, accurate or not re rendition of part of spectrum of belief we favour (Catholic sacramental truths, Evangelical understanding of atonement, etc) this is simply not so re music: from age to age, different styles of music are appreciated, unappreciated and reappreciated, and within a given age, different styles of music connect with different cultural and sub-cultural tastes (cf range of styles in some parish churches between first, second and third services, and choices made re attendance which reflect generational preferences) ... that is, the musical side of chants, hymns, songs, choruses, anthems, prayers put to music is a complex field to navigate if we are (e.g.) the music director for a pluriform parish ... but navigate we must, because, at least in the corner of the Western field of church which I inhabit, some styles of music are intolerable to some groups of people and it is plain stubbornness which keeps some congregations going with a style of music which is obviously to the taste of one section of the parish only;

- yes, some education could help greater appreciation of a wider range of music.


Andrei said...

Things are worse than you could have ever imagined

Peter Carrell said...


Jonathan said...

"So, while music was once simply a way to add dimension to our sacred storytelling, we began to exploit its emotional appeal, suggesting the feelings it could evoke to be authentic spiritual connection. The congregation’s work was no longer to sing God’s story, but to feel happy, jesusy feelings while music is played in their midst."

This is well worth reading, and moves from critique to good suggestions for encouraging congregational singing. However, I think the criticisms contained could easily be applied to liturgical worship (which the writer heartily holds in high regard), worship led by a pipe organ in a cathedral, worship inspired by uplifting art or by driving or walking through the many facets of New Zealand's compendium of the glory of God expressed in landscapes ever changing... All of these can give either shallower or deeper appreciation of God depending on the attitude of the recipient. That said, anything that can be done to help attitudes head in the right direction is worth it!

Brian R. said...

At St. Michael + All Angeels (Winnipeg, Canada) we still use our 1928 hymn book. Familiar songs and tunes. Almost all of the congregation joins in. Sometimes I'd like a change and have something more recent-- such as those in Common Praise published in 1998.

Malcolm said...

Hi Peter,

I don't particularly sympathise with to that blog post. The last point about singing being a 'sacred duty' is hardly the recipe for inspirational congregational singing! It's got to be more than that if the music is to capture the wonder and majesty of the Gospel.

I seem to remember that J S Bach was criticised in his day for not providing a good lead for the congregation. He kept on embellishing things too much. His critics wanted him to keep it plain. But there is more to Church music than the merely functional task of keeping the congregation in tune and in time.

It's always difficult to get the volume right for music. The problem is that its a bit like people's taste in chillies - what is just right for one, is over the top for another. I always maintain however that the main problem is not volume, so much as having the music mixed properly to achieve the right balance.

I also think that Hillsong et al have given us some wonderful Gospel songs that work well in a variety of churched and unchurched settings. The song choice should be horses for courses. I do agree, that in the same way we don't want to turn the parish church into mini cathedrals, we shouldn't be trying to replicate a large auditorium in the local congregation. But we can also learn a lot from the musical expertise of cathedrals and auditoriums that would greatly improve our congregational singing.


Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,

What a superb post. I have little time for the "Me and My God and My relationship" songs, but your choral evensong, for example, is just as non-corporate in a different way. A choir whose members not only read music, but can sing at sight with or without an organ (but with nice vowel sounds) effectively take over. Admittedly, the choir does not sing the sermon. Evensong can be like a concert. This obviously applies to Catholic sung mass as well, so I am not picking on Anglicans.


David Wilson said...

As a (Lay) Reader (in Britain), I take a service in a care home in my parish. Many of the residents have dementia. The singing of familiar hymns is probably the point of the services with the deepest connection for them. Those who can hardly take in a short talk will respond to the hymns. I fear that the direction for modern worship music means that in 20 or 30 years means that it will not be possible to engage in worship in this way.

hogsters said...

Hi Peter. I read the post a few days back , and it strengthened my resolve to stand silent rather than sing things that simply do not make sense, are impossible to sing, or are theologically suspect.

Singable, (as in I'm not a teenage girl) sensible, (as in theologically coherent, I don't have to beg God to notice or love me) and slick (musically, so you can intuit where the music is going even on the first hearing) are the hallmarks I look for.

For me, and I admit that this is completely subjective, to sing of God's character and his workings through history fills me with much more hope than repetitively declaring and how I want to feel his presence or some such thing. (not that that I don't desire or even experience that on the rare occasion)


Anonymous said...

Peter, the author's intention was to get past inter-generational arguments about musical style to a new critique of performances that are inadequate to the liturgical action proper to the Church. He posits, that is, that there is a mindset in which an amplified choir facing the congregation to perform Palestrina under a sing along screen is objectively worse than a celebrant leading the congregation's sursum corda, sanctus, and benedictus with an electric guitar and harmonica.

But much of his thread seems to reject the distinction between style and action. For some, if a church experience does not replicate their more beloved experiences of concerts or Christian radio, then it does not matter that the rhythm, harmony, timbre, etc are those of admired commercial music. They expect acceptance of the music they like-- love me, love my music-- but more or less as an afterthought, they implicitly reject liturgical action that gets in the way of the experience that is more familiar to them. The interesting question is: why should we not conclude that THEY MAY BE SOME KIND OF CHRISTIAN-- OR NOT-- BUT THEY DO NOT WANT TO BELONG TO THE CHURCH and draw whatever conclusion makes unsentimental sense?

For a while, I followed a young praise band congregation. It went to great lengths to create and present its own exquisitely wrought music for each service. In the midst of that, its pastor preached and led a brief BCP (USA 1979) eucharist. When in the fullness of time, the pastor was called elsewhere, the congregation had to decide its future. Unable to sustain its creative music program, it could not imagine a future for itself. The years of preaching and eucharist had not shaped its identity as the music had done. In the end, the members voted to dissolve the congregation and reorganise as a garden club with an interest in progressive agriculture and food reform.

Just as a congregation saturated with liberal politics may have many members with a left foot outside the Christian religion, so too a congregation saturated with concert music may have a right foot in a non-Christian conventionalism. These are simply the left and right ways of falling away from the Church. Is this not unbelief? And if it is unbelief, why the sense that it is entitled?

Bowman Walton

Father Ron Smith said...

As one privileged to have experienced a great variety of Church music - from Anglo-Catholic plainsong chantm through the full congregational singing of the Mass, Evensong and Benediction to charismatic choruses; I feel that the best way of worship is to entertain a discreet combination of the two. However, the congregational setting should dictate what happens musically.

Evangelical Churches that major of 'Prayer and Praise' have an obvious leaning towards charismatic choruses. This certainly excites the imagination of a younger congregation.

However, for a traditional A.C. congregation - like we have here at SMAA, Christchurch - the more traditional English Hymnal - together with a congregational Mass setting - seems to provide most of what suits both choir and congregation. During the great Festivals of the Church, the traditional liturgical rites with their special musical settings do provide the spiritual 'meat' that brings both joy and the right sort of solemnity to public worship

Rosemary Behan said...

It’s not just music is it? I’m beginning to think that many of the problems that are showing themselves in our world, all have the same impulse. People no longer trust their leaders.

People don’t trust politicians .. hence Donald Trump. People don’t trust their politicians, hence Brexit .. which ALL leaders didn’t want. People don’t trust their leaders within the church .. hence our own problems, and if we ever have a ‘pew rebellion’ .. you’d better watch out!

BrianR said...

Ah, Bowman, once again you provide stimulating apercus that put our discussions in broader or unexpected contexts.
I was interested in what you said about the young praise band-led congregation. It seems from what you said that the liturgical element in the service was fairly limited. Was there even much in the way of preaching? And as you indicated, what you described could be mirrored in older, classically orientated cathedral congregations where choirs dominate. Congregations - very young or very old - that don't have many young children and teenagers to fend with will end up becoming introspective: 'What suits me?' (Yes, it isn't only teenagers preoccupied with that question.)
But whatever one's musical taste or prejudice, one has to face the question: what have I come to church for? Maybe a couple of months of services deliberately fasting from music would concentrate the mind?

Father Ron Smith said...

Who was it who once said, "Prayer sung is prayed twice" ? The only thing is, the prayer needs to be intelligible and theologically adequate. A sung rendition of the Gospel at the Mass, for instance, with proper modulation, can bring drama and inspiration into the mix of worship - which is the real intention for all music in Church. Ther are times for both choral and congregational participation in worship - all of which can be helpful and inspirations for everyone.

Andrei said...

The reason why liturgies were/are sung is not to do with aesthetics so much

Rather it is because throughout most of history the vast majority of people were illiterate and books were rare while overhead projectors did not even exist

And singing the liturgy made it more memorisable - I learned the creed and the Lord's prayer this way long before I understood their meanings which came later of course

What we are talking about in this post is singing soppy love songs to "Jesus" with little theological substance in contemporary styles which are ephemeral and thus eventually unsatisfying

BrianR said...

Andrei, that is the same principle underlying the hymns from the Methodist revival: at its best this gave converts good, popular poetry containing deep theology conveyed by memorable tunes in regular meter. Wesley's 'Hark! the herald angels sing' is one of the best expressions of the doctrine of the Incarnation in hymnody, while few hymns can surpass 'Love divine, all loves excelling' for teaching the doctrine of sanctification. Of course, the tempo and rhythm of modern pop music and quite different from the popular music of the 19th century, and the popular discourse most people are exposed to is of a much simpler, less poetic (and less bombastic) register than people were used to even 50 years ago: look at political speeches then and now and how the contemporary cult of informality has made many people rather inarticulate even at weddings and other life events.

Anonymous said...

Brian, the preacher explained the lectionary quite well, and the canon of the rite was almost beyond reproach. But yes, in a sense, "the liturgical element in the service was fairly limited." To be clear, when the liturgical element in the service is not limited at all, it sounds more or less like this--

The limitations?

(a) The praise songs sought credible authenticity through a visceral immediacy that approached the frontier of narcissism. A singer with a band is an apt force for the soul-laid-bare music of singer songwriters. So long as the subjective is framed by some narrative of God's faithfulness, this is not very different from many Psalms. But that narrative was rather attenuated. (Indeed, one song was a confession to Jesus that the singer had been "making [the praise songs] all about me when it is all about You," which seemed to me to be just what it confessed.) Thus the aesthetic of the praise songs tacitly framed the not-very-personal, the meditative, and the corporate aspects of liturgy as incredible and inauthentic.

(b) Despite the preface, the congregation understood their rite as a *communion*, yes, but not as *eucharist.* After a few me&Jesus songs and a sermon came a me&Jesus ritual in which the chalice and paten were passed around a great circle from communicant to communicant, each of them self-communicating. In straining to make a point about the equality of believers, the mode of administration somewhat undercut its character as corporate and indeed as communion.

Which way does the causal arrow point? Were churchgoers already suspicious of church led to fashion a rite that had bedrock validity for them only because it was relatively uncontaminated by a corporate dimension? Or were young churchgoers seeking the emotional plausibility of commercial concerts only inadvertently undercutting an ecclesial aspects of the Eucharist that they did not understand? Nothing that I saw requires us to choose one over the other.

Bowman Walton

Anonymous said...


What does seem clear is that they were able to congregate only by solemnly promising one another that they would not be as other congregations are. They had-- and in their metamorphosis still have-- a sense that the collective witness of the myriad churches that dot the landscape is so embarrassingly bad that one can be a Christian only in spite of them. Worship, then, supports the believer, not only by surrounding her in whatever positive faith the congregation has, but also by enacting her rejection of assemblies false to her memory of Jesus (eg those that are bourgeois, racially-segregated, complicit in a harshly repressive culture, etc).

This passion for dissociation surfaces in many of the discussions that we have here. We easily see it on both sides of That Topic-- some are deeply ashamed to be associated with churches that will not see SSB as a simple equality question, whilst others regard those with shallower roots in scripture and tradition as misrepresenting frauds who trivialise a great religion. But it is no less present in discussions of Christian initiation-- confirmation in ACANZP, baptism in TEC-- in which persons seem to be asking for a DIY way to turn themselves into recognised members without the suspect mediation of the people of God they demand to join. It may be present in the New Ecumenism that enables Missouri* and Moscow* to have ecumenical relations with ACNA that they would not dream of having with TEC.

Is all this just the narcissism of that singer "making [everything] all about me when it is all about You," or is there something new in the times that we are failing to take into account? I think Charles Taylor is right that one consequence of pluralism and secularisation is that the faithful are aware of themselves, not only as recipients of divine grace, and believers in divine truth, but also as members of a body with a secular image, and choosers of an identity in society.

In societies that are postmodern (or, if you prefer, late modern), some accommodation of these new preoccupations is inevitable. Your rite for profession of faith may be among the better ones. But sacraments and other acts of the Church are not just personal declarations, and a some ingenuity will be required to make their ecclesial character clear.

Bowman Walton

* "Missouri," more formally known as The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LC-MS), is among the most confessional churches of any tradition, has rarely participated in ecumenical discussions, and has dissented from important ecumenical agreements between Lutherans and the Reformed (Leuenberg Agreement) and Rome (Joint Declaration on Justification). Meanwhile, a modest community of scholars studies the complex tensions within the Patriarchate of Moscow over ecumenism, but most agree that confusion about who speaks for Anglicans has made it harder for Orthodox ecumenists to defend their conversations with the Communion. That both Missouri and Moscow have opened ecumenical discussions directly with ACNA is remarkable.