This series of historic Blogs were by Father Ed while he was President 2018 – 2019.
Now that I’ve transitioned to Immediate Past President of GBRCCO, and Director of RCCO Region 5 (Windsor-Essex, London, Chatham, Stratford, Grey-Bruce), I still feel the urge to write—indulge me!
Today, for reasons far from known, I’m remembering yet another incident in my over half-century of ministry that’s still vivid in memory.
My first wife, the late Daphne Ross, and I were called out of the blue to look after a “Home for Aged Women” (the exact title) that was part of the church campus at the corner of the street where we had our student apartment. The rector advised us “not to sweat it, it’s just for the summer until we name a permanent Director of Services. But see if you can loosen the place up.”
Well, we were led to sweat it, and worked hard that summer to bring light and joy to what was then a pretty glum place. We were proud of what we had accomplished, as were the residents and staff of the Home.
The new Director—a close friend of the rector—took over in September. From the first, it was a rocky ride for her. Years later, the rector was now a bishop, and he and I began talking about Daphne’s and my summer interim at the Home. The bishop was not pleased. He glared at me, and said, “Ed, you charmed those women!”
I was shocked, and I’m still hurt by that judgement.
The bishop was implying that I, specifically, had used crafty wiles to work some sort of evil magic—and that led me to start thinking much more carefully about enchantment.
I am certain that what leads most of us into church music and keeps us there is indeed enchantment, but enchantment that is good, not evil. Just as we can get lost in the world of a novel, say, we church musicians are transported way beyond the surrounding normal by the sounds (for many of us, organ and choir) and the liturgy (Yeah, I’m convinced that every Director of Music is really an Anglo-catholic at heart!).
Do you remember the famous 1976 book by the Freudian Bernard Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment? Bettelheim makes a case for the place of fairy tales in a child’s psychological formation. Among child-rearers, the book is a convincing attack on the rationalist schools of child development.
The Owen Sound parish in which I grew up housed a 1914 Casavant tubular pneumatic of (I learned later) 20 ranks. By the time I was five, I knew I had to learn to play it. I took piano lessons until I was 14, just so I could start organ lessons. The power of that old beast, its sweetness, the magic of the blend of full-throated singers and organ—this was good magic, this was good enchantment. I was in heaven at every church service—despite all the (ugh!) spoken words!
I see the same good enchantment at work in the formation of preachers—no, not just preachers, but as I think of it, every Christian, at least, I’ve ever known.
One way and another, at least Christian seekers and believers reach the place of a leap of faith. It’s not an abyss you can think your way across; it’s a non-rational hope you’ll get to the other side in glory—an act I believe impossible without enchantment. I argue you can’t make the leap of faith unless you’re in the throes of Godly enchantment.
Think about how we musicians are good enchanters, Godly enchanters. We can create vision, without which, Scripture says, “the people perish.” Yes, that power to create enchantment in the wrong soul can result in evil—that’s why I’m still hurt by the bishop’s remark, the implication that by “charming” the residents and staff of the Home for Aged Women, I had practiced black magic, selfish, self-glorifying arts.
It took me a while, but as I grew in faith, I began to see that the bishop’s remark said far more about him and his own spirituality than he knew. And if I had any doubt that what Daphne and I accomplished that summer was anything less than right and good, it wasn’t all that long before I became confident that the enchantment we were able to create didn’t clog the channels of grace, but opened the ways that grace could gush in that disconsolate place.
Church musicians are people of enchantment. We can be wounded for that. But if after prayer and Godly counsel we know the accusation to be meritless, let’s not be fearful about standing our ground. God is using our gifts for the sake of the world He loved so much, that He enchants us with “His only-begotten Son, to the end that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
CRAFT? ART? VOCATION?
I write this less than a week after Easter Day, the Day of Resurrection which inaugurates seven focused weeks of worship that celebrate “Behold! I make all things new!”
Next month, my two-year term as president of GBRCCO comes to its end, and GBRCCO will elect a new president and a freshened executive committee. On with the new! I have no idea what the new president and executive will want to do about this blog. On with the new!
So, facing the completion of my GBRCCO presidency, I want to unpack with you something I consider core to being an organist musician who has primary responsibility for a religious assembly’s song and soundscape–
A musician who has primary responsibility for a religious assembly’s song and soundscape engages in a unique occupation that demands unique training and unique techniques in the practicing of it. It is a distinct, definable way of making music.
And this unique occupation, I have found, is very rarely understood or appreciated by anybody, including those who hire and work closely with musicians who are trained practitioners of this unique occupation, or even such trained and practicing musicians themselves.
Why I call music making in the context of a religious assembly an “occupation” I will get to later in this essay. For the moment, it may be useful for you to know that discovering what music making in the context of religious assemblies might be is something that led me to Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music in 1975. My studies there inspired me to articulate the ministerial aspects of Willan’s work at St Mary Magdalene’s in Toronto, something no one of which I am yet aware has before or since attempted. That investigation led me to a lifetime of considered reflection on what and who a “church musician” is, the basis for what I share with you here.
I propose to you three levels of music making in religious assemblies, each folding itself into the next level—Craft, Art, and Vocation. Because I am writing specifically for readers who live in Grey and Bruce Counties, where “music making in religious assemblies” almost automatically means “church music,” for clarity’s sake from here on I will drop the more inclusive “religious assembly” in favour of “church.”
This is the basic level any church musician should attain:
• Hymn and chant accompanying and leading;
• Choir (Cantor) development, leading and accompanying;
• Voluntaries before, during, after worship as needed;
can be simple, but accurately-executed and appropriately stylish;
• Rudimentary improvisational skill;
• Ability to work supportively and collaboratively in a team with other
worship leaders, not least the clergy;
• Profound conviction that church music-making is a communal, not
solo, activity; the lead musician functions within the worshipping community like the leader in a call-and-response Spiritual.
“Craft” means “knowing your stuff,” being competent in the fundamentals.
Though basic, achieving craft level as a church musician is no minor accomplishment—ask a concert-level pianist to play a hymn sometime, or teach head-voice to a choir, or get along with the pastor and the praise team.
Even larger congregations in established churches will be pleased and satisfied when their musician demonstrates the competence that allows them to feel safe, secure, and in the presence of God.
You can’t achieve “art” without “craft;” you can’t teach it, because it’s a grace (or gift, if you will); and you can’t really define it, but you “know it when you experience it.” In my generation and world, it’s church musicians like Healey Willan at Mass; or Walter MacNutt at Evensong; or Gerre Hancock improvising a complex voluntary as the choir heads for the chantry; or Virgil Fox (yes, Virgil!) going full out on one of his beloved hymns at Riverside Church, building up and up until the congregation almost drowns out the beast of an instrument he’s playing; or Paul Manz, surrounded by his choir, presiding from the Schlicker in the rear gallery of Mount Olive Church, while his pastor, surrounded by a cluster of attendants, presides at the chancel altar in front, a visually and aurally perfect presidential balance.
Of course, where there is art that inspires like nothing else, there also is its shadow, the Thing that wants to destroy. You might remember the film “Amadeus,” a fiction about a “rivalry” between Salieri, devout but possessing only a modest talent (“craft”), and W A Mozart, not particularly religious but exploding with talent smarts (“art”). “Art” wins, but ruins them both.
This is exactly what happens in some churches that strive for art in their music—in their pursuit of inspiring “all heaven before my eyes,” they find themselves opening the door for a Devil’s playground of dysfunction and pride. There’s an apocryphal story in church music circles about a wealthy congregation that demanded all its candidates for music director profess a living faith in Jesus Christ—until they were wowed by an avowed unbeliever who played so well they just had to hire him. True story so far, until the apocryphal part: Mr brilliant atheist lasted not too long, and left a spiritual shambles behind him.
Not that craftsman can’t fall to the same temptations as powerful artists. The urge for self-aggrandizement is strong among all performers; the antidote to that is always the humility that comes from “function[ing] within the worshipping community like the leader in a call-and-response Spiritual.”
Craftsman or artist, either way you can be a perfectly effective, admirable, valuable-to-the-Kingdom church musician even if you choose to see yourself as only someone engaged in an “occupation,” or as a “professional.” When one of my clergy friends announced to his religiously skeptical dad that he felt called to be a cleric, Dad said, “Well, son, at least it’s an honorable profession.” Many church musicians working in Canada at whatever skill level might think of themselves—if they’re not just gigging—as pursuing an “honorable professional occupation.”
But practitioner of craft or of art, what if you understand yourself to be called by God to your occupation, your profession? Now we enter a territory that can actually ennoble craftsman and artist alike, and prevent either of them from bogging down in their own self-importance.
Accepting a call to become a vocational church musician, you are on the path to establishing yourself as a bona fide minister, no more and no less than a cleric by whatever name—“Minister,” “Pastor,” “Priest.” Whatever else you may hear, worship is where the rubber hits the road in a spiritual life. And in worship, you are a leader of prayer on the same level as a cleric. Your soundscape provides the context of prayer, your service playing shapes words in such a way as to make them unforgettable, your choral skills draw people into a sacred community. Prior to ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church USA, I wrote a paper wrestling with these ideas, and mentioned how in the parish I was currently serving as Precentor (Minister of Music), there was a balance between my then lay-priestly functions as organist-choirmaster at the west end of the church and our rector’s ordained priestly functions at the altar at the east end. The priest evaluating that paper—true, a professional violinist himself—mused in his comments about the possibility of the parish organist also being the parish rector/head of staff, so close are the worship functions of the celebrant at Mass and the vocational Minister of Music.
Over my years as a vocational church musician, I’ve come to realise that I’m “bilingual,” that is, I am fluent in the language of words and the language of music, and I cannot separate the two—I sing when I preach and I preach when I play.
I have come to believe that to become fully a vocational church musician, you need to draw from
• Musical skills, at least to the craft level;
• Basic Bible knowledge;
• Basic theological knowledge;
• Knowledge of church history;
• Knowledge of Christian liturgical forms, earliest to present;
• Knowledge of Judeo-Christian music, earliest to present;
• Skills in pastoral care;
• Personal humility, the conviction that though you are a leader,
your leadership is always in the context of “mutual submission,” being a servant with and to the other servants of God.
Says a musical colleague, “All this for a 10-hour-a-week job that pays $8500 a year, with no weekends off?”
She has a point. One of my young colleagues recently said that despite her diploma from an elite university school of sacred music, she’d rather just freelance as a music teacher/supply organist/concert performer.
What wisdom—from my admittedly distinctive position—I can offer is this:
Ultimately, any Christian ministry is sacrificial.
Ultimately, your vocational, sacrificial ministry will be noted with growing respect, and your salary will increase, maybe as far as a living wage.
Ultimately, whatever your compensation, you will have the satisfaction and the blessing of having said “Yes” to God’s call, thus living in the light-filled world where in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit “all things are possible” and “everything works together for good.”
A CHRISTMAS MEDITATION
A church musician is essentially a folk-artist, someone who draws inspiration from, reflects, embodies, and shapes the religious culture in which that person finds their being. This has evolved into a rule of ministry for me.
For the greater part of my adult life, my musical folk-spirituality was grounded in the liturgical soundscape of song such as this, the famous Troparion from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, which begins,
God-Bearing Virgin, rejoice …
For years of my life, this was the motet (in the English of the Episcopal priest Charles Winfred Douglas) that we sang during the hushed moment after Communion before the concluding prayer on the traditional Fourth Sunday of Advent, or sometimes at the same place during Christmas Midnight Mass. For me, our choristers, and everybody else assembled for worship, this music defined Incarnation, Nativity, Emmanuel God-With-Us, Christmas.
That was then.
I’ve been back in Grey Bruce for almost 20 years now, and I have come to learn that Christian folk in these parts don’t particularly respond to such music in liturgy the way I did and do. Unaccompanied choral singing, mystic soundscapes from the Christian East, even terms like “Incarnation” or “Nativity,” simply don’t seem to have the life-changing impact they do in the Christian culture which formed my adulthood in faith.
So I’ve adapted. Among other things, I’ve given up mentioning “Feast of the Nativity.”
I note all this because Christmastime inevitably brings on nostalgia. For the first time in a long time, I heard in my head the Rachmaninoff, and my heart melted, remembering the days when Advent Four or Midnight Mass meant “Hail, O Virgin Mary, Bearer of God.”
As folk artists, adaptation is something about which surely we must be adept. True, most of us in Grey Bruce stay at our posts a long while, maybe a lifetime. You might think adaptation is therefore not an issue. Still, the Church here, like everywhere in the Western world, is not any more what perhaps brought us to function as professionals in it in the first place. Where, say, once there was a little pipe organ, now there is a Clavinola (and a drumset, and a bass guitar).
I claim that church musicians are folk artists, artists of and for the people. If, even at Christmas time, the people aren’t enthusiastic about carols accompanied by the organ, then we need to shape our Christmas soundscapes to be culturally authentic. We draw our inspiration from, reflect, and embody, the people, the congregation, committed to our care.
But folk artists are also shapers of culture, too. We are leaders in the community; the soundscapes to liturgy we create have salvific potential.
Let me illustrate, briefly, how I’ve fulfilled this particular role at St Mark’s, where I’m about to celebrate my 10th year of ministry.
I am both cantor and pastor to my congregation in Chesley. I came here convinced, by experience, of lex orendi, lex credendi, the “law of belief” is the “law of prayer,” or “praying shapes believing,” or “how you worship is how you believe.”
I was welcomed as an interim pastor by a congregation of believers who were discouraged because they had decided, after a careful, prayerful process, that they could continue not much longer. People would ask me, “Pastor, how does it feel to lead a dying church?”
If I were to follow only the first part of my rule—the drawing inspiration from, reflecting, and embodying parts—I might perhaps have concentrated on using only palliative care arts.
Soon, though, I realized that although my ministry had to ground itself and grow from the first part of the rule, I could not just let my ministry stop there. I had to put the second part of the rule—the shaping part—into action.
The church musician in me knew music was the means to that shaping. This was a congregation that was wanting in hope, that core value of Christianity. I was sent to St Mark’s to help restore hope. Music in the liturgy was the key to doing that.
When I arrived, our musical and liturgical practices were basic. There was an organist playing the hymns on a tiny if adequate 1949 Keates in the West gallery, but no choir. Liturgically, we followed for the most part exactly the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978, 30 years old when I began at St Mark’s) and With One Voice (1995, 13 years old then).
Over the last decade, we’ve expanded the pipe organ to 24 ranks, established the practice of chanted psalmody (with a very wide variety of styles) at every liturgy, took advantage of the ordered-but-free Lutheran worship pattern to keep every liturgy fresh, relevant and lively, added a little incense to worship from time to time and expanded our hymnody to include contemporary praise choruses, a few Lutheran chorales sung vigorously to their original rhythms, and lots of Gospel. For two years, until the money ran out, I also formed and conducted Grey Bruce’s only professional liturgical choir to give our folks a glimpse of the liturgical soundscape that shaped me.
Is our St Mark’s community begging for a choir again or developing a taste for a capella motets? Boasting about its expanded organ? Petitioning the Council for Lutheran High Mass every Sunday? Even enjoying a few more worshippers?
Nope. Not at all.
But the hope is back, and St Mark’s today is a cheerful, faithful, mission-oriented congregation of Christian disciples. You can feel the life-transforming spiritual energy at every service.
Sure, it’s a long way from Toronto, New Haven, New York City, Harford. I miss the Rachmaninoff.
So what? I feel blessed to be at St Mark’s, to be back in Grey Bruce, where a good country Gospel tune means more to more folks than King’s College Cambridge.
And I now can roar out “Blessed Assurance” with the best of ‘em.
It’s a matter of blooming where you’re planted, in the Spirit. This high church Anglican’s become a full-fledged, Chesley, Lutheran, Christian folk artist, of the people and for the people.
Wherever you minister, may you, too, flourish—and likewise rest content in a happy, merry, and holy Christmas!
A Carrot of Considerable Juice
The phrase is one a clergy colleague of mine used when he knew something was going to require a lot of chewing. He also spoke the phrase with irony, because he meant the chewing would be fraught.
At least for me, the latest effort of our national organization to decouple the organ, its players and enthusiasts from what has been our instrument’s natural habitat and customary use for over a millennium is a juicy carrot, the chewing of which may indeed be fraught .
Without warning, and apparently without roll-call vote, our Board of Directors has moved “That the inclusion of prayer in College or Centre business meetings is not recommended.” In his letter announcing that decision, president Rick Morgan reminds us that although “most of our current members and supporters are church organists and involved with religious organizations … the RCCO itself is not a religious organization.” Well yeah, sure, but …
Up here in Grey Bruce—“one of the last outposts of Christendom,” a fellow hospital chaplain quips—every one of our members and supporters is deeply and sincerely involved in Church. We count a chaplain (me) among our officers. For years, our Centre has joined together in a meal that always precedes every one of our business meetings, and we’ve always begun that meal with a grace. We also have prayer together before we begin a mutually-presented program such as our annual Good Friday Harmonies in the Midst of Madness and Miracle. Praying is natural to us.
When I got Rick’s letter earlier this month, you’ll remember that I polled all our members and supporters. I asked for your input; that resulted in an email thread which came to represent the views of almost all our paid-up members. Of the emailed responses, there was one very honorably and respectfully presented argument that we should be sensitive to what it feels like to be excluded; nevertheless the clear consensus among us at this point—we have yet to explore this issue face-to-face in a meeting—amongst both our young as well as senior GBRCCO members, is that we should continue as we have been. One of our members suggested that the reason we’re such a cohesive, caring, unrivalrous, innovative, productive—happy!—group, is in fact because we are practicing people of faith. It’s who we are.
The reason I became an active member of Grey Bruce RCCO some 15 years ago was
because I knew from the first meeting I attended, in oh-so-rural Ayton, at Trinity Lutheran Church—where GBRCCO’s father-founder Herman Maes, farmer and degreed church musician, had served vigorously and pastorally for at least 60 years—that I was among ministers of music. Lovers of the organ and its music, certainly. But much more than that, folks without guile whose music-making in church was loving, pastoral care. This (shocked) urbanite knew he belonged right away.
When I left St Bart’s in Toronto to continue studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music in 1975, I brought with me the glimmerings of what it is to be a true minister of music. Healey Willan would never smudge the line between “clergy” and “lay;” so he probably spun in his grave when I presented my pioneering thesis at YISM, “Healey Willan at St Mary Magdelene’s: The Parish Musician as Minister.” But his mystical, authentic Christianity, producing the iconic blended sound he got from his amateur choristers, combined with my conducting and functioning as choirmaster/big brother to a crew of inner city boys at St Bart’s, set me on my life’s path. When I finally came up for ordination in the Connecticut Diocese of the Episcopal Church, my friend, mentor and teacher, bishop Jeff Rowthorn, pressed my case with the then Bishop of Connecticut, who had been flatly refusing to ordain any church organist to the priesthood, unless “those _______s promise to hang up their ________ shoes once for all.” Jeff told the Bishop, “Ed’s both/and. You’ve got to ordain him if he’s ever going to fulfill his ministry.”
I’ve spent almost my whole adult life, lay and ordained, in various manifestations of pastoral organist and choirmaster. Thus I ask: Why shouldn’t there be a respected and promoted place in the RCCO for those of us who are vocational ministers of music—ideally generously and healthily religious people, well-trained in the arts of using their skills as organists and more, animators of worship and servants with the servants of God?
Doesn’t the suppression of prayer among us deserve careful RCCO-wide discussion and debate? Isn’t suppression of prayer among a society the majority of whom are church organists, and therefore leaders of worship, an irony that certainly constitutes a carrot of considerable juice? Or more fundamentally, why did our Board of Directors choose not to let the sleeping dogs lie, gracefully note the issue in its complexity, then trust the compassion and wisdom of our individual Centres to deal with it? My guess is that our Centres would all draw from deep reservoirs of sensitivity and intelligence.
Pastoral experience teaches me that our national recommendation opposed to prayer is one of those fraught decisions with wide-ranging ramifications that can permanently wreck peace. Lines in the sand always do.
In spite of our prayers, in spite of us not being narrowly organists, GBRCCO has up until now been extraordinarily hospitable, co-operative and inclusive, surely a credit to the RCCO.
Will we remain that way if we go along with National?
No instrument seems to have had so much of its history invented for it as the organ. The common association of the instrument with Christian worship has led to all kinds of claims for its ancient use in church for which there now seems little evidence. On the contrary, it is worth reflecting that the organ has been generally absent from most of Christian history. After all, the Orthodox Church has always rejected it, along with the Copts and Ethiopians. The Roman Church seems to have shown little interest in it for the first millennium, and even after the Reformation many protestant voices (the Calvinists) continued to do so. Thus a small area of Christendom has been blessed (or cursed) by organ-playing over a relatively short period.
The quotation is from Andrew Wilson-Dickson’s A Brief History of Christian Music from Biblical Times to the Present (1997 edition), interestingly enough from the only Appendix to this thorough and sympathetic study. Perhaps even more interestingly, AWD, still a practicing Christian and Christian musician, was once an organ scholar at York Minster cathedral.
Until very recently, it’s been axiomatic in Canada, the United States, Australia and Western Europe to link the organ with Christian worship. But as Wilson-Dickson notes, when you take the long view of things, it’s really only a corner—our corner—of the Christian world where this has been true. Even then, until maybe the 19th century, organs, typically grandiose installations, were as much for civic boasting as church use. The era of organs and “good music” in every parish church began in fact quite recently.
And that era is now over.
You’ll notice organist associations like the RCCO are intentionally decoupling the organ from church worship. While still respecting the church use of the organ, RCCO and its companion organisations are promoting it as a concert instrument in its own right, as are university organ departments in many parts of at least the English-speaking world.
Wilson-Dickson would argue history is on that side of the present emphasis, and it is indeed hard to dismiss the decoupling, given the weakening of mainline Christian denominations and their embrace of world-song and the whole gamut of musical instruments. When I took Alpha training in the United States, at the height of its influence there, it was clear that if we were to accomplish Christian renewal, we had to silence the organs “and all that kind of music.” Fast-forward to Cameron Carpenter, eloquent on how much he hates pipe organs built into the fabric of religious institutions; mohawked and muscle-shirted, he plays an elaborate portable digital touring instrument on the beach.
I can see exactly how auto-linking church and (pipe) organ can be a curse. Large or small, organs are formal beasts, echoing Christian triumphalism, redolent of past (sorry, Cameron), not present or future. Organs and silver hair go together; some Christian renewal leaders would say, belong together.
But keep this in mind: if communal singing in Christian worship is still important, there’s no single instrument that can lead and accompany it better than the pipe organ. No other single instrument can provide the breadth and depth of the complete soundscape of Christian worship. And all those budding genius organists need instruments to practice on.
Worth-Ship, and What Gets in the Way
“Worship” is derived from the Old English “woerthscipe,” meaning “worthiness.”
I’ve been thinking of this off-and-on throughout the just-past Great Fifty Days of Easter—the most splendiferous time of the church year, gold in the sanctuary hangings, gorgeous floral displays, music that soars.
“Worship” is a term we musical servants-of-the-servants-of-God kind of take for granted, which means it probably doesn’t have much impact on us. In this, we’re likely no different from our clergy and our fellow congregants.
We certainly live in a society that’s cynical about worthiness. The celebrity of the hour is dethroned by scandal in the next. Even religious heroes and heroines—we hear that in truth they’re really psychological screwups, fools, charming simpletons, zealots, wise but too idealistic to be practical, legendary constructs of the powers-of-the-time-that-be.
At St Mark’s, Chesley, five of us last fall began an in-depth, two-year, systematic study of the entire Bible. As you might imagine, we’re still digging around our Old Testament roots. Clearly, from the beginning of our Judeo-Christian faith, the worthiness of YWHW is the core principle. “I AM Who I AM” inspires dread and love transcendent, the God who rescues, who never gives up on the apostate, who dies for us.
I am aware that so much of what passes for “worship” in our Christian congregations is inspired far less by reverence and holy fear—that soul-shaking confluence of the irresistible urge to both stay and run at the same moment (“Take off your shoes, Moses, you’re on holy ground”)—than by keeping worshippers happily entertained. The balance between comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable can easily go out of whack when we leaders of worship are anxious to please.
I’ve worked with elementary schoolaged children for most of my ministry. One thing I’ve come to rely on is comment like the one from children who are part of a Children and Worship/Godly Play program, which develops the natural reverence and respect that all children—if we let them—express in the presence of God’s worthiness. The Children and Worship/Godly Players were in “big church” for a Sunday, and one kid began to whisper to another, “Why’re the adults in here so noisy?”
If people who make music in church can’t feel it any more in their very bones, can’t live and move and have their very being any more in I AM Who I AM, then it’s time for those musicians to be bold, and insist their congregations pay for them to go on spiritual retreat. Same thing for preachers, teachers, administrators—everybody who leads in the family of God, everybody who’s dulled-out by over-familiarity.
Consider last Sunday’s worship: Were your shoes off, as you stood on holy ground?
“In Christian belief, the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.”
Grace is a word I’ve only relatively lately started to appreciate.
When I was growing up, “Grace” was an old-fashioned female name that I associated with unmarried aunts.
Later on, in seminary days, “grace” was a sacred concept alright, but I was so busy doing stuff and being someone that I can’t say my life was open to whatever it really was.
But as I begin to dip into my eighth decade, I think I’m beginning to get it, because I’ve experienced God’s grace so much in my later years that where once I was blind, now I see (Thank you, pastor John Newton, for that turn of phrase!).
I draw your attention to an article written by a young colleague of ours, Eric Choate, in the February 2018 issue of The American Organist. Eric is son of a Presbyterian minister who got his first degree in church music at St Olaf College in Minnesota, where in good Lutheran tradition, they still vigorously teach and practice that subject in their music department.
Eric’s article, “Graced by Music,” recounts how the grace of God transformed the choir of the parish where he is now minister of music, St Mary the Virgin in San Francisco, after a tumultuous transition there involving a defrocked priest and the dismissal of a beloved music director.
Eric came on St Mary’s staff as assistant music director, just as all hell was breaking loose. The rector and music director driven out, Eric was left as music director to minister to and with the remnant of an angry, disillusioned choir. Could these folks ever really sing together again?
Eric wasn’t at all hopeful—until one day, coming in to practice the organ, he overheard the soprano section on their own happily going over his favorite Palestrina mass setting, the one he had introduced post parish apocalypse to a choir that seemed resentful in learning it. That sectional rehearsal, he says, had nothing to do with him—he neither planned it not jumped in to take it over. Moreover, he found out later that members of the choir had been rehearsing on their own for some time, then going out together for supper afterwards. Apparently Eric wasn’t offended or threatened by this—rather, he writes that he was “confused” until he came to realise the music itself had gathered the group together. “It was the challenge of preparing beautiful music that brought hope and joy in the midst of pervading feelings of anger and loss.”
Eric had started something that had become a channel of grace, and now is indeed bringing union to a choir almost ruined by discord.
God’s grace! And may He bless Eric for recognizing it, opening himself to it, and catching the wave!
I write this on Shrove Tuesday, AD 2018. Lent is again upon us. What better time to acknowledge that what we church musicians do week by week, we actually do in an intimate partnership with God, with Jesus, with Holy Spirit?
Music itself, that most mysterious of all the arts, is surely a sheer gift of God. It’s a grace—you could almost define music that way. And what is a musician, other than, fundamentally, the recipient of God’s grace (we don’t ask to be born this way!) and the channel of God’s grace?
All blessings, graced ones, for a most holy and refreshing Lent!
And how was your Christmas?
Professionally, I mean.
When Giles Bryant was President of the RCCO, he wrote some artful columns that appeared in The American Organist, in the days when that journal of record was jointly sponsored by the AGO and the RCCO.
One December, Giles made the point that Christmastide was make-or-break for church music. At Christmastime, the culture’s primed for choral music and organ playing, he said—look at how Midnight Mass or its equivalent always brings out the crowds. Time to give it your very best shot.
So—how indeed was your Christmas?
Did you feel fresh and excited and inspired accompanying the last two verses of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” for the umpteenth season using Willcocks from Carols for Choirs 1?
Or maybe more like my Presbyterian colleague, who confessed that one Happy Holidaytide, Mrs Minister had to drag him out of the mall as his repeatedly muttered “The hell with this!” began to crescendo to sermon volume, with attending gesticulations?
The typical church organist-pianist-keyboardist occupies one of the most distinct positions in the music world.
Consider the travelling virtuoso, who sweeps into town, wows everybody, and sweeps right out of town, maybe returning—and maybe not—five years hence. Consider the choir that presents maybe four spectacular concerts a year, each with a distinctive theme.
Now consider yourself, making music week in, week out, with the same congregation, in the same place, on the same instrument, with the same choristers, during the same liturgy.
Pretty hard to keep fresh, doing the same-old, same-old, for the same-old, same-old, fifty-two weeks of the year.
I know, though, that so many of us doing this are also minor geniuses at keeping ourselves and our music fresh. We hear something new to us, and we can’t wait to play it or conduct it. An inspiration for a different Lent concert, and we can’t wait to enthuse the choir and the pastor. And by the candlelight, with the church full and the choir sparkling, even Willcocks from Carols for Choirs 1 can still make the hair stand up on the back of our heads.
Thank all of you church musicians reading this! Thank you all for abiding with your congregations, with your dog-eared and taped-together Novello Bachs, with the hymns and songs your people love to sing again and again.
Thank you for your abiding, thank you for your loving patience—and thank you for your continuing eagerness to keep things fresh!
No, this is not about #Me Too, or Harvey Weinstein and his ilk.
But it is about morality in music—a topic that, I grant, mostly gets laughed out of court by today’s artistic elites, but nonetheless deserves more than reflexive derision, particularly among organists who work in religious institutions.
In asserting this, I’ve got no less an ally than that “cheerful agnostic” (though he did grow up in a rectory), Ralph Vaughan Williams, on my side.
It’s 1906 in England, “sunny ways” Edward VII is on the throne, mainstream Anglicanism is about as aesthetically sophisticated as a slice of well-done roast beef, and Percy Dearmer, RVW and their private committee have just put the finishing touches on a radical new English Hymnal. They’ve persuaded the venerable OUP to publish it—Oxford’s first music venture—but their publisher is nervous, because no matter how elegant and valid the textual and music choices in EH, they are bound to be controversial. Fr. Dearmer proclaimed Anglican hymnody of the time “weak and sentimental,” the byproduct of a religious world “interested in its own salvation, but much less interested in God, and not at all in its neighbor.”
EH set out to challenge and correct that. In his famous “Preface to the Music” in EH 1906, Vaughan Williams minced no words: “Unfortunately, many of the tunes of the present day which have become familiar and, probably merely from association, popular with congregations are quite unsuitable to their purpose. More often than not they are positively harmful to those who sing and hear them.”
“The committee,” he goes on, “believe that many clergymen (sic, this is 1906) and organists are not realising their responsibilities” in the matter of congregational song. “The usual argument in favour of bad music is that the fine tunes are doubtless ‘musically correct’, but that the people want ‘something simple’. It is indeed a moral rather than a musical issue (my italics). No doubt it requires a certain effort to tune oneself to the moral atmosphere implied by a fine melody; and it is far easier to dwell in the miasma of the languishing and sentimental hymn tunes which so often disfigure our services. Such poverty of heart may not be uncommon, but at least it should not be encouraged by those who direct the services of the church.”
“Fine melody,” “moral atmosphere,” “bad music”—old-fashioned elitist piffle? Well, certainly of its time, and you can still find organists (and their clergy abettors, the ones who sometimes preach at organ festivals) determined to “raise the level” of their congregation’s taste. For increasing numbers of church musicians, these folks are dinosaurs.
OK—but not so fast. Don’t slip past “Such poverty of heart.” Meditate on that image, and don’t just dismiss it as Oxbridge wagging its disapproving finger at the unwashed, because “poverty of heart” is proof that RVW and his colleagues were on to something very big, something that transcends caste and cant. The editors of English Hymnal, in their of-the-times way, fashioned a hymnal whose intent was nothing less than metanoia, the radical, personal, transformational change demanded by Jesus Christ Himself.
RVW’s preface reminds us that for people of faith, the issue is “poverty of heart,” not “good taste.” People with exquisite taste can—and often do—suffer with impoverished hearts.
My background is Anglo-Catholic, but not of the lace-and-gin variety. Percy Dearmer has always been one of my heroes (tramps passing through lived with him and his wife in their rectory); so has Fr Dolling of the London docks, who built a magnificent church in the midst of the dockside taverns and brothels, and when criticized for “wasting” such money on the disgusting poor, shot back that “In God’s eyes, we’re all lords and ladies, so why shouldn’t my sailors and prostitutes worship like you do?” Dolling knew his beautiful church with its beautiful music showed his hapless parishioners that in God’s eyes, they were precious saints, too.
Dearmer, Dolling and Vaughan Williams were all born in the 19th century. They were heirs of John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty–that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” They grew up in a narrow class system and religious and aesthetical practices which reinforced it. Church musicians today lead and serve faith communities that have become more and more democratic in every respect. The question is, do these 19th century churchmen and their artistic forebear Keats have anything to contribute to our present modes of worship? “Beauty” and “truth” were moral concepts for them—are they, can they be, dare they become moral issues for us as well?
I believe they can and are—daring as that claim might seem.
In a democratic society, context is everything. Don Besig’s “Go Now in Peace” may not be beautiful or truthful or transformative for me, but it might be exactly that for you. So if I come into your congregation as musical leader, and there it is, “Go Now in Peace” pasted to the back of the songbook in the pews, am I morally entitled to assume, “If they sing this thin stuff, week after week no less, they must be pretty shallow Christians”?
On the other hand, a vested choir in the chancel singing renaissance motets may not be beautiful or truthful or transformative for me, but it might be exactly that for you. If I come into your congregation as musical leader, and I see a hymnal in the pews, no projection screen, and no evidence whatsoever of a praise band, do I have the moral right to think, “Club of God’s frozen chosen. Everybody over the age of 70, pace a few young fogeys. Motto must be ‘Not an entry-level church, thank God’”?
In democratic culture, there’s a strong tendency to resist moral absolutes. My “beauty,” my “truth,” is just as valid as yours, and you have no right to impose yours on mine. Yet as leaders in faith communities, musicians can’t avoid being moral leaders, as RSV so clearly recognized.
And that’s where the job of music director in church begins and ends. It has very little properly to do with programming music the director personally likes; it has everything to do with paying attention for evidence of poverty of heart and its opposite. If “Go Now in Peace” fills your congregation with radiance for Christ, it doesn’t matter whether you like it. If hymns and pipe organs and renaissance motets transform your congregation into passionate lovers of Jesus and neighbor, even if you don’t much prefer such music, you’d better learn how to make it con brio.
Like clerics, church musicians are de facto moral leaders, whether or not that’s generally recognized or accepted. What we sing and play indeed has moral implications; we need to heed what Vaughan Williams says in the EH preface. But in democratic church cultures, our task as moral theologians is perhaps more nuanced than in his day. Human poverty of heart is always antithetical to the Gospel, and it transcends time and place. So we pay attention, and we reveal beauty and truth and act as agents of transformation in the contexts to which God calls us.
Affectionate blessings for compassionate and wise music-making,
From the President – Useless …
“I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; I am as useless as a broken pot” (Psalm 31.12).
150 years ago or so, just about every Christian congregation of any size in Europe and North America aspired to own a pipe organ. In North America at the turn of the last century, you’ll recall that the Carnegie Corporation made it possible for even small congregations to install a pipe organ, because as Andrew Carnegie, the Presbyterian skeptic who founded the Corporation in 1911 apparently joked, “while he would not be responsible for what the preacher might say, he would be responsible for the positive influence of the music!”
You’ll also recall that the Christian Church’s relationship with the arts of any kind, let alone organ music, was shaky from the beginning. The railings of the Church Fathers against elaborate music in worship were echoed at the time of the European Reformation, with Calvin among others insisting that Biblical Psalms sung unaccompanied were the only music to be allowed. Right here in Grey and Bruce at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Presbyterian congregations vehemently split over the introduction of an organ.
But the organ triumphed. When I was growing up in the 1950’s, it was clear to everybody in Owen Sound— awful to admit!— that if you worshipped to piano accompaniment, you were one of those “holy-rollers,” clearly of a different social order than congregations that had pipe organs in organ lofts and high-minded musicians to play them.
In my lifetime, what a difference!
The typical Canadian Anglican or United or Presbyterian or even Roman Catholic congregation now sings to the accompaniment of a digital keyboard, or perhaps a grand piano—musical instruments dismissed in days of yore as fine for the “parlour” or the “bar-room,” but certainly not church.
So doesn’t that leave the typical church organist around here feeling like the psalmist who sang what we know as Psalm 31—“useless as a broken pot?” Today we’re enjoying a young crop of brilliant organists who play in very special places—cathedrals, symphony halls, universities. But the rest of us? How many of us experience ourselves and the music and instrument we love, in the eyes of our pastors and our congregations, to be just redundant?
True as that might be, I wouldn’t give up just yet. Thanks to John and Steve Tite, two new/old pipe organs have been erected from scratch in Chesley and Hanover, for plucky but otherwise ordinary congregations without boatloads of money. The same pair are curating historic and many other pipe organs in Grey and Bruce, keeping the legitimate pipe organ tradition alive and flourishing here in our back yards.
As the Revd Nicholas Forrester wrote in response to my Thank-You to the Owen Sound churches who opened their doors and instruments to our four Grow week students this past July (three of them, by the way, teen-aged boys), “As a lover of the Church Organ myself, I am heartened and hopeful to see that this very rich vestige of church history has a future,” even “as we know that many churches are now departing from its use in worship.”
For which, thanks be to God!