New harmonies

The Christian Century wonders about the current state of church music in Church music after the worship wars, music and identity at four congregations:

Decades after the first time an organ console was unplugged to make way for a guitar amp, the worship wars rage on. Nine years after Tom Long, in Beyond the Worship Wars, prescribed excellence across a range of musical styles, worship planners still find themselves talking about the relative merits of exactly two. There's either the densely theological hymn by Wesley or Luther (gobs of words sung over gobs of chords) or the vapid pop-rock song by some cool young person (maybe five words over three chords).

It's a stark difference, and it doesn't offer battleground churches a great set of options. A worship service should be cohesive, aesthetically pleasing and broadly inclusive. Worship that juxtaposes hymns with praise choruses is often a jarring, bipolar experience. And congregations that segregate by musical taste, creating separate services according to style, end up reducing diversity to an abstraction, reflected only on the membership roll.

Fortunately, these options are false ones. Church music is wonderfully diverse. Centuries of hymnody don't constitute a single style; neither, for that matter, do decades of praise choruses. And in which category would we put new classical hymns, old gospel hymns, black spirituals, Taizé chants or the folkie liturgical music borrowed from late-20th-century American Catholics? Then there's the minor matter of music from parts of the world that aren't dominated by white people. This wealth of music—and the fact that neither the organ people nor the praise-band people own it—offers rich possibilities for defusing the worship wars.


Read about 4 congregations making music here.

How is the music at your church?

Comments (10)

I like the way you present this. I would like to mention that the "organ war" thing seems overblown and false, in that the complaint I've typically read is that "the organ drowns out the voices." The organ does not have to drown out anything, the organist can be asked to play softer, as in an accompaniment.

I love the diversity of music. I travel widely and hear a fairly wide range. However, at my home parish, music is our number 1 draw, and what we have is excellence in traditional Anglican music. Occasionally there are guest instrumentalist. I'm a professional musician, and I can say that the quality is truly outstanding. We don't have a lot of diversity in music, however. Interestingly, our parish, which is growing, is mostly made up of people who are not cradle Episcopalians. For that reason, it is hard for me (born into the Greek Orthodox Church) to accept that this great Anglican music, with it's awesome theology, is an "insider thing."

Practically speaking, as a professional musician, I'm thinking that it would be much harder to have real excellence if the musicians had to have far more generalized skills and repertoire. Our choir is from the parish with only a few paid singers. Over the years they've become expert in the Anglican music.

I think that in the discussion, in most places (perhaps not in cities with incredibly versatile professional musicians, such as in New York) this discussion should include the likely trade off of excellence for the sake of diversity.

I still find it odd that there's this clamor about music. I would think that this is truly parish-by-parish grassroots issue. Singing is "intensified prayer." Chanting the Psalms, singing the service music and hymns that speak to the day's lessons, intensifies the liturgical experience. If singing is intensified prayer, then it can really be strongly personal as well as communal. Consequently, there should be no "wars" over it. There should be a lot of respect that people know what nurtures their souls, and what is a total turn on for me could be a turn off for you. No ones music is going to "save" the church. Spirited music, sung with conviction, as part of a community sharing the love of God in the world, is where it's at.

We lived through the Music Wars, eventually, after a merger between a congregation that brought several dozen 1982 and 1940 Hymnals to a place that had no organ, a lackluster praise band, and a rack full of Gathering (GIA) song books. Somehow we all made it work; an electronic organ was installed, some choral music and psalm chanting was started, and although there are separate services in the winter, we reunite with blended music styles in the summer.

Another smaller congregation is merging with us next year; we're looking forward to learning new songs and harmonies.

It's heartening to see this Christian Century article take us to positive territory and creative discoveries beyond the false 'traditional vs. contemporary' stand-off and dichotomy.

In the worship wars context, "contemporary" and "traditional" are used like brand-names for off the shelf consumer products rather than descriptively of music-making and living musical cultural.

A genuinely traditional musical practice draws on musical material and ways of making music from earlier times and chooses NOW what to carry forward and how to make the music live today. Living tradition renews itself by continuing discoveries - in music outside the church context we've seen a generation of such renewal of renaissance and baroque music, "Early Music" that has made old music new with different understanding of the instruments of the time, fresh appreciation for improvisation's place in the music, different understanding of ensemble playing before conductors became the norm.

But what's actually contemporary? Music made today with living, active composers and creators in the mix; music that directly engages the ear and delight of people listening and perhaps making their own music NOW.

If we're not arguing brand or identity music, genre or content as a quasi-doctrinal position, "contemporary" and "traditional" describe gestures in music-making that will always be in some kind of dialogue.

Over the past couple of years, my experience of short-term pastoring of congregations polarized in the genre version of this dichotomy and struggling to find a musical voice in the present, I've found we start to come to something new through listening -
first, listening to one another to find out how the pieces someone loves to sing move them (so we allow ourselves to enjoy and value someone else's musical experience as a way of valuing and loving them), and second, listening to the music, to our voice together, to when we're singing and when we're not singing. The music wars don't persist because of musical differences but fiercely held 'musical' opinions.

Although my "day job" is as a behavioral neurologist, I recently "came out of retirement" to sit behind the organ console of a Phoenix Episcopal church to tread the pedals again in a church that found itself without an organist and with a distinctly Anglo-catholic heritage. We have, at the moment, essentially a choir of one with a vocalist who sings the Gregorian minor propers. The congregation sings traditional hymnody with an occasional selection from LEVAS. My training is classical with a baroque revival aesthetic. I spend hours each week working on the incidental music. I try to present the hymns artfully, and yet also make them singable. Taking a place on the bench, I essentially give up on the liturgy as a prayerful experience for myself, sacrificing my own devotions to enrich the worship of others.
Online, however, I feel under constant attack as an organist. Somehow organist=anti-progressive. Organ music is "bad." At the advanced age of 47, I am an out-of-touch antique. My musical "voice" only can stretch so far. Maybe there are musicians who can do the hottest new thing and high-quality traditional music too. That person is definitely not me. Given how little we seem to value our church musicians these days, we seem to expect a lot. In the worship wars, I will remind us that some of the persons most dedicated to "traditional" music are our youngest members and converts.
As a plea of understanding, I might suggest that the next time you think about a "complaint" about the style of music, remember most of us are doing it because we love the church, and no amount of any genre will "work" for persons who have not cultivated the art of liturgical prayer. The problem may be less the style of music than persons who come to the liturgy so unprepared that the music is judged as any secular entertainment. The point in the case will have been missed: GIGO.

Jeffrey - you can come play for us anytime - we would love an organist. It is not limiting but expansive to have someone who can play.

OMG Jeffrey, if you're an antique, then what is our religion? My God, there's been thousands of years of music and these silly people just want to throw it all out, all of it, every bit, they care nothing for the musical traditions of our ancestors in the faith, they just want what they want and silence all the saints, who cares, UGH. Why be Episcopalian if you have a problem with our sacred music? That's a central part of our identity, for God's sake!

Clint, I'd appreciate it if you could manage to show a little respect for people with whom you disagree. Matters of taste are, in fact, not matters of faith. And you need to stop questioning people's right to worship in our churches because they don't appreciate the same music that you do.

Many people do not understand the demands placed on the organist / choirmaster. In a typical Episcopal church, the choir is 100% volunteer, meaning that they can walk out at any time. These generous volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds with training ranging from moderate to none. The best choirmasters have a broad familiarity of the available repertoire so that the can find music that is easy enough to learn, yet good enough to make the choir sound good. In some cases, this may mean making compromises between preferred styles of a disparate group and their actual capabilities.

In addition, the volume of music performed by the average choir is immense. There is a new anthem, and perhaps more, performed every week. An orchestra chorus doesn't do this much sight reading.

A professional music director who can do all of this effectively is extremely rare, and there is never enough money to pay them what they deserve.

As a former chorister in TEC from the age of six, I second what Paul wrote.

In my own congregation, since you ask about the music at my church, there is much use of the Hymnal 1982, frequent use of Wonder, Love, and Praise, and since I learned that the Afro-Caribbean people who came to my church 40 years ago missed such gospel hymns as "Power in the Blood", we have something from LEVAS almost every Sunday.

On the last Sunday of the month it gets interesting. The primarily English speaking congregation and the Spanish speaking congregation come together for bilingual worship. This means that while there may be a hymn or two from 1982, it is usually one that also has a good Spanish translation. Advent one, for instance, there is a four verse translation of "O Come, O come Emmanuel". There are also some translations of hymns in LEVAS. the Spanish El Himnario is not used at all. A lot of the Spanish songs come from Columbia and Puerto Rico and are in no hymnal. Some have English translations. The Christmas carols in the latino tradition, called villancicos, are not anything like the European ones to which we are accustomed, which has made Christmas Eve very interesting to plan. "Noche de paz", however, accompanies the parade of the Holy Family to the creche in both languages.
And clearly I'm writing a treatise so I shall stop.

Jim you are reading entirely the wrong points into my frustrated statement. First of all, I don't see this as a matter of taste, my musical taste is broad and diverse, from Wagner to Tina Turner, but I will not bring these into church. It IS a matter if faith to me that all taste is put aside as much as possible when entering into church. It IS a matter of faith to me that the liturgy is an entirely integrated experience, music included, that has a feel and sound intended to transmit an experience of the Christianity not found anywhere else, and that is the most important thing that happens at church because it cant happen anywhere else. That experience is a sacred trust. Justify to me why personal or even collective taste is reason enough to dispense with this inheritance. I really want to hear an argument that doesn't just boil down to "well we just dont like this anymore." All statements like "not relevant" or "this just doesnt speak to [whomever] are just versions of this.

And I have never disputed anyones right to worship with us, but why would they want to if they are turned off by those things about us that are most unique?

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