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Arguing about church music – deja vu?

Arguing about church music – deja vu?

Only a short distance from the National Cathedral (DC) a 150 year old fight over music in church is revealed in a recently discovered pamphlet. John Kelly discovered a pamphlet in which a man was going nuts about church music. “What had inflamed him?

It was the previous Sunday’s service. Three members of the German Opera — Messrs. Habelmanand Steinecke and Madame Johannsen — had been invited to sing with the Trinity choir and perform some of their repertoire” Kelly writes about it in the Washington Post:

I strongly support the separation of church and state. But what about the separation of church and stage?


To Coyle, this was an unacceptable commingling of the sacred and the profane. He wrote that he was against any “German or operatic element introduced there which will overshadow our native talent, or in any manner convert our house of worship into a music hall, to which crowds will pour, either to save the cost of their opera tickets, or to quiet their consciences by listening to performances in God’s house.”

Coyle continued: “I ask you my friends if there was ever witnessed in this or any other Christian land, a more shameful desecration of the house of God than was displayed on Sunday night within the walls of Trinity? It was enough to mantle every Christian cheek with shame, and fill every Christian heart with sorrow; and you may rest assured that any heart which did not feel the keenest inward rebukes, had a bishop been present, would have had those rebukes outwardly administered, and that too in no measured terms.”

How does your church navigate popular culture, performance and worship?


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It’s easy to lampoon Coyle, or those who criticize any change in church music, as hidebound traditionalists. But different kinds of music are designed to accomplish different things, and that’s okay. The question isn’t so much what kind of music one should have in church, but what you want to accomplish with it.

Phil Gentry

Carlton Kelley

Lurking behind this disagreement is the feeling that accomplished and gifted musicians should not be offering their talents to God. Why is this? Why is it not possible to see that prayer takes many different forms? Why do we believe that “popular music” is somehow worthy if offered by someone without cost and perhaps without much skill?

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