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Encountering the Almighty God: 20 Minutes with David Hurd

Encountering the Almighty God: 20 Minutes with David Hurd

Episcopal Café contributing editor Cara Ellen Modisett interviewed famed composer and organist David Hurd for The Living Church. Among the questions and his answers:

At General Seminary, you were teaching future priests rather than future church musicians. What were the most important things you could give them?

I think maybe the bottom line of my hope would be to leave them with an understanding that music is integral to worship. It’s not just something that’s drizzled over the top ornamentally; historically — and not even limited to Jewish and Christian life — music has been an integral aspect of human expression and certainly of the Church’s life. It goes right back to its origins.

We sometimes have a dualistic mindset that separates music and words, and some clergy give the impression that the liturgy is really just the words, and somehow music is just kind of little filler here and there, when in fact, historically, the words and music were experienced together as a vital aspect of corporate worship. We now have, in our day, resources in the Prayer Book and the hymnal that are so intentionally interdependent that there is ample material for making all of worship a musically, holistically rich experience.

There is much talk about the idea that church is no longer about four walls and steeple, that church needs to move out and beyond, into the world. What is music and liturgy’s place in that?

At a church I recently served in, there was a slogan, sort of in the bulletin every week, and I wish I could remember the exact words. It said something like, “The Mass is over. The service now begins.”

It’s important for people to recognize that the liturgy is the worship of God. It’s where the church comes together to worship God, to be empowered and sent forth for the life of the world. They’re not mutually exclusive activities, but they’re not the same thing either.

While our liturgies need to be rich and inclusive in all the best ways, they’re not about our own entertainment of ourselves, or our gestures about our social stance. They’re about encountering the Almighty God, and being somehow changed, transformed, and focused for living the life of Christ in the world.

For example, the Salvation Army in New York used to have a conspicuous ministry of street-corner singing of hymns. A little-known secret: I spent a few teenage years as a half-Salvationist. I played brass instruments, I did open-air music. I have a great sense of taking the church to the world, liturgically.

But I’m an organist. Organists can’t take it outside. There’s a music for the liturgy, for the church coming together in the presence of God to worship, to praise God, and then there is that going forth. Once we have heard the words and then been charged and fed with the body of Christ, then we go out to be the body of Christ. So that may involve singing outside the church.

There’s so much church music that gets performed in concert outside of liturgy, and I think that’s a ministry that’s not often fully understood. In fact, when sacred music is performed in the concert hall, it still has great power, maybe a subliminal power that we should not be naïve about. When the St. Matthew Passion is sung in Carnegie Hall, people weep. Even non-Christians weep, because there’s a power in that expression. So I think musicians carry great music with them that says a lot in any context in which they have opportunity to do it.

Read it all here.


Cara Modisett serves as Minister of Communication for Church of the Holy Communion in Memphis, Tennessee. Prior to that, she was communications advisor to the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia and music director at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal in Roanoke, Virginia. She holds an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Goucher College and undergraduate degrees in English and piano performance from James Madison University. Cara was editor of the regional Blue Ridge Country magazine for five years; associate editor for city and regional publications for 12; and a reporter, producer and on-air announcer for WVTF public radio for more than a decade. In summer 2015 she served as curator and writer for the Prayers of the People for the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church. She tweets at @CaraModisett.


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Bill Reeder

“While our liturgies need to be rich and inclusive in all the best ways, they’re not about our own entertainment of ourselves, or our gestures about our social stance.”

Correct, but I would add not for the entertainment of clergy as it regrettably all too often is.

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