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Music for a new old church

Music for a new old church



by Lisa Fischbeck


I arrived early for the Missional Voices conference at Virginia Seminary. So I stepped into the new chapel and caught the end of the sparsely attended Friday Eucharist. Students were serving at the altar, dressed in cassock or alb, a priest was reading the post-communion prayer. A hymn was sung. I don’t recall what hymn it was, but it was one I knew well, and it was played with a reverential, steady tempo. I don’t worship with organ accompaniment very often any more, so it felt nostalgic. Personally, I felt a little itchy for some verve.

The liturgy ended, and the altar party filed out somberly. And as the communion vessels were taken away for cleaning, a different group of students moved into the space. They came with guitars, drums, violin, microphones… and amplifiers. They started to practice music for the conference that was about to begin. They sang songs I’d never heard with a joy and energy that startled me. Throughout the following 24 hour conference, the band led the singing at worship. I did not recognize a single song, but the under-40s* in the crowd sure did. And they sang with gusto.


Soon after the publication of the Hymnal 1982, The Episcopal Church realized a need to expand and diversify the music authorized for use in our worship. Lift Every Voice and Sing II in 1993 was quickly followed by Wonder Love and Praise in 1997, both serving as supplements to Hymnal 1982.  In the Preface to Wonder Love and Praise, the Standing Commission on Church Music wrote:

This supplement is … part of a continuing process of liturgical and musical enrichment and augmentation which offer an expanding vocabulary of spoken and sung prayer. The church has entered a new frontier of inclusive hospitality, not only in welcoming all to the table, but also in  providing rites, forms and music which encourage the sharing of one’s cultural story to foster the unity proclaimed in the gospel. This supplement honors that pilgrimage and affirms “the participation of all in the Body of Church the church, while recognizing our diverse natures as children of God.” (preface, The Hymnal 1982).

That was twenty years ago.

In those 20 years, not only has The Episcopal Church moved to more fully embrace the diversity of the children of God, we have also embarked on a surge of missional enterprises, first planting churches with a goal of establishment, then, more recently, spawning a myriad of missional congregations and experiments.

The mission I serve, The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is part of that surge. We were launched in 2003 to be a church rooted in the tradition but interpreting it anew for a new century and a new generation. A new old church. Without land and building of our own, we were intentional about finding space that would foster congregational participation and singing for worship in a Eucharistic setting. So we looked for space that included a piano and movable chairs, and avoided theaters or gymnasiums. We worshipped for five years in a synagogue and for another five years in a Unity Church.

The Advocate is called to welcome those who have had little or no experience of church, or those who might not be drawn to a more established space or way of worship. For our music, therefore, we look for hymns and songs that are easy to learn and that foster prayer, praise, faith and community for the uninitiated. We look to music that is written to be sung with minimal instrumental accompaniment, or even a cappella. Taizé, for sure, and songs from other monastic communities, like Iona, and the Community of Celebration. Also early American shape note songs, songs from St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, chants from the Eastern Orthodox Church, songs old and new from the Roman Catholic Church, as well as beauties from the Hymnal 1982, LEVAS II, and Wonder Love and Praise. In short, we have drifted from the authorized music of The Episcopal Church in order to respond to a mission impulse.

We are not alone.

As The Episcopal Church takes 21st century mission more and more to heart, so is our musical expression expanding and diversifying. And not just to appeal to a new generation or a new taste in music. But also in response to our new varied settings. New congregations are more likely to worship in spaces without organs, pews, stone floors and high ceilings. Free from our traditional settings, it easy to appear as if anything goes. And maybe, for a time, that’s okay, even necessary.

I find myself wondering how the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music will respond to this wave. SCLM has certainly had their hands full over the past two General Conventions. So at present, the SCLM website reports that an online survey is available until 2011 and their page on the TEC website features an hour-long outdoor jazz concert.

In the meanwhile, the Conference of the Association of Anglican Musicians met in Connecticut last weekend (12-16 June) and included a panel of bishops and representatives from the seminaries of the church to “discuss the role which music plays in the formation of all of the faithful, and especially the clergy”.

One doesn’t have to spend much time planning a liturgy in the Episcopal Church to realize the personal passions and tastes we hold for our music. And the language we use to describe the music we don’t personally like — dirge, sap, drivel, outdated, trash, campfire songs — doesn’t help. One person’s dirge, after all, is another person’s dignity; one person’s sap allows another’s spirit to soar with the Holy Spirit in delight.

My own hope is that we can hold our conversations about church music with a spirit of mutual respect, that we be open to the movement of the Spirit in the music catching hold in our newer congregations, and that we can realize that, despite our good arguments, our musical preferences have as much to do with taste as theology. To that end, I commend the opening chapter, “Why We Sing”, of the Roman Catholic Church’s Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, which says, in part:
A cry from deep within our being, music is a way for God to lead us to the realm of higher things. As St. Augustine says, “Singing is for the one who loves.” Music is therefore a sign of God’s love for us and of our love for God. In this sense, it is very personal. But unless music sounds, it is not music, and whenever it sounds, it is accessible to others. By its very nature song has both an individual and a communal dimension.

In some ways I miss the days of one hymnal, with songs clearly vetted for worship by Episcopalians. And I still take comfort in the sound and pace, the poetry and theology of the organ-accompanied, robust hymnody of an Anglican Cathedral. But if the people who make up the community that is the Episcopal Church are changing and diversifying, I reckon our hymnody will as well.

It already is.

* Note: While there is not a monolithic taste in music among people who are under 40 years old, at this gathering the younger participants seemed to very much appreciate the alternative sound.





The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the launching Vicar of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a new old church in Chapel Hill, NC.


image: The twice-a-year Blue Grass Mass brings indigenous music to the Advocate Chapel (photo by Thomas Fisher)


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