I wrote this piece recently for our parish newsletter. Your thoughts/responses are welcomed. MP+
Recently a dear friend gifted me with a stack of tattered music books that had belonged to her pious grandparents. The books contained old four part psalm settings, Victorian hymnals, and Hymns and Songs of the Church of England Temperance Society. These old books hint at a lost world of church music, one so different from the Christian praise anthems of contemporary megachurches. Any Christian encountering these old books could either pine for a golden age, or think good riddance to fusty old tunes, depending on their taste in worship.
But maybe changing tastes in music have always been thus? While reading the introduction of the 1938 Anglican hymn book (the old blue book), I came across the rather startling admission that hymn books have a relatively short life span of twenty five years: “Each generation, with its problems and outlook, must seek new ways of expressing its ideals and aspirations. Taste in literature and music changes.”
And music did change. Perhaps you can remember that red hymnal produced jointly by the Anglican and United Churches in 1971 (who can forget “God of Concrete, God of Steel”?) which gave way to our current hymn book, Common Praise (1988), which tries to please a wide variety of tastes, combining Taize songs, Wesleyan hymns, and contemporary songs from the African church. Tastes and books change, but the changes are often messy and fractious.
In the latest issue of The Anglican (Sept 2023) there is a fascinating interview with Robert Busiakiewicz, former music director at St James’ cathedral in Toronto. He has spent his life in church music and has seen his share of fights, though none so bad as when an 11h century Abbot had his monks killed because they wouldn’t sing psalms the way he wanted them to!
For Busiakiewicz, our conflicts over church music stem from two causes. On the one hand, many of us think church music should be sacred, a sacrifice of our best skill and talent to God (complex harmonies, soaring organ fugues, that sort of thing) whereas others are suspicious of music that is too formal, too much like a performance. This second way of thinking wants church music that involves us and makes us happy, so for example a jazz vespers service or a Christian rock concert, old bible camp songs or even just “Shine Jesus Shine”.
So what makes for good church music? I’ve been ordained long enough to know that ten Anglicans will have at least ten opinions: Traditional? Modern? Accessible? Serious? Folksy? Organ? Guitar? Reverent? Happy? At the end of the day, Busiakiewicz muses in the interview, maybe we can just be honest and say that it’s ok to sing and play something in church because we like it.
For my own part, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. My soul is attracted to four part psalms, chanting, Latin anthems and the Merbecke Tudor communion setting. But, I also realize that those are my tastes, and I wouldn’t inflict them on you (at least not all the time!). At All Saints, I think our music is a bit of a conversation between different ways of thinking about church music.
For example, last Sunday, Barry offered a piece, “Streets of Our Town”, which was inspired by the 1969 folk song “Streets of London” by Ralph McTell. Each verse offered a vignette of characters we see around Collingwood. The tune was compelling, and the lyrics painted stories, but what made it work, and what saved it from being merely maudlin, was that the song led us as disciples to think about our Christ-given duty to “the least of these”. Within the context of our worship, the song made us think about the gospel, and so I thought it worked as church music in a very creative way.
So maybe we can agree that our worship music is an offering to God, so we should try to do it well, and we can agree that different times in the church year work well with certain kind of music (so Good Friday, for example, will have sombre music that draws us to the cross). However, at the end of the day, maybe we can also give ourselves the freedom to say that church music, like music generally, is aesthetic. It exists to make us happy. And seeing as music makes us happy in different ways, since we are all different, maybe we can see church music as conversation rather than as conflict.