Since the Reformation, the history of the Western Church has been peppered with dissent and schism, sometimes on matters of gravitas such as the role of the episcopate; sometimes concerning major social issues like slavery. Occasionally the cause of dissent has been of relatively ephemeral import, such as whether the chalice should be raised or kept on the table during the eucharist.
In recent decades the hot issue for many denominations has been less to do with theology and more to do with aesthetics, namely what kinds of music are preferable for liturgical use. Churches, which have espoused the faux supremacy of personal choice in all things, have found internal squabbles emerging, especially when the denominational hymnal has been replaced by a digital projection screen, which, depending on its size, may require worshippers to sing the first subordinate phrases of a text without knowing the substance of the principal clause.
It is therefore timely that a volume of essays should be devoted to the relatively neglected liturgical issue of congregational song. These are the edited editions of papers presented at a symposium held in the autumn of 2011 in Cuddesdon College, Oxford. But is this compendium a smorgasbord or a Pandora’s box of singing in church?
Diversity is a key word in describing the material. In style it ranges from personal apologias for specific genres of congregational song to objective reflection on liturgical and musicological phenomena. In research it varies from a control group of one to a survey of 40 congregants in the same church. In subject matter, it ranges through contemporary Gospel music; sung sensuality among 18th century Moravians; the fascination of Mennonites with a doxology in their 1969 hymnal; Roman Catholic post Vatican II music in Hungary, and the category of song called Praise and Worship which has often wrongly been identified as the source of arguments regarding the aesthetics of corporate spirituality, otherwise known as ‘worship wars.’
Sometimes one wishes that an author was less subjective in the appraisal of a favoured musical genre; sometimes one wishes that the author showed as much ability in original thought as he or she has in extravagantly citing other publications. But perhaps this inconsistency in style or scholarly depth is a good thing; for where the musical devotee brings passion, the academic offers more measured analysis.
There are some very good essays, principal among them that by Kinga Povedak which benefited from two research grants enabling the author, who lives in Eastern Europe, to chart the astounding ambiguity with which the Roman Catholic church dealt with the new music permitted in the wake of Vatican II. For purists, for whom nothing dared displace Gregorian Chant, the contemporary songs were anathema. But for young people who were forbidden to indulge in popular music from the West, this genre was an emblem of resistance to the repressive political machine. Equally important, Povedak offers an objective critique of western styles which actually encourages traditionalists to be tolerant of the ‘new.’ She conjectures that when Gregorian Chant was being developed there must have been bad apples among the early oeuvres which have long since been lost to view.
Martin Stinger’s contribution, “Worship, Transcendence and Danger,” is an equally stunning piece in its recognition of how what is called “wallpaper” or “lobby music” takes the listener no further than the room in which it is being played. It creates a background noise which does not disrupt the flow of thought in the individual reading a newspaper while waiting for a friend. The clear implication is that music intended for worship, irrespective of genre, should point beyond itself, take us into the realms of mystery and even danger. Stinger testifies to personal experiences of holy discomfort and blessing which were equally vivid when hearing in liturgy the organ works of Messiaen and the skilled improvisation of a jazz musician.
Despite the dissimilarities in the chapters, there are two leitmotifs deserving of mention. The first has to do with the degree to which musicians...