What Shall We Sing This Sunday? - Mike Marshall
For those who live within the distribution area of the Christchurch Press, there has been a lovely little series of articles, comments and letters popping up in January and February. All about church music! In a letter to the editor, Jane Gregg of Christchurch, wrote: “We are lucky to live in a city where the metaphysics of church music figures on your radar screen.” Indeed.
Initially, in an article on the centenary celebrations of Christchurch Catholic Cathedral, the organist and music director Don Whelan raised a few hackles when he made a stand for maintaining the standards of music in a Catholic community which, apparently, would not care if music ceased to exist, and then “shudders to think that, when he is gone, guitars may replace the organ”.
This brought support from the Press arts columnist Christopher Moore, who, in the main, seemed to tie lack of quality to the use of “warm fuzzy theological” inclusive language: “Gone are words and music that put sinew and muscle into our religious observations. The great tradition of church music is increasingly abandoned for the second best and inclusive.”
Enter minister and hymn-writer Bill Wallace: “The challenge to the church in this pluralistic society is whether it can produce a wide range of resources which enable people to celebrate the sacredness of life. The use of literal expressions and fundamentalist affirmations can only serve to deepen the divisions in society.”
Back to Jane Gregg: “Personally I prefer to cling to rituals and fight for rites” inferring that ritual, tradition, and intellectual rigour enables spiritual profundity. Oh, yes, and…. “there are many places where it’s possible to get to grips with the type of sacred music of which Kumbaya could be said to be the stand out.”
In the November 2003 issue of this magazine, I reported on the Worshipping Under Southern Skies Conference in Christchurch. Keynote speaker Marty Haughen said: “In Minneapolis every Sunday they’ll have a Mass with altar boys in white gloves and they’ll do an orchestra. It sounds beautiful, but no one in the congregation sings, no one participates. There’s another church that uses a rock-and-roll band and the congregation claps and sways, but they don’t sing and the music has nothing to do with the liturgy. So, in both cases you might say they are stuck. One is stuck to a vision of church that says beautiful music is all you need and the other one is stuck in a church that says energy is all you need, and in neither case are they looking at the liturgy as the work of the people and the prayer of the people.”
So what does the church expect of its liturgical music?
This is the crux of the matter, which those promoting the “spiritual cultural drive” seem to have either missed or relegated. Marty in his keynote address, (3 Oct 2003) noted that a cornerstone of Vatican II is the active participation of all the faithful – to empower the congregation to sing prayer. The difference between the congregation listening and singing is huge. The Spirit is present in the congregation when they respond. Sing the liturgy, don’t just sing at the liturgy.
The 1996 New Zealand Catholic Liturgy Formation Programme states: “A cantor, an organist, other instrumentalists, a choir and a director of music help the assembly find a voice to sing the hymns, responses and acclamations that are assigned to them as their participation in the liturgy.”
This does not dismiss the role of a choir or instrumentalists, in providing “works that add beauty and solemnity to the liturgy. Yet the function of music is ministerial; it must serve and never dominate.” (American Bishops’ Music in Catholic Worship).
What music, then, meets the prayer needs of the faithful?
Marty summed it up thus: Christian worship, on any given day, within a liturgical religious tradition, in a particular community or culture, at a unique moment in history, will always exhibit a tension between the voices of the ancestors and God speaking in today’s world.
To paraphrase the American Bishops, they recommend that we apply three judgements when we select Sunday music:
• Musical: Is the music technically, aesthetically and expressively good?
• Liturgical: the music is determined according to the nature of the liturgy, considering the settings of the Mass, the readings, the role of the congregation, choir, minister, cantor and musicians.
• Pastoral: Does the music enable the people to express their faith in this place, age and culture?
Given the above criteria – and as Christopher Moore remarks – there should still be a balance between the traditional and the contemporary.
How does all of this work in practice?
The importance of lay participation following Vatican II mean the role of the parishioners in the pews was recognised as being much more than ‘father’s helpers’ and that the community had the responsibility to seek out and develop ministerial skills from within its own numbers.
Having basically only experienced one parish in the last 25 years, I can say that we did not have a huge resource of virtuoso singers or musicians to draw on; nonetheless many of us, with support and encouragement, took on the ministry of leading the parish music at the principal Sunday Mass. Certainly my skills as a guitarist could at best have been described as average, but, with the affirmation of the community, practice and stimulating music, have developed over that time.
We now have a number of small groups who take responsibility for leading the music on a rotational basis, some with keyboard players, some with guitarists. At major feasts, the whole choir can produce challenging and satisfying three part harmonies, while always being aware of our limitations. We have discarded the old four-hymn Mass and now focus on singing to complement the major parts of the Mass; the Gospel, The Eucharist and Communion. This is supplemented by welcoming and sending-out hymns.
I do know that we have moved way beyond ‘Kumbaya’. In the early post-Vatican II years, there was certainly a surfeit of warm-fuzzy, guitar-based three-chord songs, found in such collections as Tenei Matou and Sing Sing Sing. Since then we have explored Scripture in Song, Taizé, Celebration and As One Voice. We currently draw much of our psalmody, Eucharistic and hymnal music from Gather.
This does not mean that we have entirely abandoned everything that has gone before, as we also endeavour to include some Latin music as well as the occasional pre-Vatican II hymn. But now one of the musical criteria is that our lyrics are ‘yoked to scripture’. And guitar-wise, they are certainly more challenging than ‘Kumbaya.’
I suppose subconsciously I have worked to overcome the feeling that a guitar is a second-class instrument for church music, and while chord playing cannot adequately support those singers who need a melody line, the Worshipping Under Southern Skies conference did much to validate any instrument that can lead the congregational singing.
I do not know how much congregational participation there is to Don Whelan’s music at the Cathedral. The Press article says that in his 35 years, Don had embarked on an ambitious programme that had become a feature of Christchurch’s classical music scene.
So the question is, is this singing prayer or performance?
Don Whelan is to be commended for endeavouring to maintain the best of the traditional, but it has to be acknowledged that the Cathedral may be one of the few places that have the resources to implement it. At the W.u.S.S. conference, when Don led a workshop on the rich Latin and Greek tradition of music for 3 to 5 voices, those from our parish who attended commented that it would be very difficult for parish musicians and singers – but great in the Cathedral. Chris Archer’s Millennium Mass, also celebrated by Jane Gregg in her letter, drew this comment from our parish music director – a person of no mean musical ability: “This was billed as a Mass for congregation and choir, so I hoped to learn something that was a bit outside our comfort zone. Unfortunately it was two or three steps above our musical ability, not one.”
The point here is that much of this music described as part of the ‘spiritual cultural drive’ might simply be inaccessible to many parishes. What resources are other parishes able to draw on, and how much have they explored the fine new music being developed for the new millennium? Has the tradition and value of Maori and Pacific Island music been considered as part of the spiritual cultural drive?
The Christchurch media debate seems to have been superseded by the new Stations of the Cross controversy, and on that topic, another letter writer sideswiped the music issue with this: “ …there are other churches not striving to become monuments of art, music halls, tourist attractions…” I just hope this won’t be the last word on the issue.