Monday, June 18, 2007

Sampling Anglican Worship

While this is a blog about Anglican liturgical music, there is no such music without liturgy and worship. So during my visit to London I tried to visit as many parishes as possible: four in four days (evensong at Westminster Abbey, weekday mass at St. Mary’s Bourne Street, a concert at St. Michael’s Croydon, and the early Sunday mass at St. Bart’s the Greater).

Alas, there was only one congregation hymn in the lot, Friday night at St. Mary’s. But there was organ music and a choir at all my visits except Sunday morning, when I attended a spoken mass because I had to leave too early to catch any choral mass.

At Westminster, I sat on top of the earthly remains of former PM Sir William Gladstone. Of course, this was a performance for tourists, t-shirts and all. I’m not sure if practicing Christians were even among the majority, with only about 40% reciting the Apostle’s creed (although some could be from non-liturgical parishes or of other languages). Those seated late at the abbey outnumbered the entire congregation at St. Mary’s or St. Bart’s.

I learned a little about church music and about differences in worship between American and English Anglicans.

The Westminster service reminded me of something I learned when singing and studying music in college. There is cathedral music, and other music. Not surprisingly, the Tallis Magnificat and Nunc Dumittis sounded stunning when sung by the choir school boy trebles (aka sopranos) and their professional male counterparts. One of the 20th century pieces was OK (if you like that sort of stuff), but the other was just a bowl of mud in the long reverb sanctuary.

The second thing I learned was that — graduation music notwithstanding — I didn’t care for Sir Edward Elgar, and I still don’t. He may be a national hero to some, but to my ear he doesn’t hold a candle to the better stuff by Rutter and Britten, let alone Tallis, Handel, or Ralph Vaughan Williams. It wasn’t the choir’s fault — at times, they sounded like a good symphony orchestra choir rather than a church choir (although they had nearly as many sopranos as the other three parts combined).

On worship, I learned two things overall that caught me by surprise. Instead of pews (benches) and kneelers (pull-down kneeling stands), all but one of the churches had chairs, and all had kneeling cushions. I don’t know if the pew thing never caught on, or if the chairs were acquired to allow more flexible space utilization (wedding receptions? birthday parties?)

But the most relevant insights (for this blog) came gradually at bookstores and directly in the congregations. At the three parishes (tourist stop Westminster didn’t count), the standard pew hymnal is “words only,” with one offering “melody” upon request and all reserving “full tunes” for the choir.

As far as I know, none of the major denominations have even printed a words-only hymnal in the US. I’ve been in a few parishes that had melody-only hymnals (particularly in a chapel), and the 1982 Hymnal has unilaterally dropped the harmony from some hymns. But after visiting lots of parishes in the last five years, I’d still say full harmony is the norm in the pews.

After we sang the one hymn at St. Mary’s, I asked how they sang without the music. One said “I’ve been singing it for 30 years” while the other admitted “you have to learn it from the organ.” At St. Michael’s, they admitted that a few parishioners preferred music, so it appeared that about 20% of their hymnals (handed out upon entry) were the melody variety.

Picture: Sanctuary of St. Michael’s, Croydon.

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