Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Papists and Gregorian chant

As noted last week, while I like to listen to the KFUO Lutheran radio show Issues Etc. (hosted by Pastor Todd Wilken), it’s usually weeks or months after the original broadcast. The show often touches on issues of traditionally liturgical worship and hymnody.

This week was one of the few days that I wish I’d listened live and been able to call in — to the interview of Lutheran pastor Ben Mayes on the topic of “Gregorian Chant,” in the second half of the final hour of Monday’s show.

The discussion touched on an important form of historic music and a liturgical form, as well as helping liturgical Lutherans overcoming the denomination’s long-held antipathy towards the Roman Catholic Church. This exchange captured the latter bias that seems to be common among those in the LCMS:
Rev. Wilken: Some people are going to hear this and say ‘This is just Roman Catholic stuff, this is Eastern Orthodox stuff — this has nothing to do with Reformation Christianity.’

Rev. Mayes: (Quoting Luther’s An Order of Mass and Communion): ‘It is not now nor ever has been our intention to abolish the liturgical service of God completely, but rather to purify the one that is now in use from the wretched accretion which corrupt it, and to point out an evangelical use.’
Mayes also cited specific chants in Volume 53 of Luther's Works, pp. 70, 178, 182.

The Gregorian chant predates the Reformation and in fact the Great Schism, and thus is attributed to the unified Catholic (i.e. Christian) church of the first millennium. In particular, credit is usually given to the 6th century Pope Gregory I who (Rev. Mayes argued) standardized an already established liturgical music.

The online version of Grove’s music encyclopedia defines Gregorian chant as
A term conventionally applied to the central branch of Western Plainchant. Though not entirely appropriate, it has for practical reasons continued in use. Gregorian chant originated as a reworking of Roman ecclesiastical song by Frankish cantors during the Carolingian period; it came to be sung almost universally in medieval western and central Europe. …
Grove’s argues that the 8th century attribution of the form to “Gregorius” may have referred to Gregory II, but I’m not familiar enough with the controversy to render my own opinion. Rev. Mayes said only that “many people” credit it to ”Gregory I, who was Bishop of the Church of Rome.” (Studiously avoiding the P-word)

Rev. Mayes notes that the Gregorian chant was retained (in Latin) in the Lutheran church into the 18th century, and re-introduced in the 19th century. In addition to the original Latin, in the U.S. the chant has been sung in German and English. The LCMS publishing house, CPH, published books containing Gregorian chants in 1895 (by Friedrich Lochner in German) and in 1942 (in English).

Rev. Mayes praised the chants for the primacy of the words, and how the music is provided to embellish and beautify the words — not to impose emotion upon them. In fact, he was promoting an upcoming Solemn Vespers in St. Louis next month (shades of COE!). He also mentioned the free English recordings of the Psalms contained in his (soon to be reprinted) book, Brotherhood Prayer Book.

IMHO the power of the Gregorian and subsequent medieval chant is a timeless tribute to the glory of god. It’s good to see those potentially suspicious of “Papist” influences embracing a liturgical form that was preserved by the Catholic church across the next 10 centuries of the Dark and Middle Ages, long before any glimmer of the Reformation.

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