Sunday, April 3, 2016

What's not to like about praise music?`

At a recent ACNA workshop, one of the hosts thought it would be a good idea to bring in a guitarist and play some praise songs. This helped crystalize some of my thoughts about what’s not to like about praise music.

I’ll admit an Anglo-Catholic critique of Evangelical music might be a bit biased, but at least it’s a starting point for a conversation about the bad (and perhaps good) of contemporary worship.  I will also try (as best I can) to distinguish between objective defects rather than mere differences of taste.

1. Lyrics

Anglo-Catholic worship has an emphasis (as with the RCC and Orthodoxy) in continuity of doctrine over the centuries. This morning for Easter 2 we sang “That Easter Day with joy was bright.” (H40: 98). The Hymnal 1940 Companion says that it is taken from a a Latin hymn entitled “Aurora lucis rutilat,” via J.M. Neale’s Hymnal Noted and Hymn’s Ancient and Modern. The hymn “may be by St. Ambrose,” and dates to at least the 8th century if not the 5th.

Bad: Many praise songs are “Jesus love songs,” where the lyrics seem to express a (non-Trinatarian) secular affection for the great JC. The lyrics also tend to repeat the same idea over and over again.

This is not to say that all pre-rock band hymns are good. Even though Anglicans are (to some degree) the Via Media, there are major doctrinal differences between the Catholic and Reformed extremes of Western Christianity, such that the hymns of one might not be acceptable to the other. And the emotive (doctrinally suspect) praise songs of the past few decades have their antecedents in 19th century American hymnody.

Good: The first song of the worship “set” was the Trisagion — as Catholic and doctrinally safe as they get — albeit with an unrecognizable modern setting. The 1960s praise hymn “Bread of Life” (by Sister Suzanne Toolan) made the tail end of the hymnal era — musically like a 60s folk song with problematic voice leading and phrasing — but the text is an undeniably Biblical adaptation of John 6.

2. Reverence

Admittedly, this is the most akin to taste. We Anglo-Catholics have a visceral reaction against rock bands on Sunday morning, even though the majority of American Protestants (and more than a few Catholics) have embraced contemporary worship. On weekends, I’ve been known to sing 2- or 3- part Beetles (or Eagles) harmonies, but IMHO they have no place on Sunday.

Still, I think we can agree that there are differences in the degree of reverence to God. Are we in our lyrics, music and style reflecting the omnipotence of our great God?

Bad: There is a common concern that the CCM is worldly and doesn’t belong in church — whether because it’s schmalzy, trendy or faddish . My sense is that the churches that use this music don’t have this concern, so it seems about as productive as asking Democrats to debate Republicans over the role of the free market.

Good: A contemporary favorite is the 2004 Chris Tomlin No. 1 CCM hit “How great is our God” (#6 on today’s CCLI CCM list) The lyrics clearly emphasizes such majesty, althtough the performance style is often more 60s (or 80s or 90s)

3. Performance vs. Congregational Singing

When I go to hear a praise band, usually I have no idea what’s going on. They repeat themselves, they change keys, there’s a different tune for the bridge, they improvise, change tempo etc. For example, at my ACNA meeting the praise guitarist decided to dot the rhythm of a familiar tune.

This problem seems particularly bad when there are more than 200 people in the room: the band is performing for the audience rather than leading the congregation in singing. (TV services are also bad in this regard). There is no music on the screen and the words don’t completely show the meter or what is going on. The net effect is that the congregation — unless they know how this particular band likes to perform this particular song — doesn’t know what to expect and is partially or entirely left behind.

To be fair, organ-based choirs do this too. In either case, the effect is to discourage congregational singing — particularly by new members who are trying to figure out if they belong here.

4. Continuity with Early Generations

The emphasis on praise music seems to conclude that nothing worth playing was written before 1980 (or even 2000). For Anglican contemporary worship, that means we claim continuity of doctrine and belief with the historic undivided church — but not for key elements of the liturgy.

This seems unprecedented for the past 150 years — ever since churches began printing Hymnals. In the US, Hymnal 1940 has content from 1916, 1892 and 1872 US hymnals, as well as The English Hymnal (1906) and Hymns Ancient & Modern (1861-1889). Despite an intentional effort to make major changes in theology, style and inclusive language, Hymnal 1982 still has considerable overlap with Hymnal 1940. In its favor, Hymnal 1982 add some new hymns (“Amazing Grace”, “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee”) that were written well before 1940, and well known to Protestants outside ECUSA.

Good: A few have tried to make compromises with updates to familiar tunes. . Chris Tomlin has an updated “Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)” where us old fogies can sing the familiar part even if we get lost at the 21st century bridge that makes it “fresh” (and newly copyright-able).

5. Continuity Between Parishes

With a published hymnal, people are using the same songs, selected and authorized by a central authority. The lack of a hymnal (whatever style) eliminates that likelihood that going from one parish to another will have familiar music. Different churches have different expectations about what is current and relevant; for example, attending contemporary worship in Texas exposed me to music that was very very different.

Good: at our workshop, the final praise song was the 2012 Matt Redman song “Bless the Lord, oh my soul” (aka “10,000 reasons”), #2 on the recent CCM chart. Everyone in the room knew it (I didn’t know it well, but had heard it before). Now these were all people in the same diocese who had worshiped together, met regularly and probably had music directors who shared ideas. Still, I was surprised at the degree of commonality.

Unknown: Will there be a praise song from the beginning of this century that will still be sung at the end of this century? It would be interesting to track how many of the top 20 songs were more than 10 years old. If there are many, then this is like oldies radio, jazz, classical, and consistent with building up a new canon of this different style of writing and performing worship music. If not, it would suggest that contemporary worship music is inherently transitory and temporary — a feature, not a bug.