Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Come, let us sing!

Today is the first day of Forward in Faith North America’s annual conference. The 2017 Assembly is being held 13 miles from DFW in the Texas Metroplex, in the Diocese of Ft. Worth.

We kicked off the Assembly with a sung evensong, with a 17-voice choir formed by the local music director and volunteers from St. Vincent’s Cathedral and St. Mark’s Anglican in Arlington. Their obvious talent aside, it was great to hear a medium-sized choir, which sounds so much more full and than the 4- to 10-voice choirs I’ve mainly heard the last 15 years. (One small gripe: like most volunteer choirs, there weren’t enough men’s voices with only 5 of the 17).

The service was a 1928 BCP Evening Prayer, although the text was obviously unfamiliar to many of those present. (One tip-off: saying “Holy Spirit” instead of “Holy Ghost.”) The music was picked with taste from the English repertoire, included chants and anthems by John Stainer, John Goss, Alec Rowley, and C.H.H. Parry.

However, as a member of the congregation (rather than in the choir or an organizer), I (re)learned a valuable lesson. There was literally no music to sing — unless you count the monotone chant of the creed and the Lord’s Prayer. As you might expect for a conference of Anglo-Catholic clergy (including five bishops and one bishop-elect), there was a lot of music talent in the pews — and some of us sang along anyway (particularly on the psalm, where it was practical enough to learn as we went.)

So there were at least two key lessons:
  • For most churches and most occasions, more music should be sung by the congregation than by the choir alone. That often means two really great and elaborate anthems, and then three hymns plus service music where the congregation can sing along.
  • If the congregation is asked (or expects) to sing along, don’t trick them. For example, if we sing “Amen” after the officiant for three prayers, either make the Amens all the same or write out the music.
And this points to a final lesson. Over the past few years, I learned a lot about take-for-grantedness by visiting a wide range of churches before choosing my current church, and I’ve also tried to visit unfamiliar churches while traveling. The clergy, music director and choir need to get out more so they have empathy for how those in the pews experience the liturgy.


Scott said...

It sounds like they were doing a fully Choral Evensong in the manner of U.K. cathedrals and collegiate chapels, which is really a different sort of liturgical style, as it is the liturgy of that cathedral chapter or college rather than a congregation. The different Amens would be part of a composed Preces and Responses all by one composer. Whether they should have done this type of Evensong on this occasion in Texas is not my call, but I don't think we need to look at that particular liturgical event to make points about what needs to change in parish liturgy in general.

J.West said...

Yes, I agree that the cathedral style is different than the congregational (small C) style. That's been one of my themes over the past few years.

In any church setting where there is a competent choir, there is an inherent tension between beauty and participation.

If the purpose is to entertain, then by all means go all-in on choir and shut down the congregation. If you go to St. Paul’s or (particularly) Westminster Abbey for the tourist evensong, that’s what you get and you expect. But in that case, maybe 75% of those in the pews know the Lord’s Prayer and 40-50% know the Nicene Creed (with a subset of that being Anglican).

But, I would argue, in any liturgical sense, you need to understand your audience. Here you had a room of several dozen Anglo-Catholic clergy with decades of of experience. By my guestimate, almost all can sing and more than half are good singers. There were more good voices in the room that were not singing than were singing.

So yes, there are times when performing is appropriate — this just wasn’t one of them.