Saturday, July 14, 2007

The benefits of religious pluralism

This is a blog about religious music not about religious doctrine. Except of course when you put words to the music doctrinal decisions must be made, of which gender neutral (aka “inclusive” aka “politically correct”) pronouns are but the most conspicuous example.

Saturday the Wall Street Journal offered up a Page One story claiming that religion is making a comeback in Europe because the Swedish state church has competition from 31,000 members of competing evangelical churches. The Swedish church was once Lutheran, but in the past 50 years it’s become so much a part of the secular welfare state that (I was amused but not shocked to discover) that for years the supervising cabinet minister was an atheist.

The claim of the story (read all 3,000 words for yourself) is that churches are more vibrant and successful attracting members if there is competition in the market of theological ideas; perhaps church attendance is falling in Europe, but it still remains a major factor in the (dramatically pluralistic) US religious context. It credits Prof. Rodney Stark of Baylor as being the leader of this “supply-side” theory of religious growth. The idea seems at least vaguely plausible, just as we know one-party cities, states or countries tend to have very mediocre ideas and without the accountability of competition are often cursed with corrupt leaders.

I’ll leave aside the warm-bottoms-on-the-pews benefits of competition. In my research so far, there are also benefits for church music.

Certainly if you’re an English (or American) hymn compiler, you can steal some of those cool tunes from Germany. And sitting in London, you also can also borrow from the Anglicans in Wales, Ireland, America, Canada or a few other provinces.

However, what is striking about both the great English and American hymnals in the Anglican Communion is how much borrowing there is from other Protestant denominations. Of course, no English-language hymnal would be serious or complete without a few hymns from the Wesley family, but there are also Congregational, Baptist and Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) hymns prominent as well. In the late 20th century hymnals, many of the ecumenical praise songs are found in every liturgical tradition and even a few non-liturgical ones. And it goes both ways — at least until the most recent round of modernization, a Protestant hymnal wouldn’t be complete without Anglicans Isaac Watts or (in the 20th century) Vaughan Williams.

I don’t see as much sign of borrowing to/from Catholicism, even though other aspects of liturgy seem to cooperate more, such as setting a common lectionary or the apparent cooperation between Rome’s ICEL and the CCT.

It is clear that some of the proliferation of hymn-writing came because of the split from Rome during the Reformation. New denominations needed new hymns, both for doctrinal and perhaps practical reasons. (Nowadays hymnbook publishers need to include some of their own songs so the royalties paid to other publishers don’t eat them out of house and home).

So protesting Protestants brought us “Ein’ feste Burg,” or what some call “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” Plus Isaac Watts, the Wesleys, and the various Scots. Both collecting and singing from the various hymnals, I’m struck by how often the best songs in a hymnal are the ones borrowed from other denominations: you don’t borrow the mediocre ones, you borrow the good and proven ones while meanwhile hoping your own mediocre hymns get an audience. And I wouldn’t consider a (Protestant) hymnal legitimate if it didn’t have “Ein’ fest Burg,” nor musically complete without something set to Rowland Prichard’s 120-year-old hit tune Hyfrydol.

Still, there are some great albeit unique hymns. In The Lutheran Hymnal, I know #656 is probably there because of some sort of church merger that brought Norwegians into LCMS. Still while the words are a bit unsettling (“Behold a Host, Arrayed in White”) the Norwegian folk-tune Great White Host (“c. 1600”) arranged by Edvard Grieg is haunting and would be for any other hymnal that wanted to pick this up. Alas, the subsequent LW and LSB seem to have dropped the hymn and its haunting melody.

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