Friday, October 16, 2015

Music unites us — and divides us

On Sunday, the opening and closing hymns at the church we visited were “Glorious things of thee are spoken” (H40: 385) and “Songs of thankfulness and praise” (H40: 53). Everyone knew the hymns, we sang together, and we were united in song.

Hymns provide not just a unity in place, but in time. Yes, as a music minor I would probably have loved the respective tunes: Austria (tune by Haydn) and Salzburg (harmonized by Bach). More importantly, they are songs I have sung countless times over the decades — as a chorister, a young adult and now in middle age.

At the same time, some of my friends at another church were singing “Holiness.” At other praise band services, Christians were undoubtedly singing “Majesty,” “Shine Jesus Shine” or “Shout to the Lord”. While these song do not provide the continuity across generations or centuries of classic hymns, they do provide unity within a parish that learns and loves them.

Last month I attended a church planting workshop in the ACNA deanery of San Diego. Of the 30 or so people there, from what I know of their respective parishes, at least 25 worship each Sunday with some form of praise music — whether as the predominant style, or as part of a “blended” worship. Whether they chose this style — or the rector chose it as part of a conscious strategy to be more contemporary and welcoming to the culture — it is what they are used to.

During our two days, we did two morning prayer and one evening prayer services from the ACNA trial use liturgy. In using the ACNA liturgy over the past two years, it is my impression that the ACNA is a slightly less radical modernization than is Rite II of the 1979 prayer book. Perhaps more importantly, the differences between Rite I and II (and ACNA) are less dramatic in morning prayer than in Holy Communion.

So together, we were saying the same (mostly familiar) words, and had unity in worship, belief and purpose. This is exactly the reason Cranmer created the Book of Common Prayer.

However, if I went to their parishes — and I have been to many in the past year — I would feel like an alien or at least an outsider. Younger people who grew up on praise chorus music would feel alienated listening to Bach, Crüger, Vaughan Williams — or even Sullivan.

So at the risk of (re)stating the obvious, the Worship Wars between traditional and contemporary styles are more about the music, and less about the words. Some Anglo-Catholic leaders that I know and respect say they could give up their “thees and thous,” but that is a subject for another post.

However, I think there is a third point of difference if not division between the traditionalists and modernists: the process. When it comes to modernizing efforts, is the updating a one-time event that happens once every 400-500 years? Or is it an ongoing process — whether due to an ideology of modernization, change or quest for relevance — or a publisher’s business model of planned obsolescence?

One-time changes can and do happen, as when Luther, Cranmer and Vatican II shifted from Latin to the vernacular. These changes create disruption, but still allow continuity across generations and the centuries. Conversely, a belief in constant change – whether of liturgy or music — means that what we learned as children will obsolete by the time we escort our own children (or grandchildren) into the pews.

The TEC is committed to an ongoing process of change. The Continuing Anglicans and the REC have indicated their rejection of this ongoing process of change. For the broader ACNA, the jury is still out.

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