Monday, November 14, 2016

The idolatry of the Holy Screen

Last month I attended a blended service that uses the ACNA liturgy, Hymnal 1982 hymns and praise songs. As blended services go, it was probably the most tastefully done that I’ve seen — either because of the sensibilities of the music director, or because he (and the rector) don’t think hymns should be second class citizens.

So with blended worship done well, what was jarring was the projection screen. I’ve seen plenty of them (alas even in churches), but I’ve never been a member of a church that uses them every week.

One of the limitations is the one that I remarked previously: hymnal-free is harmony free. I knew one of the hymns well enough from memory to (more or less) sing the harmony without music, but otherwise I felt cheated of a chance to sing praise to God utilizing the gifts He has given me (and also staying within my vocal range).

The other limitation is one that I’d only briefly noticed before. As the Gospel reading was processed to the center of the church, it is customary for the congregation to turn and face the Gospel and the deacon (or in this case, the priest). However, as at home, everyone’s attention was firmly fixed on the screen for the duration of the gradual. (As it turns out, they were also fixed on the screen for the text of the Gospel reading — I didn’t notice because I tend to focus on the reader and not on reading the text).

So to our 21st century sanctuaries we have brought the key cultural artifact of  online culture. Instead of the Word or the Cross, we now turn our attention and adoration to the Holy Screen. This might seem harsh — but just watch how the H.S. changes the worship experience.

The screen was supplemented with a four page (two sides of one piece of paper) handout that included the text and music for the Gloria (H82: S280), the gradual hymn, and the four-part offertory. People could have used the handout to face the Gospel book, but only some of the congregation picked it up beforehand.

I talked to the music director afterwards, and have a little more empathy for his difficult choices — both on distributing the text and (someday) the music. The handout doesn’t include everything to save money, and those who don’t read music probably won’t pick up the handout (so he needs to provide lyrics some other way).

Long term, they use too many praise hymns to get by with just a hymnal. He would like to put together a booklet of hymns and praise songs, but the musical canon of this young church is still (at least somewhat) evolving.

I am used to the hymnal + prayer book fumbling and find it strangely comforting. However, it really only works if you’ve memorized the service music as fumbling for three (or four hymns) is different from going back and forth between the prayer and the sanctus etc.

As Anglican churches continue to attract both non-Christians and non-liturgical Christians, I understand the need to make the service more approachable to visitors. I would argue that having a regular member help the confused visitor next to them is a better solution than any paper or technology.

That said, I do think my church (and other similar churches) have come up with the most reasonable compromise:
  • Fixed service booklets (perhaps different ones for Ordinary Time, penitential and festal seasons) that include both the prayers and the service music (words and notes)
  • A weekly insert of 4-8 pp. that includes the collect, Scripture readings and the hymn numbers — and a copy of any hymns not in the hymnal
  • A hymnal for most (or all) of the hymns
If a church had a booklet instead of a hymnal, it could substitute for the latter. Personally, I hope to continue at a hymnal church for another 30-40 years, but we will see.

Longer term, some have suggested we should have e-books instead of paper books, booklets or inserts. It might work with a 6-10" screen, but the 4" screen of the typical cellphone is not very practical for this purpose. There is also the question of whether we want to further privilege the Holy Screen in our worship, or to say to newcomers without phones that they are not welcome.

So today’s use of screens for music and liturgy seems to be a short-term expedient, particularly for churches who can’t buy a set of books, don’t want to drag them each week to a temporary rented space, or are unwilling to commit to singing the same music two years in a row.

We will have a more elegant technical solution by the end of this century, but for now I think this compromise is a reasonable one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Again I got so excited because I thought you were talking about the rood screen.