Strength to run the race…not sit and watch

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Meaningful spiritual gatherings happen daily.  One of the most simple is the sing along. Today is D-Day. The American Songbook is a touchstone for families affected by World War II.  These songs – in the US and the UK – embodied hope in the midst of loss, nobility of the human spirit, vigor, and more. Crafted with accessible melodies and inventive harmonies, drawing on musical cultures that represent the broad scope of the American experience, they inspired generations to run the good race.

If it is possible to re-market the prayer of Morning Resolve from Forward Day-by-Day so that it can be carried around in the pocket of memory like a piece of dark chocolate, the American Songbook from the 1940s might be just the way to do it.  Try and find a time when the “Greatest Generation” sings the songs that defined it and witness a community transformation that cannot be explained by sentimentality alone.

Then there is our music program in the Episcopal Church.

In most churches, it seems entirely divorced from spiritual journey; emphasizing tradition more than history, rigidity more than responsiveness, personal taste of a handful of people more than collaboration and generosity. Sentimentality as an indulgence is scoffed at by the staff – unless the hymn or prayer is a personal favorite.  The anniversary of the priest’s ordination in one local church is celebrated by that priest choosing all her personal favorites. Interesting message to the parish she is supposed to serve.

Here are the questions that need to be asked every year: What is the mission of your church when it comes to music? How honest is that mission?

In other words, if you are in a rural parish, where people are getting hard hit economically and  probably losing the culture that helped their great grandparents get through the last depression , would initiating the Royal Church School of Music chorister program to bring quality Anglican choral music to the “poor ignorant people”? (Some of whom may play fiddle like Eck Robertson and sing in four-part harmony by ear better than the Whites backing up Emmy Lou Harris) be an honest music program?

Is it honest for a bishop born during the Truman administration to preside at a Hip Hop Mass, including language like “my homies and my peeps” in public prayer?

Music programs in the Episcopal Church need to be determined on a parish-by-parish, community-by-community basis.  Liturgy idealogues are cutting the legs off The Episcopal Church. And taking a lot of money with them.

In most urban areas of the United States, there is great emphasis on choristers and chorister programs and chorister traditions which includes hiring at least one professional section leader for the choir.

At a minimum of a hundred dollars a head, the choir is enhanced by professionals who sole purpose is to give this message to parishioners: You’re not good enough.

There will be organists – if they’ve read this far – who will argue about music quality in the service of the Lord.  Take that one outside. Seriously. Take it outside the church.  We could use more musicians in concert halls and nightclubs who glorify the Lord in their music. There are certainly enough nurses, carpenters, teachers, chefs, and caregivers who do when no one’s watching.

These same organists would mock the Hip Hop Masses and the U2charists without realizing they are no different than in intention than their “quality” choral music: they are designed to exclude and make liturgy a performance.  With 20,000 of us leaving The Episcopal Church each year – how’s that working for you?

The church is the gathered faithful looking to renew themselves so they may do the work of  God’s kingdom.  The church is a faith community. And if you look up the roots of community, you will find it means to share one’s gifts.   That means the gifts of the gathered faithful. Not your friends, family, or colleagues.

Too many times, I have had to endure services with choirmasters who put on a show Sunday mornings using our tithes. If I want to throw money at a musician, it will be in a basket for a busker, not for a church music program that excludes the very people it is intended to serve.

The church is not the place for someone to play maestro, or impresario.  If a parish church offers a concert series it should be in the context of  music mission.  Liturgy should not be made like sausage or  by a cabal like Dick Cheney’s secret energy commission meetings. Liturgy and worship belong to the people the clergy and staff are hired to serve.

At the end of the year, the average church that indulges in this expenditure only minimally, could build two schools in Pakistan; offer seventy micro loans for hopeful small businesses in third world countries; save 250 children from dying of malnutrition…you get the picture. Of course during the announcements, after we’ve sat through a performance which costs more than a weekly minimum wage salary before taxes, we all may be asked to listen to a plea for donations towards the Millennium Development Goals.

Your soloists out of that extra cash? Give them a nice send off party and encourage them to get a day job and sing for free – or better still run an intergenerational music development program.  Charles Ives sold insurance and William Carlos Williams was a general practitioner.  Richard Feynman managed to do a lot of teaching about physics and play the bongos. Sheila Jordan worked in an ad agency, using her four-week vacations for international tours.

There are churches who have sincere and wonderful music in their worship.  These are almost always poor churches with no money to build or repair an organ, who encourage faith in families by offering solos to everyone, or  spontaneously break into songs of thanksgiving and praise  in Spanish, Tagalog, Haitian Creole.  Gifts are generously shared here because no one has come and told them their music isn’t “good enough”.

God is always a surprise, always in the least obvious place we look.  These churches will hang on in difficult times because they don’t need more than each other. This gives this Episcopalian hope.  What would offer more hope is when diocesan leadership  listens to how these churches run instead of thinking the best they can do is  offer noblesse oblige by “gifting” the smaller parishes with  advice.

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12 thoughts on “Strength to run the race…not sit and watch

  1. It seems as if the writer is angered by excellence in choral music – when choral worship is a unique trait of our Anglican identity. What about those parishes for whom music is outreach; whose parishes highly value our unique musical tradition; for whom music spurs on social justice and service to the poor; for whom the musical program itself is outreach to the poor and disenfranchised? There is certainly room for a variety of musical styles in the church. But in the same way that we expect our priests and bishops to be educated, our musicians should be as well, encouraging excellence in music, whether congregation, choral, or both. I just can’t help be think the writer is bitter and feels “left out” during choral music – forgetting that non-vocal, yet highly-active participation in liturgy is an ancient and venerable facet of worship.

  2. I’m angered not by choral excellence but by churches that continue to run like private clubs. Since when was “choral excellence” part of a community of faith? And when choral excellence is determined by money and not educating and empowering a congregation, organists, rectors, and bishops are maintaining an elitist, non-Christian environment.If I want to hear “choral excellence” I’ll go to a concert of real choirs, not choirs built on the tithes of the faithful and from gaming the property tax system. As for tradition, the instrument most used in Anglican worship is a drum. And where drums are used people actually attend worship. Here in the U.S., Episcopalians are leaving the church in droves.

  3. Rubbish. From a boy who grew up in a redneck trailer park- this is rubbish. Recovering our Anglican identity through Christian formation in chorister programs is one of the greatest things to happen to the Episcopal church. Have you visited every parish? What is your scope of reference? Don’t presume to speak for us all. Or do, but please don’t be frustrated if no one has ears to hear.

  4. How’s that self righteousness working for you all right now? 19,000 a year out the door. Do you follow the formation blogs in the Episcopal Church? Not much in there about chorister programs. May I suggest that you and the organists do not presume to speak for us all.

  5. Christian education through music creates the next generation of Episcopalians: there are countless examples of former choristers who have gone on to be priests and bishops (see the new Bishop of New Jersey), not to mention innumerable current choir members and folks in the pews. Teaching kids how to lead worship through music gives them lifelong tools which they continue to offer the church for the rest of their lives. Since when does the church have to defend her actions as an educator and promoter of quality? We don’t challenge excellence in preaching or architecture or outreach. Why attack music which feeds the soul and propels social action?

  6. For me, it was professional quality choral music that not only brought me into the Episcopal Church, but that led me to become a Christian. I often hear the voice of God most clearly in music. Mozart, Haydn, Palestrina, et al weren’t writing their mass settings for people to pay to go and hear them in the concert hall. Wouldn’t it be a shame if great music only was able to be heard by those who could afford to hear it? Getting to hear these works in their original framework is incredibly powerful – but only when it’s offered by a well prepared ensemble. This doesn’t mean that there can’t or shouldn’t be volunteers. And I can’t think of a better way to teach children about the Christian faith tradition than through music. There are countless examples of parishes and cathedrals doing an incredible job of ministering to their communities through their musical outreach programs. The idea that music is just mere entertainment, or some how less important than other disciplines is absurd. Further, what’s wrong with offering up to God week after week the finest that we can offer? Should we not hope for excellent sermons, stirring works of art, care and intention in the celebration of the liturgy, etc? There’s no doubt that the Episcopal church, as a whole, is losing members (though there are parishes which are not part of this trend). Attempting to argue that our music is “too good” is definitely putting the blame in the wrong place.

  7. I grew up in the Baptist church in the South where this guy’s approach to a music program “excels” beyond his wildest dreams of come-one, come-all participation. Even as a child I found this approach to art meaningless and sad in its feebleness. The approach he calls for is the equivalent of asking for volunteer / weekend architects to construct church buildings ( or any building for that matter). Yes, a lean-to with a center pole will keep most of the rain off, but it’s hardly functional as a building over any length of time and certainly never inspirational except that it may inspire you to actually learn to do something better when you look in repeated dismay at its disappointing, ramshackle appearance. This is poor logic is embarrassing in its lack of aspiration toward the best of what we can be. My sympathies to the writer and those who might espouse such a tragic approach to art in their faith.

  8. I think it would be far more useful for the author to engage in conversation with the actual persons from his/her personal experience which are anecdotally referenced in the above article. This kind of conversation between people who differ is what the church means by community. Perhaps out of this dialogue a better understanding of the misconceptions about stewardship of talent, embracing both professional and amateurs in worship leadership, the value of actively listening to music in worship as a spiritual exercise, the importance of training children in liturgical leadership, among other things, may then result.

  9. Please forgive me for not mentioning this is my earlier comment: I am glad to serve as a professional church musician in a growing Episcopal parish of 2000 members which gives 25% of its income to outreach ministries and whose liturgies employ many of the elements that so grieve the article’s author including professional but amiable section leaders in the choir and young people who are thriving as young Christian disciples throughout the assistance of the RSCM. I would welcome the author at our parish to observe it firsthand.

  10. American Christianity is amazing in its wide variety of denominations each with divergent worship styles. The kaleidoscope of traditions and the ease with which a believer can find a place that “fits” is truly astounding. I hope we would all agree that everyone should be able to find a denomination where they can truly worship in spirit and in truth. So I wonder if all the denominations had similar worship styles, would that really be a good thing? Can/should any denomination (in this case the Episcopal Church) be all things to all people? The denominations are all part of the same Body – we do not all need to be an eye, or a hand, or a foot. Some people, maybe even a vast majority (including the author) find truer worship where people “spontaneously break into song”, where “solos are offered to everyone”, where “hip-hop masses”, and “U2charists” are part of the tradition, and fortunately there are many denominations where such brothers and sisters will feel at home, fed, and part of a worship community. But there are also some people who find their channels for praise and worship in great art that synthesizes music and poetry, in beautifully executed liturgical practice, in language and comport that is *not* common or everyday, but set aside and special for use in God’s presence. The Episcopal Church with its thees and thous, organ and choir, liturgical vestments and incense, stained glass and lots of kneeling, bishops in miters and vergers leading a candle-lit procession is the place for them. Is it for everyone? Of course not. No denomination is. Is it shrinking? Perhaps, most mainlines are – but it has little/nothing to do with music. There was a recent poll of the whole Episcopal Church re: the need for a new Hymnal – and as I remember The Hymnal 1982 turned out to be wildly popular. I think the anglican choral tradition actually *draws* people rather than sending them away. But still and yet – if people are leaving to find denominations where they are more likely to truly worship, I shouldn’t think that was a bad thing… and I certainly wouldn’t judge *any* denomination’s success by its size. On the flip side, there are people who burn out on more modern worship styles and come looking for a more staid, contemplative, symbolic style, and thank goodness the Episcopal Church is there for them. And in any case, the fact that certain worship patterns may be “trending” or “popular” just now doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t still need a place to worship – and that’s where this gets kinda personal…

    I was kicked out of the church I grew up in. My parents are still forbidden to eat or socialize with me. On the friday I was formally “withdrawn from”, I left the churchhouse in tears not knowing where I would worship in two days, but knowing I had to go somewhere. The only “church” person I knew outside my natal denomination was the choirmaster at the Episcopal Church in town, Karen Nicolosi, Christ Church Parish, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She literally saved my life. When I walked through the door and she saw my tears, she said “it’s ok – you’re home now”. She introduced me to people who would become my family and she never programmed anything but traditional anthems. She loved me when my birth family didn’t, and she had a GREAT chorister program. She was a conduit for the Holy Spirit and believed that the same Spirit worked through Bach. She was nothing like the choirmasters the author describes. I have been a loyal staff singer for 21 years now in four different parishes. I pray every day to become a more Christ-like person, and I KNOW I am worshipping most when I strive to sing Howells’ music to the best of my ability. I strive to be involved in the non-musical life of my parish and I know God expects me to bring both mind and spirit to every anthem, every hymn, every psalm. I am nothing like the professional singers the author describes. The Episcopal Church is my family, my home. I love its traditions and history. If I needed the kind of worship the author describes, I could find it on most any street in this country. On the other hand, there are relatively few places where folks like me feel totally at home in worship. The bottom line is that we ALL deserve a place to worship, even staff singers, organists, choirmasters, and the dear parishioners who are delighted *not* to be asked to sing a solo or bang a drum.

  11. The bottom line is that many people are deeply fed and nourished in their walk with Christ by excellent music, music that is often led by highly-trained professional musicians and supported by truly fine professional singers (and let’s not make the mistake of thinking they are all doing it “for the money” — especially as most of them have spent lots of money on their musical eduction). Hearing this beauty in worship converts souls — I personally can think of dozens of people it brought into the life of the Church. And, what a crime it would be not to hear the faith-filled music of Bach and Palestrina in the context for which it was written! Children learning their faith through singing is one of the best ways to learn that faith. I’m deeply sorry the author of this blog has such vitriol; clearly what feeds many of us does not feed her, and that is OK. But please don’t deprive the rest of us of a crucial component of our faith. The Episcopal Church would lose a lot MORE people in that case.

  12. How sad and misguided. The author seems to have missed the entire point of being Church. Rhetoric like this is what drives people away and detracts from Christ’s message – no matter the topic.

    Please don’t tear down what you don’t agree with. Work to build something that resonates with you and let others do the same. We’re all working for the same goal. Some of us do this as organists or church musicians, some do it as clergy. Some work for Christ’s kingdom by volunteering for the Sunday School or heading the outreach committee. The list is endless. I would leave you with this:

    Philippians 2: 1-30:
    So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.

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