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.