All Saints Day 2009


This turning of October to November has always seemed to me a pre-Advent season. Something is afoot in the universe. On Halloween we acknowledge the thin veil between reality and fantasy. We mock the power of fear by hyping it up artificially.  I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.  It’s a Carnevale before the late autumn of the northern hemisphere sets in. If October’s colors are yellow, red, and orange – what are the colors of November?

In The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, a character writes “…visitors offering their condolences, thinking to comfort me, said ‘Life goes on.’ What nonsense, I thought, of course it doesn’t. It’s death that goes on; Ian is dead now and will be dead tomorrow and next year and forever. There’s no end to that.”

So on All Saints Day, we acknowledge the forever-ness of death by loving through the veil that separates this world from the other.  There have been All Saints Days during which I have had profound corporate worship experiences.  One was a retreat in New England.  The worship space was high on a hill, with a picture window revealing a view of farmhouse, to meadow, to river.  We were allowed lots of silence, space to pray and contemplate those who have gone before.

During the Eucharist, we sang the Taizé chant “Jesus, Remember Me” acapella – harmonies rising up organically.  We were encouraged to change the words as we wished: Jesus, remember him; Jesus, remember her; Jesus, remember us. At times voices joined together singing the same words, at times the phrases were different. It was a representation of a cloud of witnesses in song. The Anglican equivalent of praying in tongues.

But in the area in which I live now, All Saints Day is simply an excuse for the choirmaster to put on a show.  My In Box must have half a dozen notices from the local churches announcing their afternoon requiem concerts. Duruflé (two churches) Fauré, Mozart (three churches).  All with  precious and precise written bits describing why a particular composer’s work was chosen this year, the history of the piece, how the organ would be and should be used.  There is the promise of reading a parish necrology, but it’s more of an after thought.

I have some dreams about how our worship could be, a place where prayerful Christians, activist Christians, conservative Christians, formation-oriented Christians, all have real reasons to be together on a Sunday morning, nourished to live a life where everything we do is infused with the reality of the spiritual, the holy, of God.

If I want to go to a concert, I’ll go to a concert.  Why would I want to hear a third–rate version of any piece – its compositional greatness notwithstanding – when I can go to a concert hall and hear a bang-up version of Britten’s War Requiem, or John Adams On the Transmigration of Souls?  And even if those performances are sub-par, at least they are being done by music organizations where the mission is to perform pieces.

How about making All Saints Day important to everyone in the parish, and not just show off time for the choir? (Not to mention saving the extra money paid for soloists and instrumentalists.)  Make candles, write a litany, have a feast in honor of those in the parish who have died, explore Celtic or Mexican worship, incorporate music from New Orleans, set up community dialog about death with other churches, mosques, temples, and take a moment to invite some Wiccans to the discussion if only to understand the Christian understanding in comparison.

PolandAllSaintsDay (1)

Candles in Poland burn all day and night around November 1

The Episcopal Church is so proud of its bent towards liturgy.  Yet it seems as if plugging in the collects of the day at the 10 o’clock and asking everyone to come back at 5 for the de rigueur requiem is the best we can do.

Is there anyone out there who can give me reason to keep hoping?  What did your parish do for All Saints Day?

Even wizards rely on a cloud of witnesses….


7 thoughts on “All Saints Day 2009

  1. “My” parish (I have no parish, but send some money to one every month, the same one I attend when I remember, and where my mother hangs out with people in need of real help every Thursday morning) is stuff that high brow parishes do, and it was so appealing I’ve forgotten. The other parishes in the hood all did those fancy music things you blogged about.

    Here’s what I did:
    1) I asked several of my sacramental colleagues, especially my oddball RC priests, to remember my father at mass (Robert Lloyd Shirley, died 8 March 2008);
    2) I hummed “For All the Saints” under my breath;
    3) I purchased and wore a pair of brown sweater tights underneath a skirt that has shininess stitched into it;
    4) I attended the Northern Virginia Intergroup Gratitude Breakfast and cried while the speaker talked about going to drink and get high instead of being with her father while he died, and was grateful to have been sober and present while my father died (the woman at the next table was sobbing — maybe she was drunk and absent when her father died, or maybe she had to go to church later that day);
    5) I edited a friend’s article about working in the transformation and healing business while we so resist change ourselves;
    6) I climbed up the food chain and ate salmon for dinner with a very nice man; and
    7) prayed with my dad and all my other dead friends.

    I wished I regretted not having been in church.

  2. You describe a lot of what I want to do at Trinity Wall Street / St. Paul’s Chapel next year! Stay tuned!
    (and get in touch with me with more suggestions!)

  3. Daniel – Because of its power and wealth, Trinity needs to step up to the plate more responsibly in the diocese of New York. Good on you for curiosity and exploration, but there is much more to this issue than putting on attractive liturgies and implementing a top-down hierarchy in times of seismic change.

    You may want to ask your parishioners for suggestions that are more organic and relevant to their lives.


  4. You know, yours is a very uncharitable view of those who toil to make music in the church. You mention the difficulty on the part of the laity to find expression for their feelings, their prayers in liturgy, but seem extremely suspicious of, say, the choirs (whom you surmise are only interested in “showing off”) who actually might be seeking to find expression for their own grief, or their own thanksgiving for the lives of those who have entered into eternal life. Have you had some bad experiences with choral singing or other singers? I would think that the draw for the afternoon concerts you find so odious might be to hear your fellow laity giving expression to timeless feelings through timeless music – these musical offerings may not be perfect (or may even, in your gracious parlance, be “third-rate”), but for you to question their sincerity seems, at the least, uncharitable (at the most, churlish). You do understand that doing the hard work of mastering a Durufle Requiem is an act of worship as authentic and relevant as your Taize chant, right?

    • Dave – I’m sorry that you feel my view is uncharitable. You’re missing the point here: the problem isn’t the absence of musical excellence, it’s that these events are exclusive and elitist.

      My critcism is generated towards the clergy, the organist/choir directors, and the paid professionals who take away the voices of the congregation. Those who “toil” making music only if they’re getting paid by the tithes of the faithful. The amateurs – and I use that word with great respect as these are the people who make music for love – need to have more a say in crafting their own liturgy. Typically, the organist/choir director plays Sol Hurok and decides which requiem is on the rotation list for the year, and the choir goes along for the ride.

      There are so many other better models. Get rid of the organist/choir director and hire a Parish Musician. Fire the professionals and have the music generated by those who actually will be worshiping. Have the music shaped by community – now there’s a more honest way to give voice to thanksgivings and grief rather than hope that the requiem concert is going to be a good one. Assess whether your parish can sustain an organ- and choir-driven music program and if it can’t encourage those who want to sing to be salt of the earth and join a community chorale. If the entire world is God’s world, then there is no secular music-making. That hard work of preparing a piece of music in a worshipful manner takes place outside the confines of the church every single day all over the world. Support local arts organizations and take a bus to a concert rather than import one into the church.

      Exclusivity and elitism is what is at issue-not my personal history. But to answer your question: I have had good experiences as a professional church musician. I come at this honestly-as someone who has served on liturgy and music teams on diocesan and national levels and as a professional singer in churches, at GC, and conferences. I quit because of the disingenuous atmosphere of top-down music and liturgy. I now “toil” on a more professional level – with colleagues who are musicians. Whenever possible, I teach so that everyone can sing no matter what age or skill level. When I find a church that facilitates the gift of music among all its congregants I might consider going back.

  5. The Lutheran parish where I work as Cantor avails everyone in the congregation the opportunity to offer musical worship, from the hymnody and liturgical music of several centuries, including the present, or, if they so choose, the opportunity to dig deeper, in a Christian atmosphere, to larger works by worthy composers. We practice cooperative worship design using a committee, and we take, very seriously, the desires of anyone who is interested in a different modality of worship, utilizing the skills of everyone in the congregation. I know, personally, the musical background of everyone in my congregation. Instrumentalists in the congregation are often invited to participate as they are able. The model you imagine is as exclusionary as its opposite (I have a very, very strong aversion to binary worldviews). To tell those who have the luxury and interest in exploring canonical sacred music more deeply within the context of a church program that they ought to do so with a community choir seems very similar to the model of exclusion you’ve witnessed. You don’t think Durufle, with his different orchestrations for the Requiem, hadn’t intended his music to be performed in churches? By all means, train up professional musicians who are more sensitive to the issues of inclusion and diversity, but throwing the baby out with the bathwater seems much too extreme. Sometimes listening is an act of worship – are you equally averse to homilies or sermons? On an All Saints Sunday a couple years ago, several congregants approached me to compliment the work of the choir on their singing of the Brahms Geistliches Lied. Many remarked on the resonance the text had for them in their greif, or how hearing the music was an act of healing. When I have professional guest instrumentalists, they are funded by specific gifts, apart from the general fund. I imagine most churches that can afford to put on a Durufle Requiem do so with the assistance from musical endowments. Perhaps you’re worshipping in the wrong churches – what you mention about corporate worship is definitely possible, even with the beleaguered organist and choir director at the helm. 30% of my parish is actively involved in the music ministry.

    • It sounds as if you’re in a unique situation. Good on the pastor for having worship be interwoven into the communal life. And good on you for functioning as a Parish Musician rather than just a Cantor.

      However, it’s not the church’s job to do the work of a music conservatory. I work in a music conservatory, and we do an excellent job of preparing musicians who are skilled and sensitive to inclusion. Many grants offered to composers stipulate that the piece include musicians of all ages and abilities. If a parish was seriously devoted to developing musicians – as music aptitude is a bell curve, we were made to make music – then the focus would be from the bottom up. Programs for babies and toddlers would be a priority. Yet most churches begin their music programs when children are 8 or 9, basing them on the child’s ability to read spots on a page. It is around this age that if a child cannot sing on pitch or in rhythm, he will not be able to do so as an adult without extensive remedial work.

      As for the compliment on the Brahms, good on you for that one too. It does bring to mind a complement I received in an upper east side Manhattan parish after a dreadful rendition of a Bach motet. A parishioner commented that she had “seen God”, and it had been a very long time since that happened. This particular woman considered her taste in music more refined than most, and she also complained vehemently about the children being brought up for Eucharist because their laughter and feet running up to the altar interfered with her “seeing God”. No more children at the table after that! But plenty of sub-par interpretations of “Great” Music. She had a big checkbook.

      A truly prayerful person can see God anywhere, find her grief echoed in the great Western composers, or through transformational compassion. The focus on “great” music instead of Christian community can be a distraction so as long as there are ensembles who give voice to the music with integrity I am willing to transfer that particular baby to a different bathtub.

      As for the sermon – you’re correct. I can’t stand to sit through them anymore. I’m not the only one – The Episcopal Church loses 20,000 people a year. The ELCA probably has a similar hemorrhage. It’s not worth going to church anymore and lovely performances of great music, or one clergy person opining will not bring us back as long as this ideological surety exists.

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