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The Dean of Perth says it right

April 24, 2010

April 23, 2010

Credo: Trite music blocks our ears to the divine in the liturgy

Our worship enables us to enter another time and another dimension – a realm of experience beyond our ordinary human experience
by John Shepherd

John Shepherd

How can we come to an experience of God? It’s a challenge, because no matter how much we read the Bible, study theology, formulate creeds, devise systems of belief and draw up rules for best Christian practice, all these efforts are only partial, tentative explorations into a dimension that lies beyond any definitive grid we could ever hope to impose.

Which brings us to the worship of the liturgy, for it is in worship that we are immersed in the experience of God. It is here that we engage with the living God.

It is in the liturgy that we are able to enter into another consciousness, probe a deeper reality, strive for a sense of transcendence which lifts us above the mundane, and in the words of psalmist, sets us on a rock that is higher than ourselves. Our worship enables us to enter another time and another dimension — a realm of experience beyond our ordinary human experience, beyond all our known thoughts and understandings.

In monastic terms, the liturgy is the path towards an exalted “ecstasy”, a flight into the cloud of unknowing, the place where God is, and where the true contemplation of the creative stillness of God is possible.

And this is a reality which is beyond the ability of historians, theologians, linguists, biblical scholars or even pastoral liturgists to express. Their contributions may even hinder rather than help. The intensity and intangibility of this experience can only be expressed through the arts.

This is why music of quality is a critical element within the life of the Church. It is a necessity, not a luxury. It is neither a frivolous confection nor an elitist distraction from the real business of faith. Music of quality, in the context of worship, does not entertain or divert. It reveals.

By means of evolving harmonies, rhythms, textures, modulations, orchestrations, melodies, counterpoints, imitations, this rich art form has the potential to create an aural environment which enables us to contemplate the mystery of God.

Music of this calibre draws us into an engagement so profound that its sense can never be exhausted. Any work of art, be it sculpture, painting, literature, poetry or music, whose implications are immediately obvious and can instantly be grasped can never enlist our imagination, and so cannot equip us for mystery; and what cannot equip us for mystery cannot equip us for God.

This is why the Church should have no truck with banality. Yet, sadly, this is not universally the case. Too often, in a quaintly deluded attempt to achieve so-called relevance with a largely unidentified and notional constituency, the words of worship are denuded both of intellectual challenge and poetic imagery, and the music of worship is reduced to the most basic and arid of formulae. This toxic combination has achieved what many thought impossible. The emptying of our churches of those with minds to think, and emotions to inspire.

The power of liturgy was unerringly expressed by the prophet Job (iv, 15): “A spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up.” Yet this power can all too easily be surrendered in favour of pedestrian prose and incompetent music. Badly constructed melodies and harmonies can only ever be transitory simply because they are musically inept. Rhythmic patterns devoid of subtlety, trite words incapable of stimulating any kind of imagery constitute some of the most powerful impediments to the possibility of encountering the divine within the context of the liturgy.

Not only does this behaviour testify to technical deficiency (an odd concept in itself for the Church of God to endorse), it offers nothing but spiritual impoverishment to a world clamouring for spiritual fulfilment.

And it goes without saying that the last refuge for those who deny the possibility of a depth of experience of this dimension will always be the accusation of elitism.

True art transcends the ordinary. It invites us to contemplate a presence beyond itself. It entangles us in the divine web of ultimate reality, and so creates an aural environment in which we can experience, in the words of Anselm of Bec, the presence of “that than which nothing greater can be thought”.

The Very Rev Dr John Shepherd is Dean of Perth, Australia.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 24, 2010 20:01

    As to Job 4: 15, etc. , there is much interpretive problem and difficulty here (12-21). We dare not classify it either dogmatically or mystically. There are also theological questions here.

  2. Ian Maddison permalink
    June 28, 2011 09:23

    I wonder if there has been any discussion on the effect of music, or lack of it, on the decline in membership of Episcopalian churches.

    The Episcopal hymnal is larded with many verses, written by earnest 19th century ladies or their male equivalent and set to unison or angular text-book harmonies that are no fun to sing. I am continually surprised by those excellent melodies, set by 17th or 18th century German or Welsh harmonizers, that are bowdlerized into dullness by the editors.
    With the laudable exception of the National Cathedral, most of us are unburdened by an excess of long echoes. Anglican plain-chant can therefore follow the lilt and implicit music of natural language. It may not be Episcopalian, but it is Anglican.

    The Episcopal church also carries the weight of an excess of elderly folk, like me. While sometimes reluctant to change, we still find joy in quality as opposed to quantity. A visitor to any church will notice the detailed care that has gone into the decoration. Should not similar attention be paid to the quality of the accoustic experience. Even St Augustine would applaud the application of quality to the expression of all those arts that are implicitly directed to the greater glory of God. Gerald Knight, a former director of the Royal School of Church Music, shared his mixed feelings when reading an announcement of yet another long-serving member of a choir; while paying due obeisance to inclusivity, he wondered how many others had been put-off from joining the choir by the presence of the old curmudgeon.

    Musical talent is innate and well distributed. This implies that someone is always present in a congregation who can improve the quality of the music. It also implies that a large number suffer from the indifferent music. This does not propose any period in the 2000 year history of the church to be better or worse than another, but musical theorists are well aware of the importance of prevailing culture in the perception of musical quality.

    I leave the worst offender to the last. It is the Organ, a wonderful instrument that thrills us with its power and many sound colors. Under the hands of an indifferent organist, this becomes a musical concentration-camp where the musical expression of the congregation is asphyxiated and every hymn becomes a slow funereal dirge. Not only are their parishioners subjected to a pace appropriate to hauling barges on the Volga, the number of verses is often not reduced, prolonging the misery.

    It is no wonder that the ‘thirst after righteousness’ merely describes the enjoyment of the post-‘funeral’ coffee.

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