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What church music is for

September 19, 2013

John Andrew.

John Andrew.

The following is excerpted from a sermon by the incomparable John Andrew, XI rector of St. Thomas Church in New York. We could not have said it better.

WHAT is the purpose of a choir? It’s not to perform difficult music before a silent and intimidated (or irritated) congregation. It’s not there to impress the faithful. It’s there to encourage the faithful to find their voices to praise God in his holiness. It is there to give the people their voice. It is what we call a ministry: it’s what St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians means when he says: “I entreat you then … as God has called you, live up to your calling … each of us has been given his gift, the due portion of Christ’s bounty.” You heard it read today (Ephesians 4:1-11). The ministry of music is to get the people’s imagination going, to offer God something they perhaps hadn’t realized they had in them. Music can take them out of themselves. It makes some people cry, when they feel overwhelmed by the sheer force of its beauty. I know it’s true. I confess to being vulnerable to this when a great hymn or its descant’s majesty sweeps me off my feet. Just ask the boy choristers. I don’t apologise for it. That’s not cheap emotion. It’s God’s people finding their voice, their response with their uplifted hearts.

But I want you to join me in my battle with bad music in the Church’s worship. People here have known that I am the unrelenting enemy of what we all nowadays could call schlocky music, itself an expression of badly-understood theology, which brings me to tell you about a book called Children’s Letters to God, published when I was living in London, in the 1960’s. These letters to God from little children are hilarious. Serious, honest, puzzled, frank, and searching. An unforgettable letter from a seven year old boy called Barry says this: “Dear God: Church is alright but you sure could use better music. I hope this does not hurt your feelings. Could you write some new songs. Your friend Barry.”

Barry is not only on to something but he has laid down a challenge to the Church. Worship is important; no, it is not important: it is vital. It expresses what we think and know about Christ and the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I am not alone in being appalled at the failure of the Church’s training of its clergy to learn that the musical expression of our worship and liturgy is paramount. So generations of clergy blunder on to the scene ignorant, oblivious, thinking they know and they don’t. Many have never given this much of a thought, or realize that their musicians are every bit as well or more educated in their area as they are. Greek and Russian Orthodox seminarians are required to be trained in liturgical singing! Anglicans and Romans for the most part are uncaring and ignorant. And this poor misunderstanding of worship displays it. To our shame.

We happen to be among the luckiest people in the Anglican world with musicians whose skills and learning reflect their response to St. Paul’s reminder of their ministry. It is nothing less. Some of us here are fortunate enough to have enjoyed their response to Paul’s challenge for a large part of our lives, living through decades of inheritance. This course could sow the seeds of inspiration and encouragement under Sarah [Baldock] and her colleagues to help us find our voices for God, and “worship Him in holiness and truth”, for the day when as St. Augustine says, “we shall rest, and we shall see, we shall see and we shall love, we shall love, and we shall praise in the end that is no end…” Lift up your hearts! AMEN.

The full sermon may be found here, and an audio recording here.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Keith Charles Edwards permalink
    September 30, 2015 22:20

    John A. was a my sometime Rector. Good priest. He valued good music.

  2. Wayne Howell permalink
    October 1, 2015 15:13

    2 Chronicles 20:21-23. Jehoshaphat, King of Judah sent the choir out with the army to sing praises to God. As they were singing, their enemies turned on each other and destroyed one another.

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