Oy, church music!
I just posted the following over at Episcopal Café in response to this article from the Alban Institute. It’s really too long for a comment, and it’s clearly a topic I feel strongly about, so I repost it here.
And lest you think I’m a spiky traditionalist who wants to stick to the Hymnal, I’ll have you know I spent last evening paging through “Music by Heart: Paperless Songs for Evening Worship”, and there’s a fair amount of stuff in there I like and intend to use. All Saints Company seems to be doing a great job of creating a new tradition of Episcopal music.
Here’s what I wrote [text in brackets only added here]:
The more ‘eclectic’ our selection of worship music becomes, the less connection we have to any particular tradition of religious music. To say that we should dabble in many different styles devalues each style and the community that created it.
For example, there is a living tradition of Early American religious music—the Sacred Harp tradition—and there’s probably a weekly (or at least monthly) singing in your area. That community very intentionally sticks to one style, and they practice for years to really make it ring out.
Where the ‘global’ music traditions are concerned, first look around at your congregations. The Episcopal Church is still largely a church of privileged white people. This certainly isn’t the case in every congregation or diocese, but for a mostly white, affluent congregation to appropriate African-American, African, or Latina/o music isn’t just devaluing of the musicianship and tradition of those styles. It willfully ignores our own privilege, both globally as US citizens/residents and within our own communities.
[We can absolutely claim some of the 'eclectic' traditions mentioned in the original article: Early American, in some measure Irish Folk. Some can rightfully be claimed by more diverse congregations than the one I attend, depending on the relationship to the source communities: Gospel, African-American Spiritual, African, Latina/o. (And why no mention of the Native American hymn tradition? It's even attested in the '82 Hymnal.) Others we might do best to incorporate only with fear and trembling: "Hebrew Traditional" (which is really Ashkenazi Jewish), and for white congregations, any of the traditions belonging to people of color or to the commonly-ignored places of the world. Affluent northern congregations might wish to exercise mindfulness even when using Southern Harmony hymns.]
I am all in favor of congregations expanding their musical horizons, to “sing our faith” as authentically and energetically as we can, provided that we do justice (in every sense) to any tradition we may adopt. That means undertaking learning a style well enough to make it sound true (and no, simply “adding a triangle, tambourine, and hand drum” will not “enhance the Irish flavor”). It also means recognizing when, for whatever social or geopolitical reasons, a tradition does not belong to us.
Even when we incorporate traditions of which we have rightful use (that is, some respectful relational connection to), it remains to consider what we can truly connect with. Say what you will about the ‘boring’ old hymns, they have a home in many of our hearts and our congregations (and our skill sets!). Congregations should absolutely go beyond the limits of the hymns they already know, but the purpose of singing in church isn’t to expand our horizons. Try choosing one style from those that the original article outlines, and really learn that style as a community. Start with all the hymns in that style that are in the Hymnal (or WLP or Gather or whatever you have in the pews), but also look into the primary sources of that tradition. Pick up a copy of the Southern Harmony or the Sacred Harp or a Celtic hymnal [from the Celtic Isles]. And practice the style, at least as music leaders, to make it as authentic as possible. You have to be comfortable in a style before you can truly praise God in that style.
I’d also note that passing on a tradition doesn’t just mean teaching our kids the same hymns we sang as kids. Again with reference to the Sacred Harp community, contemporary composers have been writing new hymns in every generation of that tradition, back three centuries. Those new hymns are recognized by the community as fitting with the tradition, and are incorporated as favorites. Handing on a tradition also means keeping the tradition alive, by reinvigorating it with new material. Where are the contemporary hymnodists and lyricists writing in the tradition of Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley or J.S. Bach or Martin Luther, but informed by a contemporary understanding of the Gospel?
And none of the above is simply about what we like or dislike. It’s about what makes it possible for us to authentically praise God and know each other more deeply in song.