Jan 31 2010

When a congregation is just an audience

 Maybe what passes for congregational singing these days is part of the Christian suffering I am expected to endure during my sojourn on this doomed dirt clod in space…  When did the tired cliché of a Broadway interlude become the model for all these clever-but-purgatorial tunes we trudge through Sunday after Sunday?

 Here’s a novel suggestion for musical seminarians:  get out of the conservatories and  symphony halls and opera houses and listen to what people really like to sing along with, especially when they don’t have behemoth electronic billboards to guide them, a few words at a time, through oddly syncopated (but still insipid) lyrics about how holy we are and trampled flowers and awesome deities.  Study the melodies of the Irish taverns, the sea chanteys, the laments of field workers, and the bluegrass balladeers.  Those are the tunes that you remember.  Those are the simple songs that will spring forth spontaneously in moments of praise or distress, long after we have passed from the scene.  Sad thing is, the only time we hear many of those old tunes now is as instrumental arrangements during a prelude or offertory…

 Don’t get me wrong.  I love the fancy stuff and there are even soaring moments in mankind’s grandest music where the audience can chime in.  The Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s Messiah and the “Figaro, Figaro, Figar-OOOOH” lines in the Barber of Seville come to mind.  But that doesn’t mean we can sing the whole damn thing (or would want to if we could).  Ditto for Gregorian chants and some of the other music best left to the professionals.  Love it, love it, love it, but not as a participant.  Stop and listen the next time technology fails you; without the magic of follow-the-bouncing-ball projection screens, the congregation lapses into barely-audible incoherent mumbling.

 I am presently reading a collection of essays by C. S. Lewis, titled “God in the dock.”  It includes correspondence between Lewis and a man tasked by the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland to ask Lewis to be a member of a panel assessing new Anglican hymns.  Part of Lewis’ first response (July 16, 1946):

The truth is that I’m not is sufficient sympathy with the project to help you.  I know that many of the congregation like singing hymns: but am not yet convinced that their enjoyment is of a spiritual kind.  It may be: I don’t know.  To the minority, of whom I am one, the hymns are mostly the dead wood of the service.  Recently in a party of six people I found that all without exception would like fewer hymns.  Naturally, one holding this view can’t help you.

 He repented, sort of, a few months later (September 21, 1946):

I can’t quite remember my own last letter; but I was wrong if I said or implied that (a) variables, (b) active participation by the people, or (c) hymns, were bad in principle.  I would agree that anything the congregation can do may properly and profitably be offered to God in public worship.  If one had a congregation (say, in Africa) who had a high tradition in sacred dancing and could do it really well I would be perfectly in favour of making a dance part of the service.  But I wouldn’t transfer the practice to a Willesden congregation whose best dance was a ballroom shuffle.  In modern England, however, we can’t sing – as the Welsh and Germans can.  Also (a great pity, but a fact) the art of poetry has developed for two centuries in a private and subjective direction.  That is why I find hymns ‘dead wood.’  But I spoke only for myself and a few others.  If an improved hymnody – or even the present hymnody – does edify other people, of course it is an elementary duty of charity and humility for me to submit.  I have never spoken in public against the use of hymns: on the contrary I have often told ‘highbrow’ converts that a humble acquiescence in anything that may edify their uneducated brethren (however frightful it seems to the educated ‘natural man’) is the first lesson they must learn.  The door is low and one must stoop to enter.

Oh, how I wish we had voices like Lewis today, men and women who could skewer the banality and worldly pomposity of The Modern Baptist Service.  Voices that would call us back from a wilderness of church-as-entertainment, to congregate for a purpose deeper than an hour’s spectacle.  There is too much that is wrong with ourselves and too much work to be done for us to simply be an enraptured, presumably rapture-ready audience week after week.  But I did enjoy much of the music this morning…

PS – I’ve been trying to cc. the top-of-the-food-chain music makers at SWBTS; figured I’d give them a piece of my mind, too.  Alas, they are blocking all but local traffic so you alone must bear the brunt of my fury at continuously bumping my head on the door of humility…

Permanent link to this article: http://levantium.com/2010/01/31/when-a-congregation-is-just-an-audience/

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