Monday, April 28, 2008

Evangelical Evensong

The congregation of College Church in Wheaton enjoyed a beautiful service of Evening Prayer last night. We could have called it Vespers; we could have called it Evensong. It seemed best to call it by the simple and descriptive, “Evening Prayer.” For one thing, we have been emphasizing and incorporating prayer into our evening services since the year began. For another, there is something that still sounds a bit like performance in Choral Evensong. Ultimately, though there is choral music prepared, and the prayers also by the ministry staff, it is a service of prayer for all who attend – who sing, listen, participate, and receive.

Using the historical pattern, the Chancel Choir sang Psalm 122 in an Anglican chant (“Let Us Go to the House of the Lord” Benjamin Hutto), and responses to the scripture readings were Vaughan Williams’ Magnificat and nunc dimittis. For a prayer anthem we sang the lovely Stephen Paulus “Pilgrims’ Hymn” and for the offering (not the ‘offertory’!) DuruflĂ©’s “Ubi caritas.” The Choir was in fine form and sang beautifully.

But it was the hymn singing of the congregation that really carried the service. Not to take anything away from the lovely expressivity of the chant (they did this so well) or the mystical character of the Paulus piece (never better by this choir). Certainly not to discount any of the choral singing. But to hear the congregation sing evening hymns, the Lord’s Prayer (to LANGDON), and to end the Prayers with “I am Thine, O Lord,” was a glory. Then to top it off, Robert Hobby’s organ setting for congregation, “Abide with me,” well it was all so satisfying. The service was framed by a harp solo prelude and a freshly written postlude on EVENTIDE, for organ and harp.

The College Church ministry residents and pastors also brought deeply personal praying into the service. The Confession, Petitions, and Thanksgiving were prepared from scripture and congregational life. They had a Prayer Book character but were entirely from pastoral hearts. No Anglican would have confused them for BCP, but would have been at home with them. And they were completely natural for this congregation, where public prayer is taken very seriously and joyously. A 20-minute sermon was the perfect length to make this the "compleat worship service."

The response to this service has already surprised me. Where we go from here is still to be considered. But I think we have learned that we need not fear a form so long as we bring our biblical and pastoral hearts to it, and treat the congregation as full participants in the tapestry of prayer and worship.

Monday, April 14, 2008

What “your music” says about …

So, getting back to the comment about “your music.” These were obviously two statements, related in specific contexts in which I was not present, that stirred up some free association issues for me.

When someone says “hymns are no longer the music of the church,” I think they are saying more than they mean to, or care to, or understand, about the music of the church.

What does is mean that hymns have been replaced by non-hymns? I’ll walk into this by trying to be clear about what hymns are and what I understand to be non-hymns. Hymns are poems, written in praise of God, meant to be sung by a group of average singers – generally mixed in age and gender. As Poems, they generally consist of multiple stanzas or verses, use words that are at once simple and rich in metaphor and allusion, and express a progression of thought or narrative. (check out some hymn texts in earlier posts) Non-hymns – to sketch a caricature – are usually limited to a single verse/chorus (sometimes simply a chorus), stick to a single idea which is uncomplicated and undeveloped, and may be repeated a number of times with or without variation. Again, to generalize, Non-hymns are often sub-culture specific, and may be rhythmically complicated (and thus more difficult for a group of average singers to sing well) or so simple as to not sustain interest over time. (Hey, it’s my blog and I can use as many stereo-types as I want!)

When “hymns” are no longer the music of the church, the result often is that there is a severe limiting of “the peoples’ song.” One of the primary biblical means of expressing praise – music – is kept in the hands of the worship leader qua performer. The congregation may enjoy the music, but participate less and less in the folk art of the church. Further, the congregation sees less and less of the artistry and achievements of the church historic, when all that is sung (or heard) is new.

Let’s be clear about this: there are wretched hymn tunes. But one area in which non-hymns are seldom critiqued is the nature of the melodies employed. There is a craft to writing a truly singable and memorable tune. Very few musicians have this. I definitely do not. Many new songs do not have tunes that you want to whistle, hum, or have in your head apart from the words. Taking a cue from Alice Parker, I look for melodies that can stand alone, that I want to hum, whistle, or sing even if I don’t know or can’t remember the words. Here’s where I take issue with some recent attempts to write new melodies to old hymns. Yeah, I’m talking to you, RUF Hymnal … if you can’t produce a better tune, then resign yourself to mastering the old one. Don’t content yourself with just a new tune. And, while you’re at it, maybe you could think about writing tunes for the whole church to enjoy. Just because it works rhythmically and sounds good with a guitar doesn’t cut it in the world of melodic craft. A melody is a melody, and should be able to stand alone.