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If music be the food of faith, we’re starving here.

February 23, 2012

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, which is not a day that likes to draw attention to itself. Unlike the brashness of Mardi Gras/ Shrove Tuesday – all pancakes and parties – the first day of Lent is a time of quiet introspection. What’s been causing me to reflect on matters spiritual for the past few days, however, is not so much the beginning of Lent as the state of music in the Church. For the past decade or so, I have been a pretty regular member of our local Catholic church. I was brought up and Confirmed as an Episcopalian, but choose to join my husband in his church; not least because we agreed to bring up our children in the Catholic faith. I have not converted to Catholicism. I often think it would be so much easier if I had, but you can’t convert just because it would be convenient. So I continue to be a sort of semi-detached member of our small congregation, warmly welcomed yet precluded, for sound theological reasons which I do understand, from participating fully in the Mass by taking Communion. (As a priest of the beau monde at the Brompton Oratory put it succinctly when I pushed him on this fundamental point, ‘Frankly, my dear, you’re just not in the club.’)

The sticking point: transubstantiation. (photo from

Anyway, what this means is that I came to Catholic Sunday worship with a weight of Episcopalian assumptions. Several things struck me as a newcomer. Firstly, the many similarities in the liturgy of the two traditions: we are surely more similar than different. Secondly, the surprising plainness of the interiors of Catholic parish churches in Britain. I suppose I should not have been surprised, having written a thesis on the pre-Reformation Church in England: Anglicans (and Presbyterians in Scotland) took over all the beautiful medieval churches at the Reformation. Nevertheless, it seemed odd to me that most Catholic churches appear to have more in common with the sober, whitewashed simplicity of Presbyterian kirks than with the stained glass and ornately carved wood of traditional Anglican places of worship. Similarly, I was struck by the plain, even pedestrian, language of the liturgy: I miss the sonorous cadences of the Book of Common Prayer. Most of all, though, it was the state of the music that I noticed.

Coming from the Anglican tradition, the poverty of the music in the average Catholic service came as a shock. I grew up with the great, inspiring hymns of Charles Wesley and the evangelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: ‘Praise my soul the King of Heaven’; ‘For all the saints who from their labours rest’ (not forgetting the ‘bong’ before the first word); ‘Guide me O Thou great redeemer’ (Cwm Rhondda); the Battle Hymn of the Republic; ‘Eternal Father strong to save’; ‘He who would valiant be’ (which my father chose to be sung at his funeral); ‘The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended’; ‘and so on and so on. There are dozens and dozens of uplifting hymns for every occasion and mood. They are perhaps one of the great riches of the British Isles, if largely unrecognised: you only have to listen (pace my French cousins!) to a French congregation’s attempt at singing to realise how lucky we are in this country to have this strong tradition of congregational music.

In the Catholic churches I’ve attended in Britain, however, you would never know that any such repertoire existed. Some of those hymns, it is true, are to be found in the hymn books we use; yet they never seem to be chosen. Instead, we are asked to dredge up the energy to sing banal drivel like ‘Bind us together, Lord, bind us together with cords that cannot be broken. Bind us together, Lord, Bind us together, Lord, Bind us together in love.’ If you haven’t heard the pathetic excuse for a tune that goes with that, lucky you. The sentiment is all good, granted, but the sappy words and tunes are beyond awful. (No, go on, DB, tell us what you really think.)

I apologise for getting a bit het up about this, but the thing is, I really think it matters. Singing together is a wonderful way of building a sense of common cause, which is vital to a congregation. And singing as a form of praise should inspire, comfort and uplift, not drain you of the will to live. So why does the Catholic church turn its back upon the wealth of material available to it? My husband, being a Catholic, blames the Reformation and the consequent long break in the traditions of Catholicism in Britain. I, being a traditionalist, blame Vatican II, or rather the fact that this great reforming council of the Catholic Church took place in the Sixties, thus paving the way for a drippy army of sandal-wearing, guitar-wielding songsters. (Oh dear, now I’ve offended more good souls.) Before Vatican II, I suppose that there was no tradition of congregational singing in the Catholic Church, as the congregation was effectively only a spectator to the rite being performed by the priest. Would that be right? I can’t understand, however – or at least, I find it hard to sympathise with – the revitalised Church welcoming insipid little dirges for its people to sing every week, rather than taking the opportunity to adopt some of the great hymns of the English speaking tradition.

What I can understand is that the Catholic Church in Britain might have wanted to forge its own traditions after Vatican II, rather than taking on the music of Protestantism. In that case, however, why not make use of the sumptuous glories of Catholic music both post- and pre-Reformation: Mozart, Palestrina, Thomas Tallis? Most of this body of music, granted, is for choirs; but even our church choir in a large city congregation rarely tackled any such music, despite the fact that plenty of it is both manageable and immensely rewarding for an amateur choir. The result is that the entire congregation is impoverished, whether or not they are aware of it. Denying congregations the opportunity to hear good choral music or to sing stirring hymns is almost, to my mind, a sin, because such music does so much more for the spirit than guff like ‘Bind us together’.

The choir stalls in Exeter College Chapel, Oxford (photo from

This is, of course, a very subjective rant. And I am not a Catholic – sometimes I’m not even sure if I’m anything, though I’ll keep searching – so you could argue that I have no right to pontificate. Perhaps the importance I attach to the quality of music in worship is indicative of the weakness of my own faith, which needs all the support it can get. In church, I am constantly seeking that sense of the numinous, that awe-filled sense of the presence of the Divine. Personally, I find it in the soaring notes of sixteenth century polyphony. I do not find it, ever, in a modern, brightly-lit building with a group of people half-heartedly murmuring limp songs from the Seventies.

The point is, though, that I don’t believe I can be the only person who needs these ‘props’, if you will, to reach some spiritual communion. Many of the people in our rural Catholic congregation may never have had the opportunity to sing the hymns which I grew up with, or to experience the beauty of early Church music which I was lucky enough to hear and to sing at university. But that doesn’t mean that they might not benefit from it as much as I do. Maybe our parish can’t manage to put together a choir to sing ‘Spem in Alium‘, but we’d surely all get a filip from belting out the Old Hundredth, ‘All People that on Earth do dwell, sing to the Lord with cheerful voice’.

I’d be interested to hear if anyone has different experiences of music in Catholic churches in England or Scotland. (Of course, the great cathedrals and metropolitan churches are a different matter, having vastly richer resources to draw on than the little rural parishes.) Do most people prefer the modern songs, or is it just that they have never been offered an alternative? I guess that I have fairly old-fashioned preferences in worship. Is it only in the (several) parish churches which I have attended that these modern tunes are preferred, while there are congregations elsewhere singing more inspiring hymns? I just can’t help feeling that, for all the unflagging cheerfulness of our lovely priest and the warmth and friendliness of our congregation, there is something lacklustre, something joyless, at the heart of our worship. And I think music is the answer. You might be interested to read A rose-tinted Sunday.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2012 10:03 pm

    Yes, I suppose there must be a lot of people who love music (in whatever form or manner) and find themselves shut off or shut out from it for whatever reason. Think of the child who practices their instrument and is told “stop that noise” and quietly closes down never to pick up the instrument again or perhaps not for many years.

    While there is plenty of music in our culture (Scotland) but if the group (family, organisation, church, circle of friends) do not partake (as is my case with 95% of my friends) you really are out of luck. In my case, I might want to have a jam session with one of my friends but I have found over the years, that if the spouse doesn’t get included (simply is not musical nor particularly interested) then there is little or no music for that particular social occasion. Actually it is worse than that: if one of say a group of 6 is not musical when the rest of us want to play, we do not play (or things wind down fairly quickly). So I guess what I am talking about is the “social norm”. Not much you can do about it I am afraid!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 23, 2012 11:31 pm

      Perhaps you’re right, Barbara. I am very blessed in that my family is musical, so we have wonderful carols round the piano when all the cousins get together at Christmas, and my husband and I both enjoy going to concerts or ad hoc folk music events when we can. And I do get my fix of choral music in the choral society which I joined last year. I hope that I will never be the parent who tells their child to ‘stop that noise’ – although our elder son is learning the drums now, so I can’t promise! 🙂 What do you play?

  2. February 23, 2012 11:50 pm

    Oh, that came from the heart, DB! I feel your pain, really I do, as I think music is so very important in worship. Yes, I too have sung “Bind us together, Lord” quite frequently over the years, but only as one item among a mix of traditional and modern, including all the great hymns you mention and more. But of course I’m an Anglican and my experience of Catholic worship is very limited, except in France, which as you say is another story.

    If the great old Protestant hymns are out of bounds, though that does seem to be an awful shame, what about the really excellent modern hymns, not songs, which are still being written? Does a hymn have to have been written by a Catholic to be acceptable? I think of the wonderful material being produced by the Iona community: modern, but sung to fine old folk-airs and profoundly theological. I’m not sure any of this is of any use to you, but I really sympathise, as I too would find such a worship diet very thin, especially if I could not participate in Communion either.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 24, 2012 12:49 pm

      I confess I was interested to hear your thoughts, in particular, on this post. I do appreciate your sympathy! It’s not that I am against modern music – far from it – and I wouldn’t mind at all if we sang a mixture. (Hymns ancient and modern, in fact.) But our diet is, as you so aptly put it, very thin here. I pondered if that might be because our priest is not a native Briton, but that can’t be the nub of the matter as I have had the same experience in all the parishes I’ve lived in.

      The music of the Iona Community sounds extremely interesting. I would love it if we were to incorporate traditional Scots airs into our worship: it would make so much sense and might give our Highland congregation more of a sense of ownership of the music. Alas, I don’t see it happening any time soon.

  3. February 24, 2012 9:04 am

    Well said!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 24, 2012 12:52 pm

      Thank you.

  4. February 24, 2012 10:39 am

    Really interesting post! I laughed out loud at your remarks about “Bind Us Together” – nothing worse than hearing that awful, tuneless dirge groaned out by an unenthusiastic congregation! From my own experience I’d have to say that it really depends on the community, and probably the parish priest. I was brought up Catholic in a village in the industrial North West of England which was full of musicians and singers. There were several choirs, a very active Am Dram society, a well-regarded school orchestra, and shows and performances all of which were directly linked to the church. The result of Vatican II where I came from was, with the help of an amenable and musically-oriented parish priest, to enable a very eclectic mix of music, from the stirring, Anglican hymns you mention (of which my Grandma was a great fan) to very contemporary sung liturgies, to Copeland’s Apalachian Spring, a recording of which I vividly recall being played at my confirmation. What strikes me most is that there was a sense of music being incredibly important to the congregation, and that new avenues were constantly being explored. We had a really lively group of musicians who accompanied important masses, including my Dad (who did not take communion, for similar reasons to yourself) and later, myself and my sister. Lent was always a time of fervent practice, as we planned for holy week.

    While my own parish church was a converted cinema, just down the road was this interior, which certainly fired my imagination:

    It includes a tetramorph representation of the four evangelists, which I remember I particularly liked.

    Music is utterly crucial to faith, I think. Though I am now a thoroughly secular person, Copeland’s Appalachian Spring will, for me, always have a Pentecostal association.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 24, 2012 1:01 pm

      Thanks for your most interesting comments, Kate. The parish of your childhood sounds just amazing: the much abused word ‘vibrant’ springs to mind. What a wonderful creative atmosphere in which to grow up. The cultural opportunities offered to children stay with them throughout their lives, regardless of faith or its absence, as you yourself demonstrate. I am a little sad that my own children are growing up without knowing the richness of religious culture which I was lucky enough to have experienced.

      Nonetheless, I’m rather relieved to learn that there are more musically aware parishes out there. As for that stunning church in (?) Rochdale: yes, I think that there I could find a sense of the numinous.

  5. February 24, 2012 11:26 am

    Dearest DB, although I read and enjoy every single one of your posts, it is ages since I left a comment but this was such a thoughtful, heartfelt post, and it truly resonated for me.

    I was born into one of those families who were nominally Anglican but who were, in fact, agnostics, if not atheists, although my mother did teach me to say my prayers at night. At seven, I took myself off to Sunday School, where an Anglo-Catholic friend’s father taught – and from there progressed quite naturally to a high Anglican church where I was confirmed and made my first communion. Like you, I loved the liturgy and the music – and the great Anglican hymns sung at my state primary school every morning.

    At 11, I went to a convent grammar school but this was in 1959, pre-Vatican II, so Mass was in Latin, rather than the vernacular, and I embraced the contemplative delights of plainsong and Gregorian chant and was spiritually uplifted by the great sung Masses. And then along came Vatican II . . .

    It is many years since I have regarded myself a believer, and even longer since I have regularly attended a church of any denomination (these days I follow a Buddhist path). However, when I first moved to Exmoor I went to services at both the village (Anglican) parish church and the nearest Catholic church, just to see if any residue of my old beliefs lingered. The quality of the music, or more correctly the lack of quality, was heartbreaking; unrecognisable hymns, congregations who certainly had long forgotten or had never discovered the joy of singing together, not that the dismal music was very inspiring. Everyone looking a bit embarrassed while they were singing and then relieved when they stopped.

    Now I have to rely on BBC R3 – I know we are in agreement about Choral Evensong – my own music collection, and the occasional foray to a faraway concert if I want to hear a sung Mass.

    By the way, i loved your comment about the priest at the Oratory. A late friend of mine – a convert to Catholicism in her forties – worshipped there for many years. During the course of her instruction, prior to conversion, she tackled one of the Oratory fathers about the Church’s teaching on contraception and and other marital matters, which she regarded as intrusive. ‘Oh my dear, don’t trouble yourself about this; the teaching is not intended for people like you,’ came the reply,’ the rules are really just for ordinary, less educated people.’ I only wish that the story were apocryphal but my friend never quite got over her astonishment and was still telling the tale fifty years later, despite her strong unwavering faith.

    Apologies for the length of this comment but if you will write such interesting posts . . .

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 24, 2012 1:10 pm

      How very nice to hear your voice again in the comments, D. Your experiences in your local churches on Exmoor sound depressingly like my own, especially in that people seem embarrassed to sing at all. They really don’t know what they are missing, I think. Sadly.

      I am amused to hear another Oratory anecdote in such a similar vein to my own. It is both jaw-dropping and entirely credible, I’m afraid! What a strange little world they do live in.

  6. hmunro permalink
    February 24, 2012 7:04 pm

    What a beautifully written, deeply insightful, wonderfully personal tribute to the power of music, DB. And what a pity that your church doles out such paltry meals for your musical soul! I can only hope that a more enlightened soul will take over the music selection at some point, and that you’ll again be able to bask in the sonorous refrains of “Eternal Father Strong to Save’ and ‘Jerusalem’ (two of my personal faves).

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 24, 2012 7:38 pm

      Thank you, Heather – generous as always. Thanks for reading this post as a ‘tribute to the power of music’, which is I suppose what I meant it to be. I emphatically do not mean it to be a criticism of any individuals in my congregation, as they really are Christians in the true sense (and anyway, I am in no position to criticise). It’s just such a pity that we are missing out on so much, as I see it. I’m not the one to lead the way either, being neither musical enough nor Catholic enough! But perhaps we’ll get lucky with someone else one day. 🙂

      I’m with you on those two hymns. Jerusalem almost makes me feel English (my mother would be proud) and ‘Eternal Father Strong to Save’ always chokes me up thinking about ‘those in peril on the sea’.

  7. February 25, 2012 1:11 am

    Some of it might actually be caused by the fact that these days many people mainly listen to music, and therefore are not actively playing or singing. With that comes a certain uneasiness in expressing yourself that way. I see that whenever I visit mass myself. Soft mumbling voices, and the inability to pick up anything more difficult than the well known songs/hymns from the song book. In my opinion it’s definitely not about hitting every single note, it’s (like you already mentioned) about the joy of singing together.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 25, 2012 5:22 pm

      That is a very good point, Diana, which hadn’t occurred to me. It might also be relevant that so many people have pop music as the background to their lives and see any classical music as ‘other’. Although it may be a good sign that on British TV recently there has been a wildly popular series called ‘The Choir’, in which a young professional musician has been persuading people from all walks of life, most of whom think they can’t sing and most of whom have never been anywhere near classical music, to come together in choral music. His choir of military wives was number one in the pop charts at Christmas! More power to him, I say.

  8. February 25, 2012 8:10 am

    If there’s one thing worse than ‘Bind us together’ it’s ‘One more step along the road we go’, a favourite in the Church of Scotland. Very interesting post, and by coincidence something I’ve been thinking about from a C of S perspective since midweek, when we attended Ash Wednesday mass at Old St Paul’s Episcopal church in Edinburgh. Our daughter is doing Advanced Higher Music, as part of which they’re studying the mass form and in particular Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, which was part of the service that evening. She’s also singing this mass as part of her school chamber choir repertoire for a music tour to Poland at Easter, and because it’s Easter and they’re performing in churches the programme is heavy on sacred music, including Allegri’s Miserere, which was also sung at Old St Paul’s on Wednesday.

    Anyway, parental company was requested for this outing, and so one Church of Scotland elder, whose grandfather and great grandfather were C of S ministers, and one lapsed C of S member (me) found themselves in the midst of clouds of incense and genuflecting and kneeling and candles and icon-like paintings and as if in a foreign country. But the music – the music was glorious and woven through the emotion of the service and by that I don’t mean the hymns, which were solid, enthusiastically-sung Charles Wesley, but the choral music. And that was what marked the difference for me between my own church tradition and the Anglican. This whole liturgical tradition with such glorious music to call on as a connection to the divine. The thing I kept returning to was the comparative poverty in the Church of Scotland of choral music during which the congregation can reflect and be moved and worship. There are good choirs in many churches, but the music tends to be ‘random’. There is no sense of connection, through great works such as those by Byrd and Tallis, with past generations of worship, or with the turning seasons of the church year.

    Very interestingly, my daughter, who is not a church member, is drawn to these services at Old St Paul’s by the music. She has said that she is aware of a spiritual aspect to the worship that she has never experienced in the Church of Scotland.

    Old St Paul’s is a city centre church whose director of music is a senior lecturer in music at Edinburgh University, and is therefore able to have a choir of high quality. How to replicate that across rural Scotland? I kept puzzling about that, and realising that for all our plans to leave Edinburgh as soon as we can, it would be the music that I would miss. Through my children’s involvement in music – violin, viola, clarsach, soprano singer daughter and bass singer son – I’ve come late to music and now I want all that I can get. Sacred choral music has been a discovery of particular delight through my children’s school chamber choir.

    But what I would miss in the Anglican tradition would be the Scottish psalms. They are part of me and part of the fabric of the communities I grew up in. I’ve gone on long enough here, but I might return to this in my blog. If I can get it cranked up again!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 25, 2012 6:05 pm

      Thank you so much, Linda, for this most eloquent and reflective contribution to the subject.

      I have members of the Kirk in my own family and so am very familiar with Church of Scotland services, but had never really identified these differences in the musical traditions of the C of S and the C of E. Old St. Paul’s – not a church I know – sounds glorious. I was never a ‘High’ Anglican but I must say that the beauty of the language, the music and the reverent rituals of High Anglicanism become more appealing the more that the rest of the Churches slides towards lowest-common-denominator banality. I’m not surprised that your musical daughter should find it attractive! Her choir trip to Poland at Easter (lucky girl) will be immensely rewarding, I’m sure.

      It’s rather strange, don’t you think, that the Anglican churches should be the ones whose music has kept a sense of ‘connection with past generations of worship’? My husband finds the Catholic Church’s unbroken line back to St. Peter very appealing; yet one has no sense of this rich history in British Catholic churches. As for the Kirk, I think that there is still a very strong sense of tradition in the isles which perhaps has become diluted on the Anglophone mainland. For me, taking part in the strange, moving swell of sound of traditional Gaelic psalm singing at a funeral service in Skye was an unforgettable experience, which spoke across the centuries.

      I suppose, then, that each of the Churches has its own beauties, still to be found in pockets of the country. Between the isles and the cities, though, these pockets are hard to find. Sadly I think you are right that the richness of music in the cities is impossible to replicate in rural communities: having lived in London, Oxford and Edinburgh I, too, miss the music.

  9. February 25, 2012 6:09 pm

    I agree with you,DB. I avoid the masses when there is guitar playing. Some churches have lovely music and hymns, others not. I just assumed it was up to the organist, or choir director. I’d like to sing and celebrate, but as you’ve pointed out, it’s rather weak and pathetic.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 27, 2012 7:46 pm

      Music is a very personal choice, of course, and for some people it is of no interest at all. (Imagine!) It would be nice if the people in charge of the music for worship had at least a little interest, though…

  10. February 28, 2012 4:40 pm

    What a great post! I have to have music and “older” hymns ( but not the “modern trend”: guitars, drums, and lots of clapping…you have to pick the church). You are supposed to make a joyful noise, right? Like my dad said, you don’t have to agree with the preachin’ (preachers sometimes would take an odd tangent for a while in the protestant churches here), but you can always just go for the singin’. Thanks for such a thoughtful post

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      February 28, 2012 10:57 pm

      I love your dad’s saying! For us these days it’s the other way round: we go for the preachin’ not the singin’. Luckily our priest gives rather thought-provoking sermons that are worth coming for!


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