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