Epiphany 2020

20 + C + M + B + 20
16 September 2020
Tradition - Living
Obviously, my preference would have been that we could have celebrated 30 years of regular services of Choral Evensong at St. Peter's, St. Louis with... services of Choral Evensong. Alas, that seems not to be in the offing. 

It's a significant achievement! And so some kind of celebration is warranted. 

Even before the current pandemic changed our plans, I was conceiving of this series as focusing on Evensong as a Living Tradition. And I've continued to do that. 

We're taking Living Tradition online:

The series will begin in earnest on Sunday, September 27 with the first in a series of conversations about music and liturgy. You can read more about those conversations on the Living Tradition website.

Today, I've written a bit about tradition versus “traditionalism”. Even though I didn't have the words of Jaroslav Pelikan handy when I was planning this series, they must have been in the back of my mind when I was thinking about the idea of Evensong being a Living Tradition.

Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.

Read it here: Tradition Is the Living Faith of the Dead 

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27 December 2019
Whenas all the world was in profoundest quietness: Silence at Christmas

“Silence is God’s first language.”
– St. John of the Cross

So much of our Christmas vocabulary is about quiet or silence.

This has always been true, but it’s only lately that I’ve noticed just how prevalent the theme of turning down the volume is in the Nativity season. And today, on St. John’s Day, I think the Gospel of John also has something to tell us about this.

The most famous hymn for midnight Mass sets the scene:

Silent night, holy night,
all is calm, all is bright
round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
sleep in heavenly peace.

Hymn 111 (hymn numbers refer to the Hymnal 1982): Joseph Mohr (1792–1848); tr. John Freeman Young (1820–1885)

The traditional mood of the central part of the narrative is one of quietness. Even the livestock in a 19th century African-American spiritual sense the mood.

While shepherds kept their watching
o’er silent flocks by night,
behold, throughout the heavens
there shone a holy light.

Hymn 99: "Go tell it on the mountain." adapt. John W. Work (1901-1967)

Another famous hymn begs us to quiet ourselves so that we can better enter into the narrative.

“O hush the noise and cease your strife
and hear the angels sing!”

Hymn 89/90: "It came upon the midnight clear." Edmund H. Sears.

Many beloved Christmas carols also rely on the acoustical properties of snow. This accumulating precipitation is a phenomenon traditionally associated with the Christmas season in the northern hemisphere. When the snow piles up, the world gets even softer.

In the bleak midwinter,
frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow,
snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter,
      long ago.

Hymn 112: Christina Rosetti.

An anonymous 19th-century hymn actually places the birth narrative amidst a snowfall:
The snow lay on the ground,
the stars shone bright,
when Christ our Lord was born
on Christmas night.

Hymn 110

But singing about silence isn’t just reserved for a quiet candlelight ceremony, fluffy fauna, or meteorological muffling. There’s some real theological something or other going on. A famous nineteenth-century American text has a bit more depth to it:

O little town of Bethlehem
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by...

How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.

Hymn 78/79: Phillips Brooks

Other hymns and even the Introit for the First Sunday after Christmas variously juxtapose silence with the Word. In some instances, it is the Word itself that is silent.

“Why lies he in such mean estate
where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
the silent Word is pleading.”

Hymn 115: “What child is this, who, laid to rest.” William Chatterton Dix

But silent knelt the mother blest
of the yet silent Word,
and pondering all things in her heart,
with speechless praise adored.

Hymn 257: “O Zion, open wide thy gates.” Jean Baptiste de Santeüil (1630–1697); tr. Edward Caswall (1814–1878), alt.

But in the Introit for the First Sunday after Christmas, we encounter perhaps what is the underlying reason for this obsession with silence. God speaks the Word at Christmas, and naturally, he chose a quiet moment to do it so that the Word would be heard.

Dum medium silentium tenerent omnia,
et nox in suo cursu medium iter haberet,
omnipotens sermo tuus, Domine,
de caelis a regalibus sedibus venit.

Whenas all the world was in profoundest quietness,
and night was in the midst of her swift course:
thine almighty word, O Lord,
leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne.

The prologue hymn to the Gospel of John elaborates on this. “In the beginning was the Word.” At the beginning of creation, or so one theory goes, there was a “big bang.” Before the creation of sound, even the existence of a single Word would be a big bang. And so, in the Incarnation, the coming of the Word to a silent, receptive world most closely mirrors the moment of creation.

A Merry Christmas to you! And may you find some quiet in this Christmastide. It's the way God wants it.

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16 December 2019
Star Wars release dates and the O Antiphons

For many years, this blog has been interested in the correlation between Star Wars film release dates and the liturgical year.

It is readily apparent that the release of the original trilogy was tied to the Day of Pentecost, the first two films being released before the feast day, and the final film in the Octave.

The prequel trilogy followed a similar pattern.

However, with the latest trilogy, the pattern has shifted to one apparently tied to the O Antiphons. The second film missed the traditional start of the O Antiphons, but it got pretty close.
Film Title Nearest Liturgical Day Difference
IV. A New Hope (1977) Pentecost, 29 May 4 days before
V. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Pentecost, 25 May 4 days before
VI. Return of the Jedi (1983) Pentecost, 22 May 3 days after
I. The Phantom Menace (1999) Pentecost, 23 May 4 days before
II. Attack of the Clones (2002) Pentecost, 19 May 3 days before
III. Revenge of the Sith (2005) Pentecost, 15 May 4 days after
VII. The Force Awakens (2015) O Adonai, 18 December none
VIII. The Last Jedi (2017) O Sapientia, 17 December 2 days before
IX. The Rise of Skywalker (2019) O Clavis David, 20 December none

With the original trilogy, the concept of the Force was introduced to audiences, so a tie in the Pentecost, the feast of the Holy Spirit, seems natural. The second trilogy followed this same pattern, with the terminal film being released again during the Pentecost Octave.

The connection to the O Antiphons, however, seems more tenuous, especially with the second film not actually aligning with the start of the O Antiphons.

But I suspect the content of the latest film and the antiphon "O Clavis David" will have a nice resonance.

O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

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22 October 2019
Howells, Herbert - 100th anniversary of "A spotless rose"

English composer Herbert Howells wrote his beloved carol-anthem in a single sitting on October 22, 1919.

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02 March 2019
Down with Robot Organists!

I love the Episcopal Church and I am privileged to be an organist working in it. But I am not alone in wondering about the future of the Church in which I find myself employed.

I applaud those who think creatively about ministry and are able to empower small and mid-sized congregations to be the best they can be. But I think a recent article published by the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas is destructive to the church's worship and mission. (The article has since been removed the Diocese's website, but without any notice and without any word from the Diocese about why it has been taken down. You can read an archived copy here: "The Future of the Organ for Church Worship")

We live in an era marked by increasing technicization. It's not enough to be able to turn on electric lights in our homes by flipping a switch; now it is possible to operate lights with voice commands. Parallel parking is less important in driver education as more and more cars park themselves. With the click of a mouse, we readily assign friendships, likes, loves.

But the church should and must resist such technicization. Don't get me wrong. Electric lights, the public address system, and word processing are probably the three greatest enhancements to Episcopal worship. But electric lights do not replace real candles (at least I hope they don't!). The public address system doesn't read the lessons or preach the gospel on its own. Service leaflets may help worshippers to follow the liturgy, but they draw their effectiveness from the Book of Common Prayer, the Hymnal, and our liturgical tradition.

Furthermore, all of these technological enhancements are added costs. It would be cheaper not to turn on the lights, maintain the sound system, or run a church print shop every week. It is only with music, it seems, that we regularly find a desire to radically cut the expense of producing worship.

It is a similar desire for economic efficiency that drives the author of "The Future of the Organ for Church Worship" to suggest an electronic replacement for the organist itself. The author argues that organists are hard to work with and difficult to find (a double whammy!). Why not just get what he calls an "organ in a box"? But let's be clear: this name is terrible. He's talking about replacing the lay professional who plays the organ with a device so the more accurate term would be "organist in a box", or even a "robot organist".

The reason that the organ has developed as an instrument for Christian worship (and it did so in physically large churches) is that it is tremendously efficient already. There is no other single instrument capable of such a wide range of pitch, color, and sheer sound. That an organist was required to play such an instrument was simply a fact of life. It was still a paragon of efficiency.

Now, however, a further kind of efficiency is sought: the elimination of the organist him/herself

The reasons given for the elimination of the organist in the article in question are somewhat offensive:

  1. "Pastoral control over weekly content". Yes, in the Episcopal Church the rector is in charge of worship, but it doesn't seem to me that he or she is necessarily an expert in music or hymnody. In a Christian context, it seems that control is less important than conversation. How else will clergy keep abreast of new hymns and new currents in church music? In an ideal situation, it seems that someone skilled in music should have some input too.
  2. "Accurate and professional sounding organ led worship". Where we really see the Emporer's New Clothes for what they are is the "professional sounding" remark. This is now full-on illusion. The expertise is desired at none of the expense, or even a relationship.
  3. "Reliability". On balance, I don't know that organists miss any more Sundays due to illness, injury, or family emergency than clergy do. I don't think we have a reliability crisis in the organist profession, and I think it's disingenuous to suggest that we do.
  4. "Cost". I'm reminded of a classic email forward of many years ago about an employee that took his boss to hear the local symphony orchestra for the first time. (I don't know how well I remember this; maybe someone has a copy?) I think it went like this:

    On Monday morning after the outing to hear the orchestra, the employee got a memo from his boss detailing all the ways that the orchestra was inefficient. There were too many violins, for instance. All of the violins were effectively doing the same thing. Why were there so many of them? The best violinist should represent the whole section and his or her sound should be amplified. The remainder of the section should be fired since they are redundant. I believe the conductor, too, was called into question. He was the only person on stage who didn't produce sound.

    Musicians laugh at this kind of thing because it is so far from the reality of what the tradition of good music dictates. Yes, of course, you could eliminate all but one string player in each section, but you would not then have a symphony orchestra. It would be something else.

  5. "Diversity in styles and hymnal access". This is a Red Herring. I find it hard to believe you have greater access to diversity of style and hymnal if you are reliant solely on electronic means. The best way to have creative music is to have a professional musician who is rooted in your congregation and engaged with relevant professional organizations like the American Guild of Organists, the Association of Anglican Musicians, and the Hymn Society.

The most lamentable part of "The Future of the Organ" article isn't about efficiency or any of the perceived "advantages" listed above; it's the fact that excising the human element of music in worship is horribly destructive to the role of music in the liturgy.

Built into the very warrant for sacramental worship is a verb of performance. Hidden in that performance is a vision of life in Christ that is not a state of being but rather an act, an act of the worshippers who enact a cosmos and a community that is nothing less than God’s act of creation.

McCall, Richard D. Do This: Liturgy As Performance. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Ind (2007). p. 2

An organist robot does not perform in a human sense.

Furthermore, I am dubious of the ethics in having the regular organist record music on MIDI to be played in his or her absence, also mentioned in this article. Everyone is entitled to some amount of vacation, right? Does the rector record his or her sermon in advance and simply have it broadcast over the church public address system? I hope not. Yes, recording sermons or organ music in advance is possible, but it is not desirable. Even when we are fortunate enough to have human organists, let's please not treat them like robots.

If you want sermons that are relevant to the community, they must be preached by someone in that community. If you want a church music that is relevant to the community, it must be led by people in that community.

I have a specific way that I like to lead breaths in hymns. Many years ago, I became convicted that I and too many organists are guilty of rushing each successive stanza of the hymn one after another. It diminishes a congregations ability to mentally finish the words they have just sung, get a good breath, and a confident start on the next stanza.

In every congregation I have served, I can hear the congregation adapting, hymn by hymn, week by week, year by year, to the way I lead breaths between stanzas of a hymn. Sometimes I don't have it quite right, and their singing lets me know. We're in the room together, and its a symbiotic relationship. I guarantee you a robot cannot do this. In fact, the symbiotic breathing I am describing is the opposite of robotic. It's the very definition of being human.

In the "Future of the Organ" author's own words: "many young Christians have grown weary of the high tech entertainment based worship and seek something with deeper ties to historical Christianity."

Robots don't have deeper ties to historical Christianity, at least not yet.

Down with robot organists!

18 February 2019
I bought my car with “drug money.” Yes, I was working in an Episcopal Church at the time.

I've about had it about up to here with all the anti-wealth rhetoric leading up to the annual conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes (CEEP) meeting in Boston this week. I am not attending this year, but I have attended a conference in the past, and I've worked for three endowed parishes in the Episcopal Church in the past twelve years.

I'm not sure what it is exactly that people assume happens at these CEEP conferences, but from some of the discussion on social media, you might assume that attendees sit around wearing cassocks and smoke cigars lit from flaming dollar bills.

Spoiler alert: this is not what goes on.

The list of CEEP member parishes (which is public) includes nineteen Episcopal cathedrals, and churches from every state except Alabama, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Vermont.

Some of what I read online is anti-endowment. This just doesn't make any sense. Every parish asks members to give. Why is it so problematic if members give a lot? What if the church, from a gift, or a series of large gifts, is able to begin an endowment? Do we really not want financial security for our churches?

Parishioners give large gifts to their parishes because they love God, and they love the places in which they have worshipped God. Eli Lilly famously endowed three churches in Indianapolis, Indiana along Meridian Street, the street that bisects not only the city but lies at the north-south axis of the whole state: Christ Church (now a cathedral), Trinity, and St. Paul's; together, they are the "Meridian Street Parishes".

My first full-time job was as the Assistant Organist and Choirmaster of Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis. I was elated. I had "made it" as a professional church musician, which was my goal from about age 12.

At the same time, I also realized that my thirteen-year-old Ford Crown Victoria wasn't the best choice of car for the extreme commute that I faced from Bloomington, Indiana for the foreseeable future (especially in the winter months). So, I decided it was finally time to buy a new car, and I bought a gray Honda Civic (not a Lexus, mind you). I still drive it. It turned 180,000 miles this weekend.

Given that a full-time assistant organist position was a rarity in the church (and still is) I think it's safe to say that one of the reasons the position existed was because of Christ Church's endowment. Since this endowment was begun by the pharmaceutical industrialist Eli Lilly, I enjoyed telling people that I had bought my new car with "drug money."

That's not all. I also played an organ that was purchased with "drug money." Ruth Lilly, who gave a $100 million gift to Poetry magazine in 2002, also gifted Christ Church with an organ in 1991: the gallery organ built by Taylor and Boody in 1992.

It is said that the bishop at the time, the Rt. Rev. Ted Jones, suggested that the gift would be better deployed by gifting several smaller churches in the Diocese of Indianapolis their own pipe organ rather than adding an additional organ to the Cathedral (Christ Church already had a sizeable organ by Hellmuth Wolff in the chancel).

And while there is nothing wrong with this idea, per se, it doesn't have quite the same grand vision that Ruth Lilly must have had. The presence of this additional organ greatly enriches the music and liturgy of worship in this cathedral for the whole Diocese. Furthermore, the Cathedral sits in the very center of busy downtown Indianapolis and is uniquely suited to offer music to the whole region, not just on Sundays but during the week as well. Five weekdays a month, I played the organs (both of them at every service, mind you) at Evensong. These services were also broadcast on the radio. For many years, the Cathedral was able to maintain a weekly organ recital series, in part due to the high quality of both of those instruments, particularly the Taylor and Boody.

For me, personally, I will say that the organ was a delight, and I spent every spare moment I could on this organ. I sincerely believe this organ made me a better organist early in my career, and everyone – Episcopalian or otherwise – who has heard me since is a beneficiary. I probably don't say it enough, so let me say it again now: thank you, Ruth Lilly.

Isn't it the nature of gifts that giving begets more giving?

Everything that is given to our churches – pledges, endowments, stained glass windows, organs, vestments, 30 copies of an anthem, a new clergy position, a bronze bust of someone who appears in Lesser Feasts and Fasts – all of it has the possibility to form congregations and communities as disciples of Jesus Christ.

I hope that we are not too quick to criticize the givers of these gifts, but rather we respond with immense gratefulness and go and do likewise.

to give and give, and give again,
what God hath given thee;
to spend thyself nor count the cost;
to serve right gloriously
the God who gave all worlds that are,
and all that are to be.

–Geoffrey Anketel Studdert-Kennedy (Hymnal 1982: Hymn 9)

We should be grateful for CEEP. We don't need fewer CEEP conferences or attendees. We need more.

Why? Because I think we all agree that it's important to use endowments wisely. To whom much is given, much is expected. I can't remember who said that – it was either Jesus or Gandolf the Grey.

Do these parishes mess this up sometimes? Yes, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

We should be grateful for endowed Episcopal parishes. We don't need fewer endowed Episcopal parishes. We need more.

Every church asks its members to give. We should be grateful when members actually do and when some of those members have the means to give more than the church can wisely spend in a given fiscal year.

And, frankly, we don't just need more endowed Episcopal parishes, we need more dioceses that are endowed. Nobody remembers the diocese when it comes time for an endowment, and that's a shame because a well-endowed diocese would have an opportunity to more creatively staff itself for the work of the kingdom beyond the more "required" diocesan work. (Actually, I could be totally off-base on this, but it's a thought that I've had more than once.)

I've worked in rich churches, and I've worked in poor churches. In my experience, endowed churches are still just churches. The copier still breaks down, the staff still celebrates birthdays, the undercroft still floods, the Gospel is still preached, the Eucharist is still celebrated, God is still praised.

What makes endowed churches different is that they can and should do more. They should be the best versions of themselves that they can.

Endowed parishes should be encouraged to think and act creatively, and many do. These innovative staff positions, creative projects, and new missions should be more readily shared with the wider church. Many of these projects fail. I know. I've seen them. These results should be shared too.

Finally, the whole Consortium should be willing to act boldly and creatively for the sake of the Gospel. The UCC and the Methodists have attractive, memorable national advertising campaigns. Why doesn't the Episcopal Church?

If Bishop Curry would agree to do a Super Bowl commercial, the members of CEEP could probably pick up the tab.

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30 December 2018
A Practical Christmastide Lessons and Carols

On the First Sunday after Christmas, we sang a service of Lessons and Carols with Holy Eucharist at the parish where I serve as organist and director of music.

I'm not breaking new ground here. Drop me a line (comment below) and let me know what lessons are used at your service. I'd love to know more about what the church is up to here.

I want to share some thoughts on this with you today for several reasons.

I hope this will be useful to many Episcopal (and other churches) that may wish to imitate what we have done.

Some background: St. Peter's, St. Louis, the parish where I work, had a long custom of Morning Prayer, but has in recent years moved to a near-weekly celebration of the Holy Eucharist at the principal liturgy. When we conducted this service on Sunday morning three years ago, we were able to use the full nine lessons in a "Morning Prayer" mode. But, with the addition of Holy Eucharist, this was untenable.

Can I just pause here to say how much I admire (and envy) the custom of Christmas Lessons and Carols at Church of the Advent, Boston on New Year's Eve?

St. Peter's has full choral Lessons and Carols services for Advent and Epiphany, so this Christmas service is not as important as it may be in some places. It seemed good to us to be slightly experimental with this liturgy in that it does attempt to fully reconcile a service of Lessons and Carols with a celebration of the Holy Eucharist, and the result – I think – was very successful.

Here's a play-by-play of the service, which was preceded by the Prelude on "Irby" by David Willcocks (found in the Oxford Book of Christmas Organ Music).

Final thoughts: we did not incorporate the Epistle Lesson for the First Sunday after Christmas. This is a very short lesson, and this would be easy to do. It does not seem desireable, however, to incorporate the proper Psalm in a service of this type.

I'm also aware that this activity flies in the face of the perscription NOT to replace the Word of God with a service of Lessons and Carols in the Book of Occasional Services. I think that guidance is, well, misguided.

As promised, here are the full details for the Service of Lessons and Carols and Holy Eucharist sung on the First Sunday after Christmas at St. Peter's, St. Louis.

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12 December 2018
Routley, Erik - on the popularity of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge

It is only speculation, but I venture the opinion that the immense popularity of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College Chapel, Cambridge, (when compared with the popularity of sung evensong anywhere) arose from the fact that the invention of this service aroused a response through its paradoxical quality. Here was a cathedral foundation singing not Stanford in C or Wood in the Phrygian mode but the earthy, secular, cheerful, friendly songs of Christmas. The collision of this earthiness and familiarity with cathedral remoteness and beauty caused a minor explosion in the affections of the British public. It is interesting to observe how, with the gradual rising of the standard of that choir to something as near perfection in its own line as mortals dare approach, there has been, over the fifty years of its acceptance as a national institution, a gradual de-sacralizing of the music. One by one the vestiges of cathedral romanticism have been pared away—Walford Davies's "O little town," for example, gave place to a Bach recitative and chorale, and this in turn gave place to the austere medieval hymn "Corde natus." Carols of the F-sharp major Pettman school have gradually made way for the fresh simplicity of Berkeley's "I sing of a maiden," the good-humored asperities of Mathias' "Nowell," and the gaunt medieval coolness of "There is no rose." King's College Chapel will remain romantic as long as it stands; even Thomas Tallis will sound romantic there as long as people think of the place with the affection they show at present.

Routley, Erik. Church Music and the Christian Faith. Agape, 1978, pp. 47-48.

01 October 2018
Houston, Whitney - influence on Ēriks Ešenvalds

The Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds was in St. Louis this weekend for the premiere of a new choral work with the St. Louis Chamber Chorus. On Friday afternoon, he gave an interview to the public radio station here.

And at that time, Whitney Houston was very popular singer. You know, she still is one of my top, top singers because there is such a freedom in her voice. … We couldn't buy her sheet music in Soviet Union, but we did saw her on TV, we heard her on radio and audio cassette. So, so main subject in during music school was piano playing. And I was very good in the piano. So I just learned to play her songs by listening. And I was surprised to figure out that her songs consisted of playing chords – six, seven different chords. … Those beautiful songs were created just with simple chords. And that was like the next step.… But that was the beginning at age 10, 11, thanks to Whitney Houston.

Listen: the Whitney Houston portion comes at about 13 minutes in.

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18 September 2018
worship - sacramental, a verb of performance

Built into the very warrant for sacramental worship is a verb of performance. Hidden in that performance is a vision of life in Christ that is not a state of being but rather an act, an act of the worshippers who enact a cosmos and a community that is nothing less than God’s act of creation.

McCall, Richard D. Do This: Liturgy As Performance. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Ind (2007). p. 2

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