Season after Pentecost, 2023
I read with great interest the recent "Anglicans should throw out dry tradition" by Theo Hobson in The Guardian earlier this week.
There were some parts I really liked, and parts that spoke to my experience of all that liturgy and church can be.
I especially liked this bit:
The climax of an Anglican service is communion, or eucharist, but normally it doesn't feel like much of a climax; one stays in one's pew as the vicar gets busy at the altar, and then one lines up to receive the bread and wine. Here it is different: we all come forward and stand in a circle round the altar. The liturgy is mostly said by the priest, but we join in with a few setpiece prayers together, one or two of which are sung with gusto, and it's at this point I get a strange sensation: we are not dutifully going through the motions, but performing a ritual that feels alive. It is a bit like participating in a play in a theatre-in-the-round. There is a sense of dramatic excitement. We pass the bread and wine round in a circle, announcing "The body of Christ, the bread of heaven", and "The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation". There is a palpable sense, that I have never really had in English churches, that this ritual is powerful. At the risk of sounding a bit pretentious, there's a sort of primal force to it, not unrelated to a primitive rain-dance. We are doing something strange, other, mysterious: group sign-making of the most basic kind.
But I think that this beautiful image of the gathered community physically centered on the Eucharist must be sensitive to place and culture and, yes, tradition -- the very tradition he calls dry and wants to throw out.
Hobson suggests taking out pews to help focus the liturgy on the Altar. Great! You can take out all the pews you want in a space like St. John the Divine in New York and you still won't achieve the focus and intimacy of St. Mark's in the Bowery (that Hobson attends) just a 40 minute subway ride away. But, of course, in a lot of churches this will work. It's a little shocking and will take some work to help people give up "their pew". And like anything, this way of doing church isn't perfect. Handled incorrectly this can ostracize the elderly or others who have trouble standing.
If we're talking about "dry" traditions, pews probably qualify as one. They're a lot more permanent a form of seating than churches have historically had. So I'm with him on that, but he loses me with this bit of description of St. Mark's:
There is no organ – both it and the pews were casualties of a fire some years ago – a godly fire in my view. I consider organ music too loud, too powerful – it alienates, cows. Instead, the liturgy is accompanied by a piano.
That statement "I consider organ music too loud" is a sweeping generalization that fails to realize that the organ is capable of the softest of whispers (yes, softer than a piano) to majestic roars (yes, louder than a
piano freight train).
If we're serious about wanting to inject joy, color and variety into our worship, why wouldn't we want to use the organ to its fullest potential, both loud and soft? Why wouldn't we also want to use piano and all kinds of instruments to fully depict the content of what we're singing about?
If I may be permitted a sweeping generalization of my own: the organ is a much better instrument with which to accompany congregational singing. Its sounds are congruous with the sustained human voice unlike the sharp, unrelenting, colorless hammering of a piano trying to lead a room full of people. (Again, how successful is piano accompaniment for hymn singing at St. John the Divine?)
Let's also note that organ accompaniment that is continually too soft (or provided by an instrument incapable of speaking clearly due to poor placement or other difficulties) is also deadly. It produces singing that is flat, flaccid and uninviting.
I have never before realized how many people don't fully appreciate why it is exactly that organs are so prevalent in churches. In the right hands they are the quintessential instruments for accompanying congregational song and providing liturgical improvisation.
Perhaps God is calling me to be an organ evangelist in these types of conversations.
In my view the organ is not a "dry" tradition. Unlike pews, they have evolved dramatically over centuries and across continents, and some of us are really working hard at figuring out how to play them.
I think it's sad that St. Mark's in the Bowery's organ was lost in a fire and I for one wonder about why it wasn't replaced if it was appropriately insured. Though it sounds like they have made things work very well, an organ could certainly serve that congregation just as well as any other.
And while we're on the subject of tradition: the United States just celebrated the anniversary of its Independence, and a key feature of this tradition is fireworks. What if I said of this tradition "too loud, too powerful – it alienates, cows."
I'd probably be laughed at, regarded suspiciously and eventually arrested by (US) Homeland Security officers.
I for one am not willing to abandon hundreds of years of wet tradition that involves the organ and the likes of Bach, Brahms and Britten. This music is appropriate and, I think, needed in our worship. We are taken out of the present by the gifts us with the past (including our Book of Common Prayer) as we move forward in faith into the future.
Fireworks are loud. Deal with it.
The organ is loud too (sometimes). Deal with it.
O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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