Season after Pentecost, 2023
This week I am excited and honored to be taking part in the Yale Congregations Project in New Haven, Connecticut 21-26 June along with my colleague Melanie and my friend Brian. We comprise the team from St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. I'm tweeting, too, using the hashtag #YaleCP.
I've heard it from more than one person: "my brain hurts". These first few days of the conference have flown by in a series of deep theological conversations. Today I, at least, plunged beneath the flood and was lost for a good while. It's nice to appreciate the keen minds that think so profoundly about the Christian faith. Said another way, it's nice to know what a group of organists talking at length about sub-semi-tones on a mean-tone Taylor & Boody organ really sound like to most people.
I think all of the Project delegates were glad to come up for air -- so to speak -- and to have a respite from official programming this morning. Many of us touched base with our home liturgical traditions. I worshipped at Christ Church, New Haven, in a very dignified (but not fussy) Rite I Eucharist in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. The very fine hymn playing was by Ian Tomesch. The very fine singing was by the congregation. There were candles; there was incense. The full offering plates were covered in green cloth in the Offertory Procession (I assume the cloth changes color with the season).
We gathered back at the Institute of Sacred Music at 4:00 p.m. for a talk from David Bartlett, Distinguished Professor Emeritus in New Testament from Columbia Theological Seminary. Here is a man full of wisdom. There was so much that I took from the talk, that I've posted all my tweets at the end of this article for you to peruse. There's a nice little picture of the chapel at the end as incentive for you to do so.
I wouldn't normally be inclined to mention a meal here, but I do need to mention that several members of the faculty joined me, Brian and Melanie for some very good discussion about our project over supper. Our delegation's plenary is in the morning.
The service this evening was a hymn festival entitled "We Sing the Story" led largely by John Ferguson on the Skinner organ, with help from Martin Jean on the Taylor and Boody, and James Abbington on the piano.
Every element of this Hymn Festival was compelling, even those hymns which were less familiar. It should also be mentioned that the already lively acoustic of this small chapel is further enhanced by a circular seating arrangement at hymn festivals. Every singer lifts up every other singer, and the whole room is filled with sound. For my colleagues who do not attend music conferences where there is such strong hymn singing, I hope that this was a very special experience to have.
There were many hymns that I was drawn to in this festival. Being Lutheran (I checked), John Ferguson seems drawn to a repertory that I don't encounter much of these days, and I was pleased to sing all of it.
The opening hymn was not familiar to me, though perhaps it should have been. "Rise, shine, you people!" words by Ronald A. Klug, and a tune by Dale Wood (WOJTKIEWIECZ). This hymn framed the stories that would follow, especially with the line "To all the world go out and tell the story / of Jesus' glory."
"Let all things now living" (THE ASH GROVE) was introduced with the help of a collective conspiratorial choral whistle. Smiles all around.
"Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" (LOBE DEN HERREN) was sung nice and high to match the pitch of the Walther chorale prelude that followed on the organ.
We made our way through the Incarnation part of the story with a beautiful story told by Tom Troeger.
One of the hymns that was a highlight for me, and would have been even without John Ferguson's devastatingly effective choral arrangement of the first three stanzas, was "On Emmaus' Journey" with the first line "Who are you who walk in sorrow / Down Emmaus' [sic] barren road". These words, by Herman Stuempfle, Jr. are set to the very familiar American HOLY MANNA. I will certainly be bringing this one back with me.
It's been years since I've studied the Troeger & Carol Doran hymn "Oh, praise the gracious power", and I don't know that I've ever sung it except by myself.
Like the other reflections were included in the festival, and Dorothy Bass's litany of all creation and Bryan Spinks's paean to the Holy Spirit both strengthened the festival immeasurably.
Martin Jean's terrific playing of Bach's "Wir Glauben" on the mean-tone organ (see, there we go again with all those funny words) was a real feat! And Glen Segger's brilliant explication that followed brought that music into sharp relief for everyone.
The festival wound to a quiet close with "Precious Lord," haloed with complementary organ bass on the final stanza, and finally "Lord of all hopefulness".
I began "at the break of day" singing this same hymn at Christ Church, a church of my own tradition where I celebrated the Eucharist. It occurred to me yesterday that our St. Gregory service did seem incomplete without the Eucharist, and it is a sadness that the Project participants and faculty cannot celebrate this sacrament together during this conference.
And yet, we can find a different kind of communion when we sing. This hymn, which I was still humming "at the noon of the day" was there for all of us this evening. I give thanks for this gift of music and song that binds us together in love.
This was a wonderful hymn festival, but -- and I don't say this to diminish anything about it -- it was only one of many occasions for Christians to come together in worship to sing our story. This simple fact of this festival's un-remarkability reminds us that we all sing our story, all through our hours, all through our days, all through our lives.
And in the process of singing our stories, we create new stories about ourselves and about our God.
David Bartlett relayed the marvelous confluence of a younger woman standing in front of two nonagenarian men singing this stanza of a well-known hymn:
What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.
And now, "at the end of the day" at last, there is peace.
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