Season after Pentecost, 2023
“Wasted opportunity”. That's the phrase that comes to mind when I consider the “Silent Song of Praise” that will occur at the worship service on July 11 at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas.
There are, it occurs to me, many opportunities for silence in the liturgy. Silence may be kept after the lessons. Silence may be kept during the prayers. Silence may be kept after the bidding to Confession. Silence may be kept (and rarely is in most churches!!) at the Breaking of the Bread.
But music is another matter. Music is rarely silent.
It is sometimes, of course. The famous 4'33" by John Cage is silent. That's the whole point. It has even recently been used as congregational song. But note that this was a congregational "performance" of 4'33" relating to a theme of confession.
It's not that I'm unsympathetic to the idea. General Convention must be (I imagine) a busy, noisy, stressful place. And who doesn't want some silence in the midst of that? But again, Song + Praise ≠ Silence (unless you are in outer space, in which case, please reach for Hymn 431).
But perhaps the “Silent Song of Praise” is just a symptom of a larger mix-and-match, kitchen sink approach to the liturgical planning that we see for General Convention.
Don't get me wrong, I know that planning liturgy and music for General Convention is very hard work. I once sat down with the Rev. Charlie Dupree and we discussed this very topic.
It is a very tall order to plan worship for a body as large and diverse as the Episcopal Church's Triennial Family Reunion, but an examination of the available service leaflets for this year's General Convention reveal a litany of errors and confusing choices.
The service leaflets themselves are marred by technical and typographical strangeness and inconsistencies. But more than this, the concept of these eight services seem to relish in a kind of "liturgical restlessness". It's more innovation than is really necessary, even at a gathering of this type, I would think. And it seems to me that by trying to please everyone, few people would walk away with a sense that this is the kind of worship that they could find in their home diocese. It brings to mind those words of C. S. Lews, “Jesus said to Peter, ‘feed my sheep,’ not, ‘experiment on my rats’”.
When I began examining these services I expected to find one or two mistakes. As I discovered more and more, however, some of which are somewhat ludicrous (Absolution before Confession, being one example), I became vaguely angry about the whole thing. If the national Episcopal Church cannot correctly juggle the limited amount of options without serious error, perhaps we have introduced too many already. Truly, we need to have “deep engagement with the structure, content, language and theological thrust of The Book of Common Prayer (1979), with a view to increasing the Church’s familiarity with the book in its entirety” as resolution A069 so aptly puts it.
I will continue examining a few more of these services (possibly all of them) in the coming days. I at least have more to say about the use of a Rite I Eucharistic Prayer on July 11. But for now, I have just one final observation.
When hymns in these service leaflets come from published resources of the Episcopal Church, there is no indication of this. There are no hymn numbers for hymns from the Hymnal 1982 or hymnal supplements.
But let alone any reference to published resources, there is no attribution of authors or composers of sacred music. The copyright permissions will be available online, each leaflet tells us, but what of material in the public domain? Will Henry Francis Lyte be credited as the author to “Praise, my soul, the King of heaven”?
There is a way in which creative input, both of the musicians in the room and the composers and authors of the sacred music being sung at these services, seems deeply undervalued. To not print anyone's name – living or dead – in these leaflets is a mistake, I believe.
As a church musician, I hope that my contribution to the life of the Episcopal Church is valued. If I wrote music and saw it used at an occasion like this, only to find no reference to my name in the printed material, I would be very disappointed.
These are not anonymous contributions. All of this music, all of this poetry, was born out of the ongoing creation of our loving, liberating, life-giving God (to borrow a phrase). Let's properly acknowledge the contributions of church musicians and artists at all gatherings of the Episcopal Church, please, and especially at General Convention.
My mother is here for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), and she showed me their printed worship orders. Even they can get this right in their worship services.
At a time when Prayer Book revision (and by extension Hymnal revision too) is at least up for discussion, all of this warrants some deeper reflection.
19 June, 12:30 p.m.: An astute reader points out that the Offertory Music listed for July 5 also likely contains an error. "¡Recesito Alleluia!" is probably meant to be "¡Resucito Alleluia!"
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