I live and work in an environment that tries to be all things to all people…and I love it. This does not alter the fact that I strongly maintain that nobody can be all things to all people un…
Source: Hold Fast To That Which Is Good
I live and work in an environment that tries to be all things to all people…and I love it. This does not alter the fact that I strongly maintain that nobody can be all things to all people un…
Source: Hold Fast To That Which Is Good
I live and work in an environment that tries to be all things to all people…and I love it. This does not alter the fact that I strongly maintain that nobody can be all things to all people unless they come from a place of strong adherence to a core identity. My school is founded in the Episcopal tradition, is welcoming to people of all faiths or of no faith, and is in constant dialogue regarding the level to which we maintain a chapel program based on, and reflective of, the very best values and traditions of the Episcopal Church. We have healthy dialogue, hard conversations, differing points of view and passionate responses. We often disagree. This is a good place to be.
The recent news that the choir from Washington National Cathedral will be taking part in the inauguration on Friday has provoked a huge response, nationwide. At first there seemed to be confusion about the inauguration and the prayer service. The cathedral has hosted a prayer service on the day after the inauguration for many decades, and this is different to appearing at the inauguration itself. The cathedral invites the new president into its holy space in order to pray for him and for a peaceful transition of authority. The cathedral hosts the service. The new president, and his team, and the congregation, and the nation, are recipients of prayer and support. This is a service provided by the cathedral, for the people. This is the true meaning of liturgy and it is not about a person, or a group of people. It’s not about us. It’s not about me. It’s a transformative work provided for the people. Of course, the cathedral clergy, staff and musicians should design and execute such a service, coming from a strong adherence to the institution’s core identity; the institution of which they are granted temporary custodianship, and are granted power to lead. With great power comes great responsibility.
The inauguration is intended to be a peaceful celebration of the transition of power. This is separate from the prayer service that comes on the next day. When the news first broke that the cathedral choir would be singing for the inauguration, many of us thought this naturally referred to the prayer service. The truth of the matter was gradually revealed, that the cathedral had also accepted an invitation to perform as part of the prelude music to Friday’s ceremony. This is not part of the choir’s official duties. At first, the articles all said that the Director of Music had agreed to do this. Well, all of us who have worked in large church institutions know that the musicians do not make these decisions alone! Since then, it has been clear that the Bishop and the Dean of the cathedral were in support of the plan, and both have issued statements to that effect. To me, these come across as reactionary statements rather than carefully considered rationales. The bottom line is this. It’s not enough to see both sides of the argument. It’s not enough to be all things to all people. It’s time to stand up against evil and hold fast to that which is good. In other words, don’t accept invitations to do things that run counter to your core values. You cannot be a strong leader of an institution, offer mere platitudes, and simply say that you see both sides of the situation.
We have the right as rational thinking humans to be dismayed and terrified about what a Trump presidency means. We have the right as deeply committed Episcopalians to be hurt and angry by decisions made by the current custodians of our cherished tradition. This is not a normal situation. This is not business as usual. The majority of American voters did not want this to happen. It will probably take just a short time for many of those who thought they did want it to realize how great an error this was. But it happened. We can protest it. We can fear it. We can be angry about it. We can go high. We can go low. We cannot change it. We will even have to accept it. However, we do not have to endorse it.
The National Cathedral, having already espoused a chaotic, whimsical and often highly watered down liturgical life – in the name of moving with the times and seeking relevance – is now endorsing the inauguration of the next president by agreeing to take part. There could be no clearer example than this of the church falling into line with society when, more than ever, the church needs to step up and be a confident leader of culture, perhaps counter-cultural, and stop being a follower. People will come to church to find respite from the failings of secular society, not to find more ties to it.
I will be watching the inauguration on Friday because I am required to do so as part of my job. The entire school will gather and watch it together. For many it will be like watching a train wreck. I will be watching under duress, spending the time mourning the departure of a kind, thoughtful and intelligent president as America moves into a period of self-imposed tyranny, recklessness and painful regression. The American People did not want this, but somewhere along the line it was allowed to happen anyway. Something is horribly wrong with this picture.
What can I do? I can be honest about my feelings, without being reactionary. I can engage in difficult conversations without being cruel and unkind. I can be clear about my beliefs, true to myself, transparent in my dealings, and firm in my commitment to my own core identity. Without that, I am of no use to anyone. I will strive to create beautiful music. I will preserve, uphold and contribute to the power and beauty of the very best of the tradition in which I grew up. I will keep my own priorities and expectations better in focus. I will live in hope that we will return to a time when clear, confident, humble voices of authority were respected, not constantly questioned; that those with experience and qualifications will be respected and trusted to perform their jobs; that those who are unqualified, with no experience, who are sensationalists or gas-lighters, are put in their place, and are held at arm’s length, whether artists or businessmen, teachers or politicians; that people are hired or elected to perform a job for the right reasons, and not to satisfy a quota, a whim, or to appeal to the lowest common denominator; and that those in religious authority may find the strength to say…
“This is who I am, this is what I offer you, I believe in this, and you are welcome to join me in this experience.”
Equally, I hope we might responsibly say…
“No, I will not agree to this, for it goes against my core beliefs and values.”
Without saying these things, with confidence and appropriate forethought, we are trying to be all things to all people. But actually we are nothing. We are lacking in substance and dismissive of our own integrity. Or worse, we are negligent and irresponsible in our actions which, as I fear we are about to see, can result in disaster.
At the start of this week we will celebrate the life of a man who said things like…
At the end of the week we will be putting a man in power who says things like…
To which I say…
I first came to the USA in 1987, exactly 30 years ago, when Ronald Reagan was finishing his presidency. I was the organist on a choir tour for which this beautiful setting of that text was composed by John Rutter. More than ever, I believe, it’s time to hold fast to that which is good!
As I find myself happily ensconced in an academic setting nowadays, relieved of the daily duties of a liturgical musician – and missing them deeply, especially during Holy Week and Advent – I am aware of myself taking an increasingly passionate interest in the riches of Anglo-Catholic liturgy. In the past, I have created musical settings of The Advent Prose and The Anthems At The Mandatum, which have been useful additions to Advent Sundays and Maundy Thursday respectively. Often, I have found inspiration in the plainsong melodies associated with early sung versions of these texts, as in my eight-movement sequence for Christmas entitled Alleluia! Puer Natus Est Nobis.
The “O” Antiphons are seven Magnificat antiphons used at Vespers during the last week of Advent. Each antiphon is assigned to a specific day between December 17th and December 23rd. During the past seven days, I have set myself the task of composing a musical setting of each of these antiphons, as they reflect on the prophecy of Isaiah and the coming of the Messiah. I decided to compose my setting of each antiphon on its assigned day, and devised a rhythmic, melodic and harmonic scheme for each, giving the set of seven a unifying progression. This progression is explained in detail below. While I approached these self-imposed constraints with a distinct level of freedom, I was able to use the pattern to give my creative process some form and structure. I hope that this has resulted in beautiful music, transcending any technical aspects of the task at hand.
Each of the seven antiphons opens with a straightforward statement of the initial words (O Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse etc.) using the same musical material for each, based on the Gregorian Chant melody. After this, each antiphon takes on a character of its own, using key signatures that rise in complexity, moving from E minor (one sharp) to A sharp minor (seven sharps) which is notated as B flat minor in this case, for ease of reading. Time signatures for each antiphon become less complex as the set proceeds, moving from 7/8 to an unusual 1/1. Additionally, each antiphon features – to a greater or lesser degree – a certain interval. These move from octaves (and unisons) through 2nds, 3rds, and all the way to 7ths for the final antiphon. The central movement, O Clavis David, achieves a happy coincidence of numerology where, as the fourth piece in the set, it has four flats in the key signature, the time signature is 4/4, and the interval of a fourth is featured! Details for each antiphon are presented below, along with the texts and translations, and the first page of each piece.
(Interval: Octave/Unison; Key sig: One sharp (E minor); Time sig: 7/8)
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: come and teach us the way of prudence.
(Interval: 2nd ; Key sig: Two flats (G minor); Time sig: 6/8)
O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.(Interval: 3rd; Key sig: Three sharps (F sharp minor); Time sig: 5/8)
O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: come and deliver us, and delay no longer.(Interval: 4th; Key sig: Four flats (F minor/A flat major); Time sig: 4/4)
O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit; claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Key of David and sceptre 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.(Interval: 5th; Key sig: Five sharps (G sharp minor); Time sig: 3/4)
O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.(Interval: 6th; Key sig: Six flats (E flat minor); Time sig: 2/2)
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.(Interval: 7th; Key sig: Seven sharps (A sharp minor) – written enharmonically with five flats (B flat minor) – Time sig: 1/1)
O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: come and save us, O Lord our God.
This morning we are going to talk a little bit about how and why we sing hymns in chapel. Singing together is something that people have done for many, many centuries. In this chapel, we use the Episcopal Hymnal, as well as the Hymnal Supplement and occasional hymns that are on handouts. Some of these hymns are better known than others, and I like to think that part of everyone’s experience at St. Paul’s School is the opportunity to become familiar with the great heritage of Anglican hymnody that has become such a rich part of our Episcopal tradition. As with everything that we do in the chapel, we are not in the business of forcing this aspect of our life together upon all who enter this building, and I’m certainly not in the business of berating people for not singing. Most importantly, we are inviting you in to experience this wonderful music and poetry and, hopefully, develop some favorite hymns, be part of the communal activity, and take the memories of these expressions of joy, sadness, hope, grandeur and mission away with you into the world. I simply ask you to consider this. If you enjoy music and singing, are you being true to yourself during the hymn, or are you more concerned with what other people are thinking about you? If you like music, but you have never experienced group singing before, are you able to stand and appreciate the sounds around you, and feel part of the community during this moment of communal music-making? If you have been here for a while, are you encouraging others to join in the singing with your body language, or are you impacting the energy in the room by resisting the activity?
Our time in chapel allows us the opportunity to reclaim some of this integrity, to leave the outside world at the door for a few minutes each day, and to be creators and influencers of societal norms rather than followers.
Our society has lost a great deal of the value of communal singing in recent years. With the omnipresence of recorded music, the “insta-music” now available to people via digital media, the emphasis on an overly-produced studio sound, and the feeling that anyone can be a star…courtesy of TV programs like American Idol and tools like Garage Band…society has unintentionally devalued the more integral aspects of music-making in favor of glitz and glamor. Our time in chapel allows us the opportunity to reclaim some of this integrity, to leave the outside world at the door for a few minutes each day, and to be creators and influencers of societal norms rather than followers.
So, let’s change course for a minute, and sing something of which most of us will have a working knowledge. If I sing this phrase to you, what will you sing in response?
Old MacDonald had a farm…
And on that farm he had a dog…
(At this point, the entire teaching faculty of the school were asked to stand and sing “With a woof-woof here” – which they did enthusiastically! – and then each form in sequence, as follows:)
Faculty – Dog
6th form – Cat
5th form – Sheep
4th form – Cow
3rd form – Chicken
So, you can sing! Or even if you think you cannot sing, we as a community can! Leave your inhibitions at the door, throw caution to the wind, engage the part of you that doesn’t care what other people think, and put it out there for all to hear. All types of singing have positive psychological effects. The act of singing releases endorphins, the brain’s “feel good” chemicals. Singing in a group setting naturally builds confidence, which has broad and long-lasting effects on general well-being.
So, my invitation to all of you, as we gather here each morning is this. As you become more and more familiar with the hymns that we sing, try joining in the singing with your neighbor, or your partner across the aisle. If you find it uncomfortable, think of it as just another one of those challenges with which you are faced each day. Who knows, you may start to enjoy it, and get really good at it.
And then you can join the choir…!
I have spent my whole life involved in the solitary practice, the group rehearsal and the public performance of choral music. I was therefore relieved upon arriving at SPS five years ago that I could apply a great deal of this experience to my most cherished duty at the school: the training and conducting of the Chapel Choir. As a young boy, I remember learning the nuts and bolts of singing by standing in the midst of several like-minded children who soaked in the sounds that the building generated around them. My love of organ music was born at the same time, and through this shared experience of creating sound with our youthful voices, and blending it with the natural acoustic and powerful organ sound surrounding us, my understanding of how to translate various marks on a page into beautiful music underwent something of a miraculous development. I caught the bug, and have spent the rest of my life attempting to share this with others.
Part coach, part informer, part responder, I wear my heart on my sleeve, and frequently have it broken.
My approach to the training of the choir is deeply influenced by this formative experience. In truth, if I am doing my job well, the young singers will learn from each other, by osmosis. I endeavor to say the things that will motivate and inspire them. I try to approach each rehearsal with a level of consistency. I try to read the room, and respond to the energy. I hope to lead by example. The more prepared I can be, the better the rehearsal will go. However, the slightest deviation from my plan – a sick soprano, an absent alto, a tardy tenor, a bolshy bass – can necessitate an on-the-spot rethinking of the rehearsal. I love what I do, so I can easily communicate my ideas to these fifty students with a level of integrity. Part coach, part informer, part responder, I wear my heart on my sleeve, and frequently have it broken. Equally, however, my heart is filled with the kind of joy that only music can bring, and the kind of satisfaction that comes from leading a group of young singers from point A to point B, and seeing and hearing the progression and joy this brings. I find that our students are serious about their commitment to the choir, they look to each other for support, and they learn to love music that may never have entered their sphere of knowledge somewhere else. They communicate this attitude and these values to newer members of the choir, and they listen to the sound that they produce with critical ears. Most importantly, however, they hold their heads high and sing with total abandon, revealing uninhibitedly the fruits of the process into which they have entered.
Many cold, damp, solitary post-rehearsal walks back to Foster House from the chapel are liberally seasoned with the salt of self-doubt.
So, does it always go as idealistically as the previous paragraph would suggest? Maybe not? Many cold, damp, solitary post-rehearsal walks back to Foster House from the chapel are liberally seasoned with the salt of self-doubt. As Parker Palmer says in The Courage To Teach, “Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart—and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be.” Some rehearsals and some performances are better than others. However, by putting the responsibility into the students’ hands for the rehearsal process to go well – and, yes, that does often take twice as much preparation and energy on my part – there is a healthy balance of communication, hard work and fun. Am I ever indispensable as a choir director? I hope not. That would break my heart! However, my goal is to prepare the ensemble in such a way as to ensure their success in performance, regardless of my presence on the podium. After all, autopilot was invented for a reason…!
One of the many collaborative aspects of being a composer is the commissioning process. This may or may not involve the exchange of money, although some type of commitment from the commissioning organization is desirable. Sometimes a project can be quite lucrative financially, and sometimes the main reward comes from a superb performance or recording of the new work. The promise of additional performances by other organizations is also much appreciated. The collaborative aspect of the process can reveal itself in many ways, and will often result in tremendously rewarding partnerships. Collaborative commissions in which I have been involved have included texts being written by members of the commissioning organization, ensembles coming together to sponsor a joint project, interdisciplinary works involving dance or readings, memorial events where the commissioned piece contributes in a meaningful way to the service or concert, works that are requested for very specific combinations of instruments and singers, and requests for new musical settings of classic poetry. There may be crossover, and certainly a good amount of flexibility from both sides, with all the aforementioned scenarios. Conversely, I have frequently been given a completely blank slate, with total freedom to compose whatever I desired.
My very first commission was to compose an arrangement of the African-American spiritual Steal Away. This piece was written very quickly in 1990, especially for a tour of England by the Chancel Choir of First United Methodist Church, Lubbock, Texas. It remains the top-selling published piece from my catalog!
During the coming months, there will be several performances of my compositions, and I will mention six of them here. Some of these will be “first performances” of brand new works, and some will be repeat performances of previously composed works. All of these upcoming performances will represent a continuation of the journey that began – however many years go – with an initial conversation, a commissioning, a commitment from both sides, a compositional process, and through all of this…a fruitful collaboration. I am truly grateful for the opportunities that led to the creation of these works, and equally grateful for the opportunities that keep the music alive, being brought off the page in a variety of ways, for a variety of occasions, as time goes by.
The composition of my Ubi caritas, Tota pulchra es, Tu es Petrus and Tantum ergo took place in July 2016, and represents a departure from the norm in terms of their first performance. I had set myself the challenge of composing all four of these Latin motets – the same texts set by Maurice Duruflé last century – with the simple intention of performing them with my own choirs over the coming season. They were not composed with a specific occasion in mind. I cannot imagine a more fortuitous and serendipitous set of circumstances than that which has resulted in their first performance being scheduled for this October. During a phone conversation with Mike McCarthy, director of the outstanding chamber choir Cathedra from Washington DC, regarding their upcoming concert at St. Paul’s School, Mike casually, and generously, mentioned that there was “no Nicholas White on the program, and we should rectify that!” I was truly honored by this kind gesture, and said I would send him some possibilities. When I got off the phone, I realized that the Four Latin Motets were the perfect pieces to send. I e-mailed Mike the PDFs, and he got back to me later that same day saying, “Yes! These will be the perfect partner to Stanford’s Three Latin Motets in the first half of the program!” Boom! Decision made. Just like that. Truly an exciting, meaningful and heartwarming collaboration.
My setting of this gorgeous poem by George Eliot came from a collaborative effort with Maxine Thévenot (Director of Music) and the people of The Cathedral of St. John in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The poem was chosen by the chief commissioner, and several other members of the parish supported the project. The first performance took place in April 2013, and I was able to travel to Albuquerque to conduct it with their superb Cathedral Choir, and Maxine at the organ. In addition, I stayed in the home of John Homko, the chief commissioner, and was able to experience the wonderful city of Albuquerque. I rehearsed twice with the choir, and also had the opportunity to speak about The Choir Invisible at a forum following the service. This was part of an ongoing commissioning project that has now yielded ten pieces of music by ten composers. I feel honored to be included in this list of talented musicians from across the globe. More information about the Cathedral Commissions may be found HERE, and a performance of all ten pieces will take place at the cathedral on October 23.
Last year, my good friend and colleague, Barbara Bruns, marked her 10-year anniversary as Minister of Music of Christ Church, Andover, MA. Completely unbeknownst to Barbara, members of the parish choir, led by tenor Don DeLollis, decided to commission a new setting of the Evensong canticles in Barbara’s honor. This was a particularly joyous collaboration, for several reasons. I have worked with Barbara in many venues over the past 20 years, and this has been a very special collaborative and supportive relationship. I have worked with the Christ Church choir on many occasions, as conductor, organist and composer. I know many of the wonderful congregation members at the church. In addition, Andover is within an hour’s drive from St. Paul’s School, Concord, NH, and I have frequently been able to take the Chapel Choir from the school down to sing with the Christ Church parish choir. On November 6, we will sing this setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for Choral Evensong at the Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul, on the school campus.
In 2002, I wrote an eight movement sequence for Christmas, based on the plainsong melody Puer natus est nobis (A boy is born for us).
There are four carols – O magnum mysterium, Quem vidistis, Videntes stellam and Hodie Christus natus est – and these are broken up by Alleluia sections, based on the plainsong above. I recorded the sequence with The Tiffany Consort in 2004, and several performances have taken place with a variety of choirs since then. The carols have been excerpted from the larger work, and O magnum mysterium has achieved great popularity, especially in Japan, Korea, Indonesia and The Philippines. As with my new Latin Motets (above) this sequence was not written in response to a commission. However, many opportunities have presented themselves over the years for further performances. The Boston Cecilia performed the sequence in 2006, under the direction of my predecessor, Donald Teeters, and I was able to attend that performance. This December, exactly ten years later, we will reprise that performance with The Boston Cecilia in the very same space – and what a space it is! – the glorious Church of the Advent. Donald was a hugely generous supporter of fledgling talent, both in the realm of singers and instrumentalists, and especially of composers. This is an example of conversation, commitment…and compassion…spread over a long period of fruitful collaboration. I am most grateful for this.
A particularly meaningful creation from earlier this summer is my new carol for this Christmas – The Crib And The Cross – which is a setting of Benjamin Boulter’s poignant poem. I composed it as a gift for my parents, who celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in July. It was definitely “Christmas in July” as I presented it to them on the island of Aruba, in the 90 degree heat of the Caribbean, while we were vacationing together! In a sense, this was fulfilling a commission too. Earlier this year, my publisher – Fr. Scott Haynes of Biretta Books in Chicago – asked if I had ever seen the poem before, and urged me to compose a musical setting of it when the mood seemed right. Well, the occasion presented itself, and here it is. I am very grateful to Scott, not only for this suggestion, but for his great support of me as a composer. Biretta Books has published over forty of my compositions, including all of the works mentioned here.
This carol will receive performances by the SPS Chapel Choir, The Boston Cecilia and The Chancel Choir of FUMC Lubbock, TX during the month of December.
From 2007-2011, I was the Artistic Director of Joyful Noise, Inc. in Northwest Connecticut. The outstanding children’s choir, Chorus Angelicus, and the wonderfully talented and committed adult ensemble, Gaudeamus, give several concerts together each year. 2016 marked their 25th season, and they asked me to compose a piece in celebration of this milestone. Again, we were creative in our approach. Gabriel Löfvall, the current Artistic Director, gave me complete freedom to compose whatever I desired. I had been wanting to write a large-scale setting of the Gloria in Latin, to mirror my 1997 composition Magnificat. I offered to compose the piece for Joyful Noise, and in lieu of a commission fee we agreed that the cost of the orchestra and soloists would be covered by them. As the collaborative side of the project was established, we agreed to give one performance in Connecticut and one at St. Paul’s School, with members of The Boston Cecilia and The Chapel Choir of St. Paul’s School as the host choir.
It was a richly rewarding collaboration, and I am pleased to say that after more than a quarter century of activity as a composer, things are coming full circle. Having written several pieces for the Chancel Choir of First United Methodist Church, Lubbock, Texas…the first of which was Steal Away, mentioned at the top of this story…I will be returning to Lubbock this December to give the third performance of my Gloria. This wonderful choir has commissioned works (including The First Song Of Isaiah, Ave Verum Corpus and I Lift Up My Eyes) given premieres (including Magnificat and Steal Away) and have always supported my work as a composer. My work with Gordon McMillan and Chris Betts, former Ministers of Music at the church, has produced some of the most memorable collaborations over the years, and I am thrilled that the Vesper Concert Series will be presenting my latest major work this Christmas, in the church that was my first port of call in the States, and which I first visited almost 30 years ago!
One of the many things I rejoice in at this point in time is the fact that I have lived through a time of radical reinvention of something that is extremely important to me. The reason I say “lived” in the past tense is that I am actually feeling confident that the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction, and much of what has been attempted and prioritized over the last several decades is now being left in the dust, acknowledged as a bad idea – or, at least rather misled – and we are experiencing a resurgence in the value placed on something that I grew up with as a young boy. Of course this is my opinion. And this is my blog. But everyone likes it when their opinion is ratified by evidence, right?
The subject to which I refer is the way in which we conduct worship in the Episcopal Church. I have read countless articles during the last few years that have expressed in no uncertain terms that millennials, the youth of today, teens…however you want to refer to them…are searching for, responding to, and coming out in droves for a worship experience that offers a sense of mystery, formality, repetition, tradition and quiet piety. In short, everything that I remember having in my church experience as a child.
There were two recent articles that came across my desk this past week, and the first is excerpted below. Click on the link for the full interview with John Piper.
“…anecdotal evidence suggests that many young people are longing for a greater sense of transcendence in their faith and piety than what may be found in services with less vintage than Pixar films. Indeed, I’ve found this to be true in my own interactions with college students. We live in a frenetic age in which much about our daily existence is in constant flux, and therefore I believe many students long for a piety that does not ride the waves of cultural and theological faddism; many long for a piety that transcends the “cultural now,” and thereby provides a place of solace and quiet in a world of noise.”
“It seemed to us that for at least one hour a week out of 168 we should sustain a maximum intensity of moving reverence.”
“Sunday morning we called the Mount of Transfiguration, meaning, an awesome place of glory where you fall on your face almost speechless in the presence of God. And Sunday evening — or Wednesday evening or whatever else you do — is the Mount of Olives, which was the familiar spot where Jesus probably lay down, put his hand on his elbow, and talked things over with his disciples. That is utterly crucial in the church as well.”
My fondest memories of church as a child were, of course, based around singing in the choir. The “total” experience was formative, enriching, powerful, social, mystical and memorable. As the final paragraph above suggests, the main focus of the week, and of our work as a choir, was the Sunday morning eucharist. However, the Friday evening rehearsals, the Saturday weddings, the Sunday evening services, the carol singing at people’s homes, and the trips to the local pub were all part of my busy life outside of school. And I loved it. There was a gentle but highly respectful formality in tone for each Sunday morning – the Mount of Transfiguration, mentioned above – and the other services in the week featured a more familiar but equally valued aura as we experienced the edification that a service of Evensong, or music and readings could offer – the Mount of Olives, mentioned above. My sister and I would often get the giggles during the quiet bits, as very young children, and the temptation to bring the worst out in each other was unavoidable. However, the respect we felt for the occasion was genuine, and this probably contributed to the release of the moment!
Two amusing memories of my perception of liturgical detail come to mind:
- Every time the congregation would respond with “Thanks be to God” I thought they were saying “Thanks, Peter God” since the curate’s name was Peter, and I assumed we were responding to his reading of the collect.
- The rector would give the prayer of invitation to communion – “Draw near with faith. Receive the body of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave for you and his blood which he shed for you. Eat and drink in remembrance that he died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.” I thought he was referring to the soprano in the choir, Faith Woolston, and assumed that she had written the prayer, because it said at the end, “By Faith, with thanksgiving.”
I didn’t always understand, but I absorbed…
I was always in church. Never in Sunday School. And I realize that this is where my deep-seated love of good liturgy and good music began. I cannot accept that reinvention, reimagining and all of the experimentation of the last few decades has had any lasting value. It is indisputably based upon the notion that it would result in an increase in church membership, an engagement of a broader cross-section of minds and backgrounds, and an enhancement of a mission-driven approach to the church. Mission is a crucial part of the church, however it begins with a worthy worship experience. This important detail has become sidelined, or even lost, along with a ruthless throwing out of the baby with the bathwater, and a general disregard for and divergence from the Book of Common Prayer, as “creative” minds have put their stamp on liturgical expression.
The fact that many young people “long for a piety that transcends the cultural now, and thereby provides a place of solace and quiet in a world of noise” is hugely encouraging to me. I see it first hand in a school chapel environment (distinctly not a place where there is a fiscal urgency to get bums in seats, as they say) where we can offer weekly compline services by candlelight, traditional evensong services, and other thoughtfully and respectfully conceived services which are true to the Episcopal foundation of the school, and are welcoming and inclusive of a student, a teacher or a member of the general public from any faith background.
And so, to the second article that came to light. Again, it is excerpted below, and click on the link for the full article by Fr. Clint Wilson.
“The Church needs to seize upon this cultural moment and pull from the riches of our tradition to meet the longings and desires of the so-called unchurched or de-churched. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here; we can trust our traditions to do more of the heavy lifting of discipleship than our newly baked-up methodologies. For Anglicans, I propose one of the greatest gifts we can give is Evensong.”
My hope is that we are returning to cherished traditions, we are rejecting superficiality, and we are reclaiming a more thoughtful approach to worship. In so doing, we are holding up a standard which is precious, thought-provoking, mysterious, intoxicating and, above all, worthy of the act of worship.
As pianist and columnist Stephen Hough says in his article ‘Do Not Touch Me’: The Wisdom Of Anglican Thresholds.…
“Most religious celebrations gather us around a table of some sort. They hand us a book, or a plate, or speak a word demanding a response. They want to ‘touch’ us. Choral Evensong is a liturgical expression of Christ’s Nolle me tangere – ‘Do not touch me. I have not yet ascended to my Father’ (St. John 20: 17). It reminds us that thresholds can be powerful places of contemplation; and that leaving someone alone with their thoughts is not always denying them hospitality or welcome.”
And as Fr. Duncan Dormor – Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge – reflects on the renewed popularity of Anglican choral worship amongst college students…
“Choral compline or evensong provide an accessible and non-threatening space within which young people can think about their lives and become accustomed to the idea of worship — to the possibility that worship might actually make sense.
In some ways, the Anglican choral tradition may well be entering a golden age — not necessarily a fresh, but certainly a refreshed and refreshing expression of Christian worship, fit for purpose in the 21st century.
That may appear counterintuitive, although recent research from the United States, which seeks to identify characteristic types of religious engagement among the young, suggests that a significant proportion of those becoming involved in Christian worship can be described as “Reclaimers”. Like many others, they seek religious experience rather than instruction or dogma, but, unlike some, they reject most of the elements of contemporary worship, seeking instead to reclaim established traditions, finding within them a refuge from the superficiality of much popular culture, and the onslaught of the commercial world.
This thesis finds strong support in the increased engagement with Anglican choral worship, where young people can reconnect with the depths of human experience, in a context that allows, indeed encourages, them to think things through for themselves. Unsurprisingly, under such conditions, many find an intelligent, imaginatively engaged Christian faith compelling.
Yes, the social context of Oxford and Cambridge is somewhat exclusive and Oxbridge college chapels are not parish churches. But there are points here worth considering – the place of non-eucharistic worship in giving space to meaningfully reflect on the Christian story; the counter-cultural nature of traditional liturgy, challenging the hegemony of the market and its culture; the phenomenon of the ‘Reclaimers’, suggestive of the extent to which in a post-Christendom society the Christian narrative can be authentically radical. And all of this, of course, is given expression through the Anglican tradition, which surely speaks of the potential of this tradition even in the midst of our debates and divisions.”
And finally, some wisdom from Ecclesiastes…
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us. (Ecclesiastes 1: 9-10)