Does Church Music represent value-for-money?
Written by Robert Busiakiewicz,
Director of Music, St. James Cathedral, Toronto
Once every few months I receive a familiar email from other church musicians, or committee members who are negotiating a budget. Once every six months or so, I receive a similar email but from other cathedrals discussing larger annual spending. Music budgets, it seems, are low hanging fruit when savings need to be made. These emails come from all sorts of personalities, from faithful problem-solvers and embittered ranters, to prayerful questioners and frustrated choristers. The institutions in question are not like Winchester Cathedral in the UK, which has a statute dating back to 1544 that demands specific musical provisions be made in liturgy. They do not, on the whole, feel the immense expectation that is pressed upon Canterbury Cathedral, which has so far funded 1,400 years of continuous choral commitment. The identity, stability and flourishing of much North American church music hangs on the opinions of those running the shop at any given time. This is exciting and useful in that it guards against lazy ministry, but it is troubling in its potentially ephemeral ambition. Here are my five pieces of advice for those engaging in these important debates with regard to funding church music programmes:
- To forget your function is to forgo funding. Be clear on what liturgical music is for. Its raison d’être is fundamentally entwined with the ethos of the church. Christian art music is only dispensable if it is understood in stark opposition to the ideas listed below.
The essential function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation, but moral. A morality which changes the blood, rather than the mind. The mind follows later, in the wake.
Beauty, if it light well, it certainly maketh virtue shine, and vices blush.
What does all art do? Does it not praise? Does it not glorify? Does it not select? Does it not bring things into prominence? In all this it strengthens or weakens certain valuations.
Without art, religion is inarticulate, but without religion, art would lack its most potent themes.
Art is the great cultural means of arousing our sympathies and removing our moral blind spots.
Art music is influenced by the willingness to bear uncertainty and to forgo immediate, lesser gratification, for the sake of future ultimate gratification and this willingness is a moral trait.
Great music is how we should like our emotions to run, full of strenuous purpose and deep aims.
Art unites people. Through it we feel the mysterious gladness of a communion which, reaching beyond the grave, unites us with all those of the past who have been moved by the same feelings and with all those of the future who will yet be touched by them. The task of art is enormous. Art should cause violence to be set aside and it is only art that can accomplish this.
- Music is the best evangelist in an increasingly secular world. We know that, unfortunately, many churches may need to close. Organised religion is playing a smaller role in western people’s lives than it did a century ago. The wealth of wisdom in scripture is being squeezed out from the equation of the future which equals “sex, times technology, squared” according to J.G. Ballard. The good news is that many people simply require a nudge through the door, a way in, before they can reform a deeper relationship with a church that only seems to get negative media attention. Excellent art music in liturgy is a proven catalyst for a profound home-coming.
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious side of life. It is the deep feeling which is at the cradle of all true art. In this sense, I count myself among the most deeply religious people.
Tintern Abbey forced me to accept the holiness that is everywhere in everything. Something had happened to me. I began humming a strange piece of music. When I listen, I know I am in the debt of beauty, and when that happens I feel an obligation to repay that debt. Put simply: you need to lower your defences through a leap of faith or a retuning from nothing, or from a negative, into something soaring and positive and sublime. Into the pure nothingness of my non-knowledge something beyond consciousness was able to occur.
I see Evensong in a country church and I have a certain love for it.
Howling is the noise of Hell, singing the voice of Heaven. And them that hath not this joy here lacks one of the best pieces of his evidence for the joys of Heaven, which God uses to bind his bargain. It is an earthquake which shakes an earthly soul by the sons of thunder and scatters a cloudy conscience. It is as the fall of waters and as the roaring of a lion.
I’ve heard an Organ talk, sometimes in a Cathedral aisle, and understood no word it said – Yet held my breath the while – and risen up – and gone away a more Bernardine girl – yet – know not what was done to me in the old chapel aisle.
Let this be my epitaph: The only proof he ever needed for the existence of God, was music.
- Interacting with art is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. Since the dawn of our species we have explored ideas of divinity through art. Too often it is considered a pithy decoration which does not involve or immerse us actively. When congregations have experienced liturgical music regularly over hundreds of years, we can easily take for granted what is right in front of us. It is helpful to reflect upon the participatory nature of music in worship, particularly when it is offered by a trained choir or professional organist. Iconography and idolatry should never be confused for one another when it comes to investing in high quality Christian art.
Art is no passive pleasure; it demands our most earnest efforts and gives us many of our most precious values. Pure art is useless, but not worthless.
All which isn’t singing is mere talking. If what calls itself a world should have the luck to hear such singing everyone certainly would believe in nothing but love. Music is the holy note… like a footstep of God in a sick-room’s hush.
Beauty is holiness, and its radiance a participation of the creature in Divine Beauty.
Sing his praise without delays… The cross taught all wood to resound his name. His stretched sinews taught all strings what key is best to celebrate this most high day. Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song pleasant and long: or, since all music is but three parts vied and multiplied, O let thy blessed spirit bear a part, and make up our defects with his sweet art. George Herbert
Do your hearing not with your ears, but with your mind; not with your mind, but with your very soul.
If God exists he isn’t just churches, He’s the Museum of Fine Arts.
What is law doesn’t make progress, but what is gospel does. God has preached the gospel through music.
Evocative music and numinous solemnity all ensure that the process is not a dry cerebral exercise but, like any great aesthetic performance, touches people and stirs them at a deeper level of their being. As words sung in a special chant separate it from normal discourse, congregants would in effect be saying to themselves: ‘the reality we call God was not this, not that, but immeasurably other.’ Karen Armstrong
- Great art can be hard to understand. That does not make it invalid. Can you think of anything in life that was truly worth having which was easy to get? Feeling good is important, but liturgy is not the entertainment business.
The idea that excellence in church music is elitist, detached or irrelevant to our 21st Century lives is challengingly prevalent. Even Archbishops of Canterbury in both the 1590s and 1990s have expressed a discomfort in the notion that some Cathedrals “have nothing to offer but music.” This should not be interpreted as a fault in music, to be unpicked as it was during the Reformation, but rather a call to diverse ministries to harness the power of the expressive arts.
Good Christian art of our time may be unintelligible to people because we are inattentive to it. Art is not a pleasure, a solace, or an amusement; art is a great matter. To see the aim and purpose of art in the pleasure we get from it, is like assuming that the purpose and aim of food is the pleasure derived when consuming it.
To my mind Bach is unapproachable – he is unfathomable. The best discourse on this music is silence. It is the characteristic of the extraordinary that it cannot be easily understood. The majority is always attuned to the enjoyment of virtuoso display. No children can be brought to healthy adulthood on sweetmeats and pastry. Spiritual like bodily nourishment must be solid.
The tree is indeed known by its fruits. Like all devices, from psalm-singing to the internal-combustion engine, spiritual exercises can be used either well or badly. The path of spirituality is a knife-edge between abysses. On one side is the danger of mere escape, on the other the danger of mere enjoyment of things which should only be used as instruments.
The fly that touches honey cannot use its wings; so the soul that clings to sweetness ruins its freedom and hinders contemplation.
St. John of the Cross
Kitsch is an enemy of the Christian faith and must be exposed as such. The failure of kitsch is a moral and spiritual failure as much as an aesthetic one. It is not so much ugliness as the mask of fashionable beauty we try to wear. Beauty is in the end about honesty, about seeing what is actually there.
Bishop Richard Harries
There should be a distinct song, so used in the common prayers in the church…to the praise of Almighty God, in the best sort of melody and music that may be devised.
Queen Elizabeth I
- Christian art is resistant to ideas of monetary value. Putting a price on transcendent history requires great humility. There are many ways in which the church is beholden to ideas of supply and demand. It is comparable to a business – that is why we maintain a vast bureaucracy to perpetuate it. To survive we require logos, planning and responsibility. To thrive we require mystical story-telling, pathos, and an openness to irrational sublimity courting the slippery side of subjectivism. Music budgets represent the intersection between these two overlapping nets. Much like untangling electrical cables, we cannot proceed with haste or frustration – for that only makes the situation worse. Carefully tracing the cords back to their source is the surest path to clarity. In our case the source is a transcendent experience of the Divine, not a concert or a frippery, and it is to that end which all financial debates should passionately tend.
Our factories pour forth a vast quantity of ugly junk simply because it will sell. Aesthetic values, like values of friendship, justice, and holiness, remain opaque to numerical measure. The only way to defend the objectivity of beauty against a corrosive relativism is to identify it with the power of experience.
It is well known, that periods of highest development in art stand in no direct connection with the general economic development of society.
Let us do something beautiful for God.
The task is to throw light upon the knavish trick, which is for the advantage of mediocrity under the name of Christian ardour and zeal – Oh, how subtle! All true effort to help begins with self-humiliation. If you are capable of it, present the aesthetic with all its fascinating magic, enthral if possible, present it with passion, but above all do not forget one thing: the purpose you have to bring forward.
Wouldest thou consecrate a chalice to God that is broken? No-one would present a lame horse, a disordered clock, a torn book, to the King. Therefore, if you can hear a good organ at church and have the music of peace at home, peace in thy bosom, never hunt after the knowledge of higher secrets than appertain to thee.
To what serves mortal beauty —
Our law says: Love what are love’s worthiest…
What do then? how meet beauty? Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; then leave, let that alone.
Gerald Manley Hopkins
The world is imprisoned in its own activity, except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore you must perform every action sacramentally and be free from all attachment to results.
Certainly it is our nature of misplaced servant-hood as will set an house on fire, and it were but to roast our eggs.
Yes it may be quicker, but then cutting your arm off will reduce your weight faster and more irreversibly than any exercise. Kingsley Amis