We had been on a day pilgrimage to the Shrine at Walsingham, and it had been a wonderful and moving day. But what my (cradle) Catholic friends talked about on the train home was the singing. Certainly the congregation sang with enthusiasm a wide variety of hymns, and many were confident with the Latin Gloria sung to ‘De Angelis’. A wide repertoire and congregational participation are what mark the approach to music in the worship of the Ordinariate. Indeed, it seems that you are more likely to hear the words ‘Good hymns today’ after Mass, than ‘Good sermon today.’
Former Anglicans are sometimes disappointed at the music at Catholic Masses, and the frequent choice of hymns and songs from the 1970’s and 80’s. But they need to understand the very different background from which English Catholicism comes. Emerging in the 19th century after centuries of persecution and obscurity the Catholic Church in England had clear priorities: the provision of priests for its growing congregations, schools for its children, and large (but often very basic) church buildings especially in the poorer urban areas. It had none of the inherited money of the Established Church, and limited patronage from the middle and upper classes. Sunday by Sunday the churches were filled at a string of Low Masses. But most Catholics had no tradition of hymn singing, and where Mass was celebrated in the Solemn form, the rules allowed only the Latin Propers.
The Anglo-Catholics of the 19th century had rather more in the way of resources, and rather less in the way of rules! They threw off very quickly the ‘High and Dry’ suspicion of hymns as tainted by Methodism, and joined enthusiastically in the torrent of hymn-writing. And whereas Anglicans had previously turned their backs on anything before the Reformation, the Oxford Fathers plundered with abandon all the resources they could lay their hands on. The fruits of their labours were summed up in the publication of the English Hymnal, with its first edition in 1906 and a revised edition in 1933: this book became the mainstay of Anglican liturgical music until the 1980’s.
But what about today? Much has happened in the field of church music since the English Hymnal held sway in our churches. There has been an explosion of church music – just as there was in the 19th century – with much of it coming from America and principally for the use of Evangelical and Charismatic Christians. How should Ordinariate Catholics respond to these innovations, and can they embrace more than they reject? A full answer is way beyond the competence of this post, and so I will write about two rather different sources from which we might enrich the music we sing. But first, let me pose a question: should a Mass ever be entirely without singing? I always feel slightly let down when the reader or priest reads the Gospel acclamation. The rigid distinction between ‘Low’ Mass and ‘Sung’ Mass has long since gone: but we need songs and chants, short and universally known, and congregations need the confidence and enthusiasm just to break into song.
Plainchant – music of the past and the future
The Oxford Movement rediscovered plainchant, the music of the liturgy par excellence. Many of us admire it but are slightly nervous of it. That’s in part because we always hear it, whether on TV to accompany pictures of the ruins of Fountains Abbey, or on ‘mood music CD’s, sung by the ‘professionals’. Perfectly pure tone, and very high pitch can be really off-putting, but that’s not the only way to sing the chant, and I’ll bet it didn’t sound like that in the average parish church before the Reformation. And chant sung robustly, at a pitch comfortable for the men, by ordinary people, sounds magnificent!
Some years ago I was involved in planning an Induction (when, in the C of E, a new Vicar is publicly installed in his parish by the Bishop and Archdeacon). The new man wanted to sing ‘Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire’ English Hymnal 153 to tune 154 (Mechlin) but we knew the organist would kill it stone dead, by playing in rigid time and all the stops out. So we told her that the new vicar wanted it ‘traditional style without organ.’ Without any practise the congregation just sang – one priest (a bit of a connoisseur) remarked afterwards that it was the best rendering he’d heard for years. Here are the men and boys of St Paul’s Cathedral singing it: no accompaniment, free rhythm and quite fast. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHj6NR6H0tc
Now listen to what happens when you put accompaniment to it of the wrong sort. I don’t mean band rather than organ, for many organists are capable of doing just the same: it’s rigidly sung in triple time and the light freshness of the melody line is being ruined by the soloist’s use of a quite inappropriate style. It’s like a folk song being sung in the the style of Wagner with a huge orchestra – just wrong! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2Gog00cLdw
Chant is often better without accompaniment. If it is used then in most situations it should be very light and follow the voices. Of course, there are exceptions. Try this recording of the Te Deum being sung at Notre Dame de Paris: congregation singing robustly the verses with the organ alternating. Hardly possible for your average Ordinariate group, but what about the end of our next Choral Evensong at Spanish Place? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHj6NR6H0tc
But what about your average Ordinariate group? Many of us know ‘Before the ending of the day’ and would happily sing it at Compline when a dozen of us are on retreat. There are plenty of plainsong hymns like this: the Advent hymn which we know as ‘Creator of the stars of night’ at English Hymnal 1, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wc2vV-v802s is a good example. Single note per word, and none of those beautiful but tricky multiple notes (neums) which are so daunting when you first see them! Sing it fast enough for one breath to cover two lines: and don’t let people drag it into modern strict rhythm.
So why do I think plainchant might be the music of the future? Much modern music follows popular style with tricky rhythms, varied length of lines, and pauses for the instruments to come through: they demand accompaniment. Many churches have difficulty in finding a single accompanist, let alone a band of instruments. Even those churches in the evangelical/pentecostal tradition which have adopted this particular style for all their music have difficulty maintaining continuity: and what we see on ‘Songs of Praise’ in the above clip is the veritable ‘cathedral’ of worship song style. Even to sing something as well known as ‘The Servant King’ would be difficult – and sounds curious – without at least a keyboard. So what do you do at a weeknight Mass? What do you sing when four of you have met in your front room to say the Rosary? You sing – the ‘Salve Regina’ or ‘Come Holy Ghost ‘ or ‘Before the ending of the day’. You sing plainchant.
Surprise yourself – give worship songs a go
Much as I love chant, I would be sorry if the church where I sing had no place for the music of the last fifty years, which has been coming out of Charismatic Renewal. Over the years many of us have felt the need to express deeply and directly our emotional response to God’s love and greatness: we have become less embarassed about raising hands and voices in gratitude for the love of God in our lives.
‘There are furthermore special graces, also called charisms … such as the gift of miracles or of tongues…intended for the commmon good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church.’ Catechism of the Catholic Church 2003.
Some years ago a group planning a Diocesan liturgy were arguing over the ‘Time of Worship’ which some people wanted at the beginning. ‘The whole service is worship – you really mean three choruses, each sung twice,’ said someone sharply. Real risk of offence, until they decided to rename it ‘Time of Adoration’ – everyone (well nearly) happy!
There is a vast repertoire, of varying quality, just as there was in the 19th century. Some groups and some congregations are afraid of repetition – the music must always be new, otherwise it gets ‘boring’. Most of us like some familiarity and a corpus of well known music enables worship, rather than disables it. Songs like ‘The Servant King’, ‘As the deer pants for the water’, ‘Shine Jesus shine’ have become worship classics. Many others have drifted into obscurity and will be forgotten.
Here is an early Stuart Townend: ‘In Christ alone’. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExnTlIM5QgE It’s more like a hymn, and its theology, note, is massively orthodox: ‘fullness of God in helpless babe’ – you can’t get much more credal than that. It reminds me of that wonderful phrase in Graham Kendrick’s ‘Servant King’ which says of Jesus Christ, ‘hands that flung stars into space/to cruel nails surrendered.’ Word of God, Logos, Wisdom, through whom the world was created, who took our flesh in the Incarnation – it’s all there. I must admit that I do not like the almost universal custom of singing with American accents but – as they say – “Get over it” and sing them in a more English style with your people, if that’s what you prefer! If you can’t manage a band (and ask among your younger members, who may be dying to get out their flute or clarinet) then a decent piano makes for wonderful accompaniment. Indeed, its more percussive style may be better than the organ in persuading the congregation to sing. Listen to pianist enjoying himself in ‘As the deer’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhlANjh7ybg
Another Stuart Townend favourite of mine is ‘How deep the Father’s love for us’. Again it’s rather more like a hymn which makes it easier (for me) to sing. I’m willing to enter into theological dispute over its understanding of the atonement, and the words, ‘The Father turns his face away’. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSWC7XozVgY
A catholic choice of music
I think it was Monsignor Burnham in one of his articles who pointed to the ‘sophisticated’ use of hymnody which the Ordinariate brings to worship. I understand him to be speaking among other things of its richness and variety: its catholicity, surely. There are many other sources beyond just the two I have described in this post, containing incomparable treasures of music. Let us use them to the praise of God and the edification of the faithful. And if this is part of the Anglican Patrimony then let us offer it as a gift in small return for all that we have received from the Church.