By Neva Rae Fox

The Rev. Barbara Cawthorne Crafton praised the Association of Anglican Musicians, the primary group for Episcopal church organists and choirmasters, on their ability to adapt and accept COVID-19 restrictions, and for “conquering Zoom” when she addressed 558 members in a Zoom meeting June 14.

Barbara Cawthorne Crafton

“You showed yourself on people’s computers, on people’s phones, you sang duets, with yourself sometimes. It was remarkable to see,” she said.

“One of the first super-spreader events was a choir. We asked, ‘Are we ever going to sing again?’” AAM members found a way. “You gave us such beauty, and it was completely unexpected beauty.”

“My hope, my belief, is in the awe that you have inspired in your people in order to do this crazy thing, and to do it so well, and do to it week after week, when you were experiencing isolation, and perhaps bereavement.”

“Remember,” she said, “we have one great high priest. It isn’t the rector — it’s Jesus. He has firsthand experience with fear.”

She hopes musicians continue their ministry and “reach up and touch the hem of the robe.”

Looking to the immediate, Crafton said, “As we begin the glimpse the greenery of another new Pentecost season, I used to think green was so boring. Now that long green season, it just feels so glorious to me, so gloriously ordinary. We will have a new ordinary.”

Marty Wheeler Burnett

AAM President Marty Wheeler Burnett echoed the spirit of Crafton’s remarks. “Today, there is joy — indeed, great rejoicing — as in-person worship resumes and choirs gradually return to singing,” she said. “There is also grief — we have lost loved ones, friends, and colleagues. For some, there is emotional trauma and physical and mental exhaustion. Some of you have experienced budget cuts and layoffs.

“Our pastoral role as church musicians has moved even further toward the forefront in this past year, and many of us believe this is a permanent shift,” Burnett said.

Burnett addressed the differences brought on by the pandemic. “We have changed. The church has changed. We don’t know all the ways, but we already sense that things will not be the same. New online communities have formed, both within and beyond our parishes. New hybrid models of church, with members who may live far away and may never be physically present, are growing as we speak. Livestreaming is here to stay. Addressing systemic racism can no longer be ignored. How will we as Episcopal church musicians and clergy embrace not just new technology, but an evolving model of the Church for the post-pandemic world?”

Burnett named one of the organization’s accomplishments. “During the pandemic, AAM became a trusted voice in the public square, joining a coalition of music organizations to fund COVID-19 research and being called upon to provide advice and information through webinars, articles, and Zoom meetings.”

Sonya Subbayya Sutton

At the end of the conference, Burnett’s term of office expired, and Sonia Subbayya Sutton became president. She has been an organist and choirmaster for nearly 40 years, including 20 years at St. Alban’s in Washington, D.C.

The daylong event featured panels and presenters reflecting on the pandemic-changed world.

In “Bringing Our Best Selves to our Vocation: Safeguarding Our Profession in a Time of Uncertainty,” church musicians Marilyn Haskell and Stephan Griffin talked about the future of the church and music.

Believing the Episcopal Church “will be here in 50 years,” Griffin said, “we have work that needs to be done to rework the systems in place.”

He sees church musicians surviving “if and how we educate our staff, colleagues, parishioners, vestry on what we do. What are we doing to bring up the next generation of choir members?”

“If the church as we know it collapses, it will be because something better will be developing to take its place,” Haskell said. “The church in 50 years may look differently as it is today, but it will still be made up of our beliefs. If we begin to assess what is essential for a community of believers to do work as Christians, we will be better prepared for the change that will come.”

Haskell addressed the concept of musicians as pastors. “We have to evaluate ourselves, what we see as the pastoral nature of our work, and negotiate with the rest of the staff what our role is. Are we pastors to just the choir, or to all?”

Griffin agreed. “It’s a very delicate balance. Before musicians employ in pastoral work, there has to be a conversation with the pastor. Not all musicians are trained in pastoral care.”

Haskell spoke to the importance of congregational singing, which “comes from experience. I believe it can work in all congregations. Get off the organ bench once in a while. Walk out in front of the congregation. Teach a song using your voice. And listen to what comes back to you.”

Griffin and Haskell said musicians have a role in the church’s stewardship program.

“We often recognize the time commitment in the music ministry,” Griffin said. “But we need to remind our choir about the importance of stewardship.”

He added, “We can’t expect people to understand us unless we engage them in conversation. We can’t expect others to advocate for us if we don’t do that for ourselves.”

Haskell reminded AAM, “This is a servant ministry. Meet people where they are musically and take them to a new level. It actually means ‘respect the dignity of every human being.’”

Lydia Beasley and Jacquelyn Matava, staff singers at St. Mark’s, San Antonio, presentedGetting Back Into Vocal Shape,” a lively video featuring practical ideas, exercise demonstrations, and tactics for singers to prepare after the pandemic.

“We have all lived in masks for the last year and a half,” Beasley said. “But singing in masks can be difficult.”

Among their many ideas: offering singers more breath marks; focusing on familiar hymns and anthems when returning; recognizing that enthusiasm among the individual singers may differ; and exercising the body and the voice.

The importance and value of coaching and mentoring — both in receiving and in giving — was the focus of a panel presentation, “Put Me In, Coach! Coaching Relationships for Musicians and Clergy that Support a Healthy Church.”

A collage of submitted videos featuring new works and anthems by AAM composers prepared during the pandemic offered a sampling of different styles from churches of various sizes. The new works reflected life during the pandemic as well as the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, fires in the West, and other significant events of the past year.

Bishop Neil Alexander, AAM chaplain and former Bishop of Atlanta, noted, “Sixteen or so months ago, we entered a season of transition the likes of which none of us had ever experienced. We were in uncharted territory — uncharted territory vocationally. As savvy with technology as some of us may be, we prepared ourselves for live music, performed in sacred spaces, with real people singing — yes, singing — to the accompaniment of real instruments.

“While we long for the return of so much we have missed, do we really want to bring all of it with us? While we deeply desire something that begins to feel like normal, most of us will admit that not all that was normal was good.”

He added, “Dr. Fauci has reminded us this pandemic will come to an end; and some point it will be over. No pandemic lasts forever. Which leads me to ask: What do we want to be, who do we want to be, when it is over? What will be the same as it used to be? What will be forever new? What will we want to take with us into the future? What will we want to leave behind as a gift of the pandemic? Those questions lead, or can lead, I believe, to profound self-examination.”