Church Music

By H. Boone Porter

Music has always been an important concern of the Christian Church. The clergy are necessarily committed to preaching the word of God, but it has often been pointed out that more people have been attracted into church by singing than by preaching. Indeed, throughout the entire known course of human history, for many people a sense of worship and prayer has been closely linked with music. The very word “incantation” reflects the supernatural associations which music had for ancient peoples. In the early Middle Ages, the Roman liturgy was called Roman Chant. In more modern times, the English schoolboys who memorized the Psalms memorized them with chant tunes.

For countless Christians, it is precisely the music of worship which turns the mind from its preoccupation with mundane matters and allows the heart to focus on the wonder of the presence of the Lord. The Church cannot truly repay the debt that it owes to those who compose, lead, play, and sing its music. We hope this issue of THE LIVING CHURCH will at least call attention to the importance and value of their work. We are grateful to our music editor, J. A. Kucharski, organist-choirmaster at St. Mark’s Church, Milwaukee, for his efforts in the preparation of this issue. 

The place of music in the Episcopal Church is fraught with paradox. Many of our parishes have large choirs, costly organs, and skilled directors. Music is typically a very important part of the “main service,” usually at 10 or 11 a.m. on Sunday. Equally typical, however, is a total absence of music at the customary early service at 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. Many Episcopalians in past generations were taught to go to church at 8 to worship and make their communion, but to go at 11 to hear the sermon. Hence a strange dichotomy has arisen. In some congregations church music together with preaching is primarily a spectator sport, while sacramental worship and serious prayer are habitually in a non-musical context. Many Episcopalians, including some very influential ones, seem to have lost sight of the properly participatory quality of music, including even music which the congregation does not sing. Music should facilitate, not impede, prayer, praise, and adoration.

It is sometimes said that such things as the “Lift Up Your Hearts” and Sanctus are too hard to sing, except with the help of a large choir and able organist. This simply is not true. When people are familiar with this material, easy settings are naturally and unselfconsciously chanted. Certain elements of Christian worship have normatively been sung ever since the Church emerged from the synagogue. Never to sing them is to misunderstand them. The Gloria in Excelsis, Sanctus, and Phos hilaron are obvious examples.

Today, liturgical change has encouraged the adoption of a more or less choral Eucharist at the so-called main service in many parishes. This provides the opportunity to lay fresh foundations and rebuild the musical practice of many churches. It is to be hoped that we will not in the future allow a cleavage to arise between singing and worshipping, or between choral liturgies of the Word and unsung liturgies of the Sacrament. In the challenging task ahead we will need to talk and exchange ideas more. We would encourage congregations occasionally to invite the organist to speak, if only to tell the clergy and people briefly what it is he or she is trying to do. 

The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article was published in our December 11, 1977 issue.

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