By Steve Schlossberg

The only thing complained about in church more often than the lousy sermon is the lousy music. Bad preaching we learn to begrudgingly tolerate because we find ourselves without alternative. In our tradition, it is extremely difficult to fire the preacher.

There are, however, no canons defending the poor organist, so there’s no good reason why we shouldn’t be able to improve the music. The only thing stopping us from improving the music is that we can’t agree on what would improve it. Half of us want something more contemporary, half of us want something more traditional, half of us are thinking of ourselves, half of us are thinking about attracting young families and, incredibly, half of us think the music is perfectly all right the way it is.

Obviously, I have a problem doing fractions.

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But we have a problem with fractions. We divide over music, by and large because we have different tastes. Now for some complainants, the problem with the music is not a matter of taste, because the problem for them isn’t the music; it’s the text. This is a common complaint against contemporary music: the texts are sometimes not only inane, they actually controvert the very act of corporate worship. Heavily featuring the pronoun “I,” they give voice, not to the faith of the people, but to a solitary soul having a moment, and the emotional fervor they set out to inspire is, on any given Sunday, simply beyond most of us. In fact, the emotional fervor they contrive to inspire is, for many of us, frankly repulsive. Hopelessly sentimental, painfully trite, they give voice to schmaltz. For some worshipers, it is not only psychologically excruciating but theologically false to join their voices to a text expressing that, regardless of its setting.

I observed an inexact but possibly instructive parallel to this some years ago when, hoping to make the liturgy even more a work of the people, I invited parishioners to write the Prayers of the People. Naturally, the parishioners most interested in doing this were the most literary and, for lack of a better word, “spiritual,” and the prayers they drafted were not only gorgeous but, for lack of a better word, “deep.” The prayers they wrote were so artfully suggestive, profoundly searching and theologically provocative, that they were impossible for any ordinary person — or for that matter, any extraordinarily thoughtful person — to immediately assent to. Good poetry, they demanded long reflection and inward digestion, which would not only be perfectly appropriate but tremendously fruitful for a small group discussion or for a solitary soul practicing contemplation. For a congregation engaged in public worship, however, they were not only useless but positively distracting. Plunging the people into thought, the prayers actually disabled the people from praying together.

That was how I accidently discovered the real beauty of most of the prayer book prayers: their simple, sturdy language, which certainly admits but does not demand any particular emotional pitch or protracted cogitation, allows anyone to immediately, heartily assent to them.

Speaking as a traditionalist, I have to admit that some of the texts in the venerable 1982 Hymnal are banal, and if their settings weren’t so delightfully distracting we would probably blush to sing them. But a good hymn, when it’s set to the right music, can expand the affective range of a congregation’s worship without leaving anyone behind. Good music coaxes assent. It allows a text, even a dense or difficult text, to dredge the depths of a worshipper’s heart and, sometimes, move it.

Music’s power to wake dormant affections is without equal. But for us, the text remains the vital ingredient, because in our tradition we say that what we pray is what we believe, not necessarily what we feel. And we know that praying and singing certain texts week after week not only gives voice to our faith but actually instructs it. Like good poetry, it can even instruct our sentiments.

Weighed against the importance of our texts, the music to which we set them is a relatively trifling thing. In fact, I don’t really believe our problem is that we disagree about music. I believe our problem is that we’ve mostly forgotten what we go to church to do.

For all the many good things worship does for the worshipper, worship is first of all something we do for or to God. He, not we, is the audience for whom we perform the liturgy. Setting aside for a moment the action of the Holy Spirit in the reading and the hearing of the Word and in the blessing of the bread, the action of liturgy is our offering our selves, our souls and bodies, as the old prayer says, as a living sacrifice to God. A hymn, then, is just another alms basin, only this tithe we do not ask the ushers to carry to the altar. This tithe we carry ourselves, by carrying a tune; and we offer it to God as a small token of our very breath and, beyond that, the best art our church can contrive.

The paradoxical truth here is that God demands this of his people, not because he needs us to worship him, but because we need us to worship him. Worship, the prophets say, is the action that forms us into the image of the one we worship.  It is, in a sense, for us after all. But the first good thing worship does for us is orient us away from ourselves and toward God.

This is Episcopalianism 101: we go to church, first of all, not to get, but to give. This is the great truth that lies behind our small, mostly conceited complaints against non-denominational churches and their insufferable success in attracting all the young families whose annual pledges and volunteer hours we shamelessly covet: those awful churches pander to the masses. Speaking as a traditionalist, however, I have to admit that I favor Episcopal worship, to a greater degree that I care to admit, because it caters to my taste.

Speaking as a snob, I believe that some tastes are better cultivated than others. Speaking as a priest with a tin ear, I incline to believe that some genres of music can be said to serve worshipers better than others. But if the worshipers have come to give, not get, then music serves them, not by tickling their ears, not by educating their palates and not even necessarily by stirring their affections, but by helping them to pour themselves out.

If worship is our offering the best of our flocks to God, then our first question should be: What music can the flock best perform? What is the best art this particular congregation can contrive? The best index of that is, not our taste, but our gifts.

This is how good leadership discerns anything in a church. We don’t discern what the ministries of our parish should be by asking our parishioners what they wish their church would offer them, but by unearthing the gifts for ministry our parishioners have to offer. This is why different parishes naturally develop different arrays of ministries, and why some have trouble replicating what they admire in others: because the gifts and charisms of the congregations are different.

It follows, then, that the music ministries of different churches will appropriately be different. Some congregations have it within themselves to offer God the sublimities of Thomas Tallis or Thomas A. Dorsey, some have choirs able to usher this priceless inheritance to God on their behalf, and some do their very best to warble their way through “Take my life and let it be.” To my taste, that’s an awfully syrupy song, heavily featuring first-person singular pronouns. But its text veritably expresses the ethos of worship: self-giving.

It follows also that the music a congregation should perform may well change over time — not because the congregation is trying to boost its rolls by guessing at what will appeal to potential consumers (in aging Episcopal congregations, I have found, our best guess as to what will attract people half our age is praise music from the early 1980s, energetically performed by white people with mullets), but either because the constitution of the congregation has changed over time and so have its gifts, or because the gifts of its members have been challenged and grown by a pastorally wise music director.

Or, ideally, both.

All of that looks good on paper, anyway. In practice, my dabbling experiments in growing a congregation’s range have mostly proven what everyone already knows: any change in music is bound to repulse many parishioners, and no change in music is bound to disgust many others. The problem, I believe, is intractable. But for a church that has problems with fractions, the intractable problem may prove to be a saving grace.

For when it comes to all the horrible hymns I have been subjected to in all the churches to which I’ve ever belonged, this is what I have begrudgingly begun to learn, if not to consistently practice: the hymn I personally detest, for the duration of which I am strongly tempted to shut my mouth in protest, can always be counted on to be someone else’s favorite, and trusted to give voice to some of my neighbors’ faith, their most worthy sentiments or the deepest cries of their hearts. What would charity have me do, but to assent — to unclench my jaw and rally my weak voice in support of theirs?

That would be my little gift to them. But that would probably amount to the very best offering I made to God that Sunday.

And what might that form in me?

The Rev. Steve Schlossberg is rector of St. Matthew’s Church, Richmond, Virginia.

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I have, as the saying goes, “found this to be true in my own life.” Hymns that I learned in my misspent free-church evangelical youth, hymns from which I was trying to *flee* when I embraced the Anglican and Catholic stream, keep coming back to me and “ministering” to me in unwelcome ways: “I need thee every hour” (because I do), “Great is thy faithfulness” (because it is), “At Calvary” (because mercy there indeed was great and grace was free), “Rock of Ages” (because nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling)and “When the roll is… Read more »

Paul Zahl

Well, one agrees with the main point here, but isn’t that point currently moot? I don’t know a single Episcopalian who has been permitted to sing a hymn at church since March 2020.