Tuesday, 16 October 2012

But I can't sing ... a historical perspective from Australia

Plus ca change .... the old French saying that "the more things change, the more they stay the same" is evidently true in Australian Church music, as in all other life scenarios.

This morning I discovered an interesting article on Anglican congregational singing in an Australian newspaper archive - a public lecture on "Congregational Church Singing" by Mr. Sharp, choir director and organist of St John's Anglican Church, Launceston, Tasmania, reported on page 3 of The Cornwall Chronicle, Launceston on May 1st 1861. 

Brave Mr. Sharp was spurred on by the impending arrival of a fine new organ, to publicly challenge the surly non-singing habits of the Anglican congregation of St John's Launceston. With the unqualified support of his parish clergy, Mr. Sharp countered the recalcitrant congregation's silence with a well organised demonstration of liturgical singing from the parish choir, quotations of numerous Anglican liturgical rubrics, a stern pronouncement that objections to Church singing (based on feeble claims of having no voice or ear) stemmed from a libellous rejection of God's gifts, and backup from the scriptures re Christian music traditions. Mr Sharp's reprimand of non-singers was uncompromising: 

"... some persons who hear me this evening will be ready to say, “It is all very well for you to urge this duty upon those who can sing and are acquainted with music, but as for us, we have never learned music, we cannot sing, we have no voices, no ears, and therefore we at least have no concern in the matter.” The Christians of 200 and 300 years ago appear to have thought differently— they had both voices and ears and they made good use of them ... to those who plead, as numbers do, that they have neither voice nor ear, I say that each statement is a gross libel upon our common Creator, who has bestowed upon all, the deaf and dumb excepted, the organs which may be taught to sing as well as to speak." 

Evidently this approach worked, as St John's Anglican Church community at Launceston survived and flourished. But would Mr. Sharp's strategy meet with unqualified success today? Evidence from authoritarian vs. laissez faire management of Church music today tends to the conclusion that treading the middle road between these two extremes, by stating an optimistic vision, providing good quality formal instruction without discrimination, and allowing new musical expressions of faith to flourish in a positive atmosphere of hope produces greater congregational participation in Church music and liturgy than heavily authoritarian systems engender.

For further evidence on the power of positive encouragement combined with gentle guidance in Church music, see Tanya Riches' insightful analysis of the music of Hillsong Church.

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