Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Is Anglican High Church music elitist?

Accusations of "high-brow" elitism in Church music are often levelled at Anglican High Church (i.e. episcopalian or Anglo-Catholic) parishes in Australia. At the other extreme, the so-called "low" Anglican Churches of the evangelical persuasion, who have simplified their Church music repertoire in an attempt to increase congregational participation in Church music, are often accused of "low-brow" banality, or outright iconoclasm.

This debate generally disguises the real issues - to do with music costs and ministry time commitment. Small parishes cannot always afford the luxury of a paid orchestra, professional choristers, or a pipe organ, no matter how much they want these. The fix-it-quick option, for a cash-strapped parish with no hymnbooks, organ, or organist, is a limited hymn copyright licence, overheads or a slide projector, and recorded music accompaniments. The longer-term option (and in the long run the more productive one) is a firm commitment to weekly Church music education for all ages. Parishes with internet access (not always the case in Australia) can organise hymn practice sessions easily, otherwise CDs can be used. Both the Guild of Church Musicians and the Royal School of Church Music provide Church music training and resources in Australia, and many Anglican schools and dioceses, and ecumenical associations, organise Church music camps and conferences.

Of course, since the primary focus of every Church is its evangelical and pastoral mission, which flows from its ancillary worship (its means to mission), there is no imperative for Christians to bicker over worship music repertoire, or be inveigled into media beat-ups that gleefully escalate inter-church squabbles. Obviously, different cultures and backgrounds will favour different, legitimate Church music repertoires, and there is no harm in this. Church music governing organisations, Church schools, and parish music directors are charged with ensuring that Church music in Australia is well composed and performed, that it proclaims Christian teachings, and that it is well integrated with worship. In Western Sydney, it is not uncommon for 40+ different languages to be spoken in one Church parish, but in the interests of preserving Church unity, congregations still manage to learn and sing a core repertoire of English hymns. Annual monocultural liturgies, and special feast day celebrations, fill the need for each cultural group or faction to perform and hear their own Church music, but there is also an unspoken hospitality rule, by which an invitation is always extended to "outsiders" to attend and observe ethnic or denominational liturgies and music, where they are treated as honoured guests.

By visiting all parishes, and not indulging in excessive partiality within their diocese, clergy and Bishops can exert a considerable charitable, pacifying influence that promotes unity in Christ, even where differing music repertoires, doctrines and texts tend to divide. But the strongest unifying force for any diocese is always Christian mission, where people share the common tasks of caring pastorally for those in need. It seems to me that where Christian mission takes its proper precedence, Church music repertoire issues are often reduced to their proper perspective.

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