Friday, 11 January 2013

Sydney Anglican Diocesan Church Music

After King Henry VIII was excommunicated by Pope Clement VII on 17th Dec 1538, Anglican Churches became increasingly famous, and justifiably so, for their glorious Church music. Proof, one might say, of the efficacy of excommunication as a method for arousing the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Perhaps St Mary MacKillop, our own Australian heretic whose faith was sorely tested by episcopal excommunication, would agree. Of course the rise of Anglican Church music had a very practical impetus, in that King Henry VIII, who effectively became the Pope of England on his excommunication, redirected funds that previously flowed to Rome, towards England, and some of this hoard was used to fund his flourishing company of Church and court music favourites.

By the time of porphyria-ravaged King George III and the British colonisation of Australia, English Church music had declined somewhat, being starved of funds after the American War of Independence.  When the first Anglicans arrived in Sydney, Churches were run on military lines (some with convict choirs), and soldiers drummed the religious dogma of the time into grim-faced immigrants. Harsh discipline and duty came first, worshipping God joyfully a poor second. Yet despite this unpromising beginning, by the year 2000 Anglican Church music in Sydney had acquired a balanced repertoire of traditional and contemporary works, a reliable network of skilled music ministers, and the basis of a fine Church music education curriculum in its Anglican parishes and schools. In Sydney, access to Anglican Church music education is now available through the Guild of Church Musicians and the Royal School of Church Music. In 1999 the hymnbook Together in Song, which took meaningful steps towards collaboration with ethnic and indigenous Australian Church musicians, was published. Brian H. Fletcher's 2011 book Sing a New Song: Australian hymnody and the renewal of the Church in the 1960s, traces some of this development. But where is Anglican Church music in Sydney going now?

In recent years, Anglican Church music in Sydney appears to have taken a back step in some parishes, due to misconceived social engineering policies. The malignant false premise that cultural decolonisation is, per se, good, seems to be behind attempts to reduce evangelical Anglican Church music ministry in Sydney to basics. Large iconoclastic Church music cracks have appeared in several of Sydney's prominent Anglican evangelical parishes. This over-simplification of evangelical Anglican Church music could not have come at a worse time for the Sydney Anglican Church's evangelical mission. Confined to a restricted repertoire of uninspiring ditties and basic anthems, and grossly underfunded, Sydney's evangelical Anglican Church musicians are ill-equipped to contend with the barrage of aggressive, satirical musical attacks on the Church emanating from prominent bands such as True North, e.g. the song "Bad Religion." Without sufficient resources to counter larrikin anti-religionist musos who feed on scandal, the Sydney Anglican Church is having a really hard time proclaiming the Gospel convincingly. In this situation, lightweight Hillsong hymns, Gospel choruses, and infantile happy claps provide ample satirical fodder for opponents of the Church. Well performed, professionally recorded, and globally streamed Church music with mature intellectual rigour, attractive complexity, and emotionally powerful form and structure, is badly needed.

One has only to look at what happens when good quality traditional and contemporary Church music are enabled to flourish together, to be convinced of its worth and faith-building power. It is no coincidence that the numerous Sydney Anglican parishes and schools who succeed in maintaining a high standard of liturgical music tend to be those that allow for a healthy balance of episcopalian and evangelical sympathies. Warren Trevelyan-Jones continues to delight St James King Street Anglican congregations (including Freda Mission visitors) with orchestral masses, soaring choral polyphony, new compositions and concerts that amaze, while Anglican parish choirs such as those directed by Sheryl Southwood and Robin Ruys at St Paul's Burwood and St Mark's / All Saints Hunters Hill produce a steady stream of worthy Church music. Preoccupation with Church arguments and factions, no matter how bitter or pressing, is never a good reason for diminishing God's praise through worthy Church music.

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