Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Church Music Ministers and God's Word

As a Cathedral Cantor ministering in a particular denomination, but often asked to sing for other church denominations, I found that doctrinal and arrangement peculiarities in church lectionaries, psalm books and hymnbooks reflect differing doctrinal agendas, and may contain editorial revisions and errors. Lectionaries are books that provide clerically selected, themed scripture readings, sometimes with recommended music, for the days of the church year. The hymns and psalms sung during church worship enrich the scriptural theme of the day by echoing or reflecting on the scriptural texts. Lectionary readings are always selective, and denominations often promote their doctrines by omitting particular Biblical texts from their lectionaries, that appear to challenge or contradict their views. It is well known that particular church denominations favour particular Biblical translations. Church musicians attached to, and educated in the traditions of particular church denominations, are required to use their particular denomination's authorised Lectionary, and a denomination approved Biblical translation, in their church's sung worship. When doctrinal or liturgical schisms arise, or are created, by dissenting factions within church denominations, this presents a huge difficulty for ecumenical church musicians who favour church unity and wish to promote it. Unwitting use of a censored Biblical text or the "wrong" Biblical translation in church music may provoke a self righteous storm of objections from indignant clergy and parishioners. However contemporary church musicians may be less attached to denominational churches and agendas, less knowledgeable about lectionaries, more eager to use contemporary ecumenical church music, and less insistent on maintaining compositional, technical, liturgical, theological and performance excellence and integrity in church music.

Editing of church music texts to reflect particular doctrines (or absence of doctrine) is not uncommon in today's churches. One day, as a Cantor, I was instructed to sing a contemporary hymn translation that scrambled the meaning of the original text, placed the rhythmic word accents wrongly in the melody, and reversed the doctrine the hymn writer intended to communicate. I researched the origins of the hymn, compared all its variants, re-translated the hymn accurately, with proper scanning that matched the rhythm and melody of the music, and informed the minister that I would sing my version, which I did. Yes, I took a risk, and the research took time and effort, but in my view it was important, and luckily, the minister agreed with me. Reviewing and correcting error-ridden church music texts is traditionally part of a properly trained Cantor's role.

Yet many church musicians today think it doesn't matter what words they sing or play, as long as the music attracts a congregation who pay their dues. Others think it's fine to chop a meaningful verse or two out of a psalm, hymn, or a Bible passage, to meet time constraints or avoid uncomfortable verses. Some clergy see no harm in depriving a church diocese of an accustomed lectionary, requiring parishes to decide between several conflicting lectionaries, or allotting conflicting lectionaries to different service times or styles geared to different age groups. Upset, divided congregations are left wondering why their worship has been disrupted. Depriving a church congregation of its accustomed texts, hymns and lectionary, or concatenating texts and lectionaries so services are unrelated or difficult to follow, is like depriving a people of its language: it is unnecessarily disruptive cultural abuse.

Do the other great faiths mess around with their sacred texts and ritual schemas? No way! The traditional readings and music of Jewish Passover, Muslim Ramadan and the Birthday of Buddha are never altered. Different doctrinal groups may make different scriptural translations, as the various churches have done, but the traditional religious texts of these faiths are firmly adhered to by international and regional religious leaders, and mischievous meddling is banned. Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist traditional texts and music can be memorised validly from childhood, and quoted in discussions. A faith whose adherents' have memorised its integral, authentic teachings and rites is bound to be stronger than a faith that is ignorant and careless of its texts, doctrines and rituals.

Among the religions, only contemporary Christian Churches now willingly engage in wholesale textual mangling of their scriptures, hymn texts and lectionaries. This is largely because a great many church texts and music repertoires were deliberately disconnected from their ancient roots, and reduced to the level of a saleable commodity by church authorities. Is this is unconscious or conscious self-sabotage? The value of Christian sacred texts is often unrecognised or disregarded, seldom memorised, and seldom quoted, and many church members have become totally unfamiliar with their heritage of sacred music. Many Church congregations objected to this destruction, but, in Australia at least, they were ignored and told they must accept inevitable changes. In my generation an avalanche of competing church texts and lectionaries roared down upon church congregations and well-nigh buried them in textual confusion. Deregulated by the leaders of English-speaking and European descent churches, church music and liturgical texts became a market competition free-for all. Clergy deprived of a known music repertoire and secure liturgical frameworks resorted to the liturgically simplified, cheap "hymn sandwich" marketed by licensing bodies, in desperation. Fed a diet of over-simplified translations, and deprived of their inherited treasury of memorised scripture, psalm and hymn texts, many church members rejected the ancient scriptures and their complex meanings. We still teach that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, but we have crucified God's Word, yet again.

There is no logical reason why Christians should put up with this iconoclasm of Christian texts, music and liturgies. We are, like those of other faiths, still a People of the Book. Although the damage has been huge, some Christians are making a massive effort to salvage traditional church texts and music. I believe that all Church musicians have an important role to play in salvaging Church music texts, rediscovering their doctrinal and musical origins, and restoring them to their former glory as public religious music accessible to all Christian people.

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