Sunday, December 05, 2010


The sun shone as if from within a clouded flask this morning as I walked to church, rejoicing in the shimmering light and reflections of Donne's imagery.

But the service was a huge disappointment. The choir was absent (they're singing a special evensong tonight) and clearly the organist thought, 'Congregation are idiots, let's drop the hymns by a third', which made them unsingable, particularly Wachet Auf. The hymns became an inaudible, tuneless blat, the tessitura landing right at the break of most of the voices in the congregation—which was composed of highly educated people, many of whom had been through the matchless English collegiate church music programme.

The Americans expressed the same attitude in 1982 when they dropped almost the entire hymnal by at least a half step and in some cases a whole step. Who makes these idiotic decisions? I remember the questionnaire Alec Wyton sent round the dioceses before the '82 hymnal came out, asking if people thought the hymns 'too high'? In consequence, in the USA worship is now entirely gutted of its most ecstatic musical moments, at least from the congregation's point of view, because a few people (the sort who answer questionnaires) are too lazy to work at the music. Like everything else in liturgy in America and in the American church, congregational church music has been reduced to the lowest banal denominator, and everyone is spoon-fed, whether or not they need or want it.

Resonances set in motion by the head tones, like the deep, almost inaudible rumbles of the biggest pipes in a cathedral organ (or, in animist religions, by such instruments as the bull-roarer) are vital to good worship. It doesn't matter if some people have to reach for the high notes, while others struggle to reach for the low; we need those resonances, and they affect the sinuses of the non-singers as well as the singers. Good worship is physiological and subliminal: these resonances complement word, gesture, candles, incense, half-light, space to bring the worshipper to the liminality where the letting-go essential to transfiguration can take place. Music touches a far more primal area of the brain than speech, and to fail to take this into consideration in worship is yet one more example of why the institution is dying.


Blogger Unknown said...

I know who makes these decisions in our community, it's the liturgist. Recently there have been notes on the office slip: 'pianist please lower...'. The excuse is we're older and have fewer schola members who can hit the high notes, so we all drop down. We no longer do some really moving songs, because we don't have the voices, so she says, to do them. I think we could still sing them, even though we may not sing them as well. But, alas, liturgy for some is something we must do 'perfectly', as though it's performance art, rather than worship. I, too, long for the former days when we sang with passion and verve, when a song could bring me to tears or raise the hairs on the back of my neck. Much of the music in the missal and music issue that we currently use is anything but moving and the words are banal. The whole experience leaves me flat.

8:01 pm, December 05, 2010  
Anonymous Ryan said...


10:23 pm, December 06, 2010  
Blogger fs said...

Are these resonances truly "vital to good worship?" What then of silence?

6:12 am, December 07, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...


It's never either/or. Silence is important; good music is important too. Good religion involves the whole person, body as well as spirit.

8:03 am, December 07, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

"Who sings prays twice" says Augustine, but I don't think he was talking about the banal ditties inflicted on a lot of congregations.

8:12 am, December 07, 2010  
Blogger fs said...

This is something I've inwardly wrestled with many times, Maggie, and the conclusion I arrived at differs from yours. To fully explicate it would take a stretch of time and level of concentrated focus that I rarely achieve these days, but I'd like to share a little of it for your consideration.

First, there's the question of whether aesthetics are a primary connection to God. After much back and forth, I've come to the conclusion that they're not.

The God connection, the core relationship itself, is ontologically different from aesthetic experience. Aesthetics can invite it, express it and celebrate it, but they are not "it." As I'm sure you know from personal experience, a genuine, reciprocal connection with God can occur under any circumstances -- beautiful or ugly. So, too, can we worship and pray anywhere, anytime, in any setting.

Second, and somewhat related, is the fact that what invites, expresses, and celebrates the holy relationship for one person may not work for another, because we are not identical. For some, that "happy clappy" music does it. Simply: it reaches them where they are, at the moment. In the spirit of humility, we cannot presume to judge the means by which others are drawn toward, or worshipful of, the Lord. We have to sit back and give thanks for what they're receiving and expressing, though it may not touch us, personally, at all.

The important thing isn't the vehicle, but what it's carrying.

Okay, that's as far as I'm going to go with this for the time being. I hope it's reasonably clear.

By the way, I've almost finished your excellent Pillars of Flame and am so very grateful for it. I wish to God it were required reading in all seminaries, but like everything that challenges earthly authority, it is bound to meet resistance. (Jesus knew all about that, didn't he?) It's important to keep speaking truth in whatever manner we can, no matter the consequences. Thank you so much for doing just this, and doing it in such an aesthetically beautiful way. ;-)

6:35 pm, December 07, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Maggie Ross said...
To fs: there is no such thing as 'experience of God' (aesthetic or othewise; God is beyond ontology) but there are experiences that communicate something of the divine, or, better put, perhaps, God can be in an experience (experience is always interpretation and therefore provisional) and, as you note, these are often not aesthetic ones, at least in the usual way of thinking about aesthetics. This is one area where Christianity departs from Platonism, as you will have read in "Pillars" (and thank you for your kind words).

I quite understand what you are saying, but with all due respect, people need to be offered alternatives to the banalities they hug so closely to themselves, worship that will open them up and draw them out of their narcissism. No amount of happy clappy is going to do that; happy clappy is encapsulating. Cozy clouds clarity.

What I am primarily objecting to in these particular blog posts is that a lot of clergy are treating Oxford scholars like infants and idiots. Certainly some of them have primitive ideas about religion, but good liturgy (which includes clergy self-effacement, and there's the rub) can speak for itself.

I went to a local church by accident a couple of weeks ago because I was too late to go to the University Church. The congregation was mostly dons, and the choir was mostly graduate students. The female cleric preached a sermon that would have insulted special needs six year olds, and the liturgy was dreary, dreary, just going though the motions.

A lot of the clergy in this country seem to have fixed ideas about what religion is. I never yet saw a student convinced by doctrine. Every three years there is a 'Mission' preached in Oxford, but do the leaders ever talk about what the students are trying to cope with, such as pain, despair, stress, self-loathing, a sense of loneliness and abandonment? No, they start with the Trinity, or trying to make the students feel guilty (the blood atonement approach), or trying to be metaphysically clever—or they start beating the praise drum, which is entirely inappropriate.

Some years ago there was a grisly student death: he got caught between a train and the platform. The docs kept cutting off bits of him due to gangrene and he finally died. His memorial was at St Aldates, one of the evo-factories here in town, and when the shouting preacher started haranguing the poor mother by saying, and this is a quote, 'Don't weep for your son, think of Jesus on the cross'. I stood up, paused. stared straight at him (I was wearing a habit at that time) and slowly walked out.

Frankly I enjoy a good Oxford-type sermon and often go to the University sermons, but they are an aesthetic exercise in style, although sometimes preachers say profound and life-changing things. And I learn a lot. But they aren't worship.

Beauty is like the alabaster box: there's a place for it, and we need to aspire to it, not as an end, but for what it opens up in us, how it helps us break down exactly the kind of denial that the happy clappies are selling.

A friend of mine was recently here from the States, thinking of studying. She was fascinated by the sense of purpose of the people walking by the café windows, by the notion of doing something as perfectly as possible for its own sake, by the idea that formality and civility (for example, sub fusc, the formal, rather liturgical college dinners) are a very important part of scholarly background resonances as are, of course, the very beautiful buildings in which scholars work. I'm not the only scholar whose brain wakes up just by walking into the Bodleian.

It doesn't mean you can't relax and have barbeque, or act silly, or get into the thick of it on May Morning; it does mean, however, that you are open to another dimension which feeds and supports you when you are trying to penetrate the great minds that have gone before who have spoken of the mystery we call God.

8:22 pm, December 07, 2010  
Blogger pat hobson said...

Martha, What is an evo-factory? I understand just from the context that it's not someplace I'd want to worship, but what's the origin of the phrase?
Glad to be catching up with reading!
Pat Hobson

4:14 am, March 20, 2011  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Pat, I'm afraid I made it up! oxox

6:45 am, March 20, 2011  

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