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Aug 16, 2013 | Wayne Peterson

Rocky Path Yields Broad Avenue of Musical Choice

Mag_MusicalChoice1Throughout Judeo-Christian history, joyful and lamentable events have been marked by singing:  Moses and Miriam lifted their voices in thanksgiving upon crossing the Red Sea; brass, strings and cymbals accompanied joyful shouts upon the Ark of the Covenant’s return to Jerusalem; Mary sang when the baby leaped in her womb; and the disciples joined our Lord in a hymn on the night before he was betrayed.


The Church’s song has been one unending strain—with a few bumps along the road. Already in the second century, Clement of Alexandria warned against music of the pipe (flute) and anything that titillates the ear (The Instructor).  Augustine of Hippo expressed a similar concern about the seductive charm of music, even the sweet singing of the church (De Musica). It is often claimed that the organ was not used until 660 AD, at the behest of Pope Vitalian, thus opening the door to other instruments in Western worship. The Orthodox Church does not permit instruments to be played to this day.


On the Episcopal side of the ecclesiastical equation, the first uniquely Anglican music was that of John Merbecke in his Booke of Common Praier Noted (1550), whose mass setting lives on in The Hymnal 1982. The English Reformation was as troubled a time for music as it was for priests, bishops and the laity. Parties vying for control also promoted musical agendas, though no one viewpoint ultimately triumphed. Cromwell had organs destroyed and choral heads rolled. For a time the English Church insisted upon exclusively singing hymns in the words of scripture (i.e., metrical psalms), which in rural areas was occasionally accompanied by amateur instrumentalists. By the nineteenth century, hymnody led by choir and organ was too powerful and persuasive a force to ignore. Two influences conspired to raise the status of congregational song: Evangelicals and Lutherans found hymns to be useful tools for instructing and inspiring the faithful, while Anglo-Catholics were eager to recover Greek and Latin texts for liturgical use. Anglican Church music is richer for the rocky path it took, embracing all of the musical influences along the way.


It will come as no surprise to readers that tensions regarding church music have never been fully resolved. Some question along with Clement whether certain instruments are perhaps too “titillating.” Others, in unison with Augustine, wonder if particular types of music eclipse the intended message. Even parishes with well-regarded musical resources can fall prey to boasting in themselves rather than the Lord.


How then should we approach sacred music within our own age for the good of the church and to prevent bloodshed?  I propose dispensing with tired and polarizing labels often applied to church music instead, and scrutinize music intended for worship with the following questions in mind:


  • Will the music be “used as an offering for the glory of God and as a help to the people in their worship?” (Canon 24, Section 1)
  • Do the lyrics come from Holy Scripture, the Book of Common Prayer, or from texts congruent with them? (Book of Common Prayer, p. 14)
  • Does the music support the appointed lessons?
  • Would the words stand alone as literature of aesthetic worth?
  • Are the words compatible with our theology?
  • Is the text universally appropriate for all worshipers?
  • Does the music celebrate Christ, or itself, or the musicians?
  • Are the demands required by the music within the grasp of the congregation?
  • Will copyright laws be violated by the usage of this music?
  • Will the music unite or divide the worshipping assembly?
  • Does the music bear witness to the glory, beauty, love and mercy of God?
  • Is the music a worthy sacrifice of praise?


Inevitably, the answers to these questions will lead varying parishes to different choices. This is not a problem as long as the decisions serve Ignatius of Antioch’s admonition to “make of yourselves a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, you may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that you are indeed the members of His Son” (Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians).


Peterson is music director at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, Indiana.