Don’t worry, this is not going to be a style-bashing article. Although we have looked almost exclusively at traditional hymnody on this blog, I have always maintained that there is a place for contemporary songs and styles in the liturgy. There is more work involved when it comes to discerning the value and use of a new song, if at least because no previous generations have already done that work for us, but I don’t proclaim an “inherent value” of one style over another. Chant is precious, hymnody is precious, and the various culture-specific expressions of worship music are precious too, at least in their home cultural contexts.
Rather, when I come up with a title “How not to use music in church“, I am concerned with the function of music in the liturgy. The basic worship-related axiom for us as Anglicans must always be this: the Prayer Book is our liturgy. Everything else, including music, is brought in to support the frame and plan of worship set out therein. An opening song is not to “get people in the mood,” but to open the door between heaven and earth; an offertory song is not to “fill time during the collection”, but to reflect on the sermon, or the theme of offering, or begin meditation on the Communion; a closing song is not to “go out with a bang”, but to wrap up the themes heard that morning and/or send the people out into the world to do all the good works the Lord has prepared for them to walk in. We take our cues from the Book of Common Prayer; it shows us how to worship, and keeps the Scriptures at the forefront, provided we don’t drown it in excessive music (or excessive incense, or excessive spontaneous prayer, or anything else).
To this end, I encourage you to read this article that came up earlier this week: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/ponderanew/2018/04/20/a-call-to-reject-the-orgasmic-worship-experience-and-return-to-liturgy/
I know not everyone will read it, so I’ll give a brief summary. The author is critiquing the methodology of popular megachurch-inspired “worship”, which uses music in very powerful ways. He uses the analogy of a sexual experience, where a standard set of five songs works like this:
- Set the mood (while people are still settling into the service)
- Musical foreplay (building momentum)
- Experience ecstasy (the song that goes big and all-out)
- Bask in the afterglow (a quiet, restful, meditative song in which to “linger”)
- Get up and make breakfast (last song starting gentle but ends with a bang)
Some call this emotional manipulation. I’ve called it “addict spirituality.” Whatever you call it, the problem is this: music is used as a substitute not only for liturgy, but for biblical reflection and intellectual participation. This is worship according to the doctrine of “Sola Feels” as some, snarkier than I, have put it.
Where the article I linked to above falls short, I think, is setting out the clear corrective to the obvious abuse-with-music problem. The Prayer Book liturgy does have emotional ups and downs, a rise and relax, high points and lows. The steps of Collect of the Day, Old Testament reading, Psalm, Epistle, Gradual/Sequence music, and Gospel, form an upward movement leading us closer and closer to Jesus, until we plateau at the Sermon and Creed (in whichever order). Similarly, the Prayers, Confession, and Great Thanksgiving form another upward movement toward the high point of walking up the aisle and receiving Holy Communion.
These can be emotionally-experienced too, but we needn’t force that like megachurch liturgy does with its music sets. It can be oh-so-tempting for some evangelical Anglicans to mimic the worship forms of their former church homes, or of the large “successful” church down the street. But we have to remember that this model of worship they put forth is manipulative, sexualized, and encourages addiction rather than devotion. We would not do well to try to import such practices into our own. The liturgy already has ups and downs, highs and lows, variations of intensity, which are much more time-tested, much more biblical in pattern, and contain far more Scripture in its prayers and dialogues than a megachurch music set can ever hope to achieve.
Can some of their individual pieces of music find a home in our liturgy? Absolutely! But, just as with traditional hymns, the music minister or priest has to use wisdom and discernment to apply the right pieces of music to the right parts of the worship service such that the liturgy is reinforced, not shaken apart.