How not to use music in church

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:

  1. Set the mood (while people are still settling into the service)
  2. Musical foreplay (building momentum)
  3. Experience ecstasy (the song that goes big and all-out)
  4. Bask in the afterglow (a quiet, restful, meditative song in which to “linger”)
  5. 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.

Book Review: The Lutheran Service Book

Welcome to Saturday Book Review time!  On most of the Saturdays this year we’re looking at a liturgy-related book noting (as applicable) its accessibility, devotional usefulness, and reference value.  Or, how easy it is to read, the prayer life it engenders, and how much it can teach you.

It’s been a couple weeks but we left off with a couple non-Anglican liturgical books, and today we’re picking that trend back up again with The Lutheran Service Book (2006), which is basically the official liturgical text for the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS).

This book is basically a Prayer Book and Hymnal in one, which is super handy.  What’s strange about it, from an Anglican perspective, is the ordering of its contents.

Introductory Contents:
Church Year, Sunday & Holy Day lectionaries, Dates of Easter, Glossary, instructions for chanting psalms

Most of this makes sense to us, the only oddity is that the Sunday / Holy Day lectionaries are placed up front with the calendar – historically that’s where we would have the Daily Office Lectionary, though the 2019 BCP has all its lectionaries toward the back instead.

Interestingly, this book includes two choices for the Calendar and Sunday lectionary: one is their version of the 3-year Revised Common Lectionary (essentially the same as ours, only minor differences), and the other is the traditional one-year calendar and lectionary (essentially the same as in the classical Prayer Books).  Although I’m not surprised the 2019 Prayer Book didn’t provide both calendar & lectionary options, I kind of wish it had.

The chanting instructions make sense here because the first primary section of this book is:

The Psalms

Yes, all 150 are here, and they’re even pointed for chant!  For example, from Psalm 15:

O Lord, who shall sojourn | in your tent? *
Who shall dwell on your | holy hill?

He who walks blamelessly and does | what is right *
and speaks truth | in his heart.

So that’s pretty useful.  The chant style is very similar to Simplified Anglican Chant, which is great.  Functionally it’s strange that the psalter should be put first like this: this means that you “have to know” where the right worship service starts in the book, increasing the necessary page-flipping.  But in another sense, giving the Psalms place of preference is a theological statement: this is where our worship begins.  Virtually every worship service in the liturgical tradition utilizes the psalms, and biblically they are our greatest model for faithful prayer.

The Divine Service

The next nearly-60 pages are taken up with five “Settings” of the Divine Service, or Holy Communion.  “They have five different eucharistic texts!?” you ask.  Yes.  But they are all extremely similar to one another.

The primary difference between the order of service here and in the 2019 Prayer Book is that this starts with a confession and absolution, rather than placing it after the Prayers of the People.  Setting One’s confession prayer in particular is clearly based upon our confession in the Daily Office.  For the Creed, both the Nicene and Apostles’ are offered.  Two sequences of Communion Prayers are typically offered, one placing the Words of Institution before the Lord’s Prayer, and the other after.  In general, the style and wording of the prayers – particularly the Communion prayers – progress from traditional to contemporary as you look through from Setting One to Setting Five; the last of which sounds the most like the 1979 Prayer Book.

Another fascinating, and consistent, feature of the Lutheran liturgy is the use of the Canticle Nunc dimittis as a Post-Communion praise, just like how the classical Prayer Books employed the Gloria in excelsis.  This has prompted and encouraged me to explore different Canticle options after the administration of Holy Communion in my own church’s worship services, rather than always simply employing a Communion Hymn.

Another curiosity, perhaps marking the most obvious distinction between the five Settings, is the music.  Settings One through Four each have a particular collection of Service Music printed right into them.  This is useful for those who desire to use them, though a bit odd from my observing perspective, as it ties you to particular combinations of musical settings with the variations of prayers.  I assume it’s permissible for them to mix and match text and music, but it just seems an odd way of printing it.  Whateverso, the range of styles are interesting: different forms of chant (some like plainchant, some like Anglican Chant, including the Old Scottish Chant of the Gloria in Setting Three).  Setting Five has no music printed in it, though, preferring the simplicity of spoken liturgy, and indicating a few hymns to sing in place of the standard Kyrie and GloriaSanctus and Agnus Dei.

The Daily Offices

Where the Daily Offices hold pride of place in Anglican Prayer Books, the Lutheran Service Book starts them on page 219, after the Communion settings.  These, too, include musical settings of various Canticles and Psalms right in the text, as well as other chanted parts for the dialogues and blessings and whatnot.  Five Offices are provided: Matins, Vespers, Morning Prayer, Evening Payer, and Compline.  Again this is a “huh?” moment for Anglicans, as Matins & Vespers are the Morning & Evening Offices.

As it turns out, Matins and Morning Prayer are very similar in this book, containing largely the same elements.  Like the Communion Settings, the music and chant is the most obvious difference between the two,   Matins is the most like the Prayer Books’ Morning Prayer; the Morning Prayer in this book lacks the Te Deum and rearranges the prayers after the Canticle.

None of these offices include Confessions or the Apostles’ Creed, which is another difference between this book and our tradition.

Vespers and Evening Prayer are similar to one another, but start markedly different: Vespers more resembling the Prayer Book tradition, and Evening Prayer starting off with that curious “Service of Lights” thing in the 1979 Prayer Book.

Compline is very similar to as it is found in modern Anglican Prayer Books.  I assume, since it was not taken up in most Protestant liturgical books during the Reformation, that it saw the least amount of editing and change in unofficial use, such that when it started to reappear in the late 20th century it had undergone the least amount of denominational divergence.

Other Services and Resources

From here the book includes a collection of other liturgies that a Prayer Book would be expected to have: Holy Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Matrimony, Funeral Service, Responsive Prayers, a Litany, Corporate and Private Confessions & Absolution, Daily Prayer for Families, a Daily Lectionary, table of Psalms for the Offices (though not covering the whole psalter or the whole year), Occasional Prayers, the Athanasian Creed, and Luther’s Small Catechism.  All this is comparable to what one would expect in an Anglican Prayer Book, and much of its contents are recognizably similar to our own.

The first “Other Service”, however, does not have an Anglican counterpart (unless you delve into England’s controversial Common Worship).  It’s called Service of Prayer and Preaching, and it seems to be a what-to-do-on-a-Sunday-morning-when-the-ordained-minister-is-away sort of service.  Opening Verses, an Old Testament Canticle (known to us as #8 Ecce Deus), Scripture readings, dialogued responses, a congregational reading from part of the catechism, Sermon or Catechetical Instruction, (Offertory) Hymn, several Prayers, a New Testament Canticle (known to us as the Pascha Nostrum), and a closing Blessing.

The Hymns

636 hymns follow, arranged by Church Season, Person & Work of Christ, the Christian Church, the Christian Life, other Times and Seasons, additional Service Music, and National Songs.  Naturally there are quite a lot more German Chorales here than in a typical Anglican hymnal (though the 2017 hymnal has quite a few!), and several hymns well-known to us with different arrangements – occasionally entirely different tune settings.  For example Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face is set to FARLEY CASTLE instead of PENITENTIA, and At the Lamb’s high feast we sing is set to SONNE DER GERECHTIGKEIT instead of SALZBURG (ALLE MENSCHEN).

The ratings in short:

Accessibility: 3/5
Page-flipping within a particular worship service (especially the Sunday Communion) is minimal.  The main challenge is making sure you know what service you’re actually doing (five Communion rites, remember).  If you’re trying to use this for the Daily Office then things are rather more complex as you have to hunt for the lectionary and psalms with rather more vigor than a typical Anglican Prayer Book.

Devotional Usefulness: 3/5
This book is not the sum total the LCMS expression of Lutheran worship, but all the basics are here.  As Anglicans we could use this book and find a faithful approximation of our own liturgical tradition.  The Communion Prayers are all significantly shorter than ours (even shorter than what’s in the 1662 Prayer Book), but on the whole theologically compatible with ours.  The lack of clarity regarding daily psalmody would be a loss, however.  This book also has a nice collection of hymns that could supplement our own hymnals.  And to be fair, if I was a Lutheran, I’d rate this as either a or a 5, depending upon what I’d thereby know of the historic liturgies before this book.

Reference Value: 2/5
It’s hard to rate this score.  For most of us, we have no reason to pick up the liturgical text of a different tradition, even one so closely-related as the Lutherans.  The similarities of English-language Lutheran worship with Prayer Book worship also makes it clear that they have taken several queues from us.  As such, this Lutheran Service Book is probably best understood as an expression of historic Lutheran worship using the Anglican Prayer Book as a useful filter from time to time.  If you really want to explore historic Lutheran liturgy, you probably have to pick up the Book of Concord or something to that effect.  But I haven’t done that yet.

Happy Michaelmas!

On this special occasion of celebrating the feast of St. Michael and All Angels with the whole congregation on a Sunday morning, I thought it would be fun to share our liturgy here.  The Communion rite we’re using is the Anglican Standard Text, as usual.

OPENING HYMN: Christ the fair glory of the holy angels

ACCLAMATION: Worthy is the Lord our God: / To receive glory and honor and power.

COLLECT FOR PURITY, SUMMARY OF THE LAW, KYRIE,

GLORIA IN EXCELSIS sung to the setting #784 in the Book of Common Praise 2017

CHILDREN’S MINISTRY MOMENT

  • Revelation 12:7-12, followed by a 1-minute Children’s sermon
  • explanation: my church has two children, ages 2 and 4, so they spend most of the liturgy playing in a separate room.  I’m a big believer in including young children in the liturgy, but sometimes they need space to move around, and our context is so small that it wouldn’t work so well at the moment.  Soon the older will be able to sit/draw/play/read quietly in the worship space with the adults, and this addition to the liturgy will be removed.
    Normally, this ministry moment includes a few-verse Bible reading followed by a one-minute teaching, but on this occasion the short reading is actually the same as the Epistle Lesson, so it’s just being moved up here wholesale.  Yes it’s a strange way to tinker with the liturgy, and no I’m not crazy about it, but I’ve got to minister to everyone I can with the very limited resources and manpower available.

HYMN: Ye holy angels bright

COLLECT OF THE DAY, OLD TESTAMENT LESSON: Genesis 28:10-17

PSALM: 103, SEQUENCE HYMN: Life and strength of all thy servants

GOSPEL LESSON: John 1:47-51

THE SERMON, THE NICENE CREED, THE PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

THE CONFESSION AND ABSOLUTION OF SIN, THE PEACE

OFFERTORY HYMN: Bread of heav’n on thee we feed

THE SURSUM CORDA, leading to the Preface for Trinity Sunday

THE SANCTUS, THE PRAYER OF CONSECRATION, THE LORD’S PRAYER

THE FRACTION, THE PRAYER OF HUMBLE ACCESS, THE AGNUS DEI

THE MINISTRATION OF COMMUNION

POST-COMMUNION CANTICLE: #6 Dignus es (from page 84)

THE POST-COMMUNION PRAYER, THE BLESSING

CLOSING HYMN: Ye watchers and ye holy ones

THE DISMISSAL

Singing Psalm 121

We all know that the Psalms were originally meant to be sung.  There is, wonderfully, a new movement these days, mostly grassroots, to put music to the Psalms and put them into the hands of the congregations.  I’ve jumped on that bandwagon a little, providing an explanation of Simplified Anglican Chant, and I know others others on YouTube and even in the ACNA have made resources to encourage and enable to chant the psalms.

The wonderful thing about chant is that it provides you with some very simple music that you can then apply to any set of lyrics.  You don’t have to “learn a whole song”, just memorize a few notes and get a feel for where in each half-verse to move from note to note, and you’re good to go.  What makes Anglican Chant different from historic Plainchant is that 1, the chant tunes are written in more recent times and are rarely “tied down” to any particular Psalm or Canticle, and 2, ours come with classical four-part harmonies allowing a choir (or at least a keyboardist) to beautify the music.

What I thought would be fun to try today is providing a set of examples of how one short Psalm can be done in different styles of chant.  This will, I think, help clarify how the more “complicated” forms of chant work, by working our way up to them through some simpler forms.

Here’s the text as used:

1 I will lift up my eyes un|to the | hills; *
from | whence | comes my | help?
2 My help comes | from the | Lord, *
who | has made | heaven and | earth.
3 He will not let your | foot be | moved, *
and he who | keeps you | will not | sleep.
4 Behold, he who keeps | Israel *
shall | neither | slumber nor | sleep.
5 The Lord himself | is your | keeper; *
The Lord is your defense | upon | your right | hand,
6 So that the sun shall not burn |you by | day, *
nei|ther the | moon by | night.
7 The Lord shall preserve you| from all | evil; *
indeed, it is he | who shall | keep your | soul.
8 The Lord shall preserve your going out and your | coming | in, *
from this time | forth for|ever|more.

– Sample 1 –

Omitting the usual Gloria Patri at the end of the Psalm, here it simply read aloud with the musical rhythm of the ending of each verse in mind.  Always make sure you can read the Psalm comfortably before you sing or chant it!

 

– Sample 2 –

Now let’s use Fr. Ben Jeffries’ Simplified Plainchant.

 

– Sample 3 –

Next let’s move up to Simplified Anglican Chant. This and the following images are from the hymnal, Book of Common Praise 2017.

simplifiedchant740

 

– Sample 4 –

Now we’re ready for a fully-fledged Anglican Chant.  First let’s go for a Single Chant, which means each verse gets the same tune.

singlechant653

 

– Sample 5 –

Last of all, here’s a Double Chant, meaning the repeated tune spans two verses.

doublechant660

An Ember Day Hymn

If you’re following this Customary’s plan for Daily Hymnody from The Book of Common Praise 2017, then you’ll find that the hymn appointed for this Ember Day is “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire.”  In the 2017 hymnal this is set to the Sarum Plainsong tune VENI CREATOR SPIRITUS, which is a bummer for me because I’m used to it being sung to COME HOLY GHOST.  And the way the lyrics are matched to the notes in the 2017 hymnal is different from how it’s done in the 1940 hymnal, so that’s just confusing to me as a musician who has paid attention to that in the past.

Tune-related issues, aside, the text of this hymn is very significant.  It is appointed in the Ordinal to be sung or said at the ordination of a priest and bishop!  This is true for the 1662 as well as the 2019 book, so it’s pretty standard Anglican fare.  And it’s a 9th century text, so it’s a piece of our Western/Latin heritage as well! Let’s take a look at these words.

COME, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
And lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
Who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.
Thy blessed unction from above,
Is comfort, life, and fire of love.

Prayers addressed to the Holy Spirit are rare in the liturgical tradition.  Confirmations and Ordinations are among the few times we actually do this.  The seven-fold gift of the Spirit is a long-standing image in Church literature, stemming from the New Testament itself, and includes an Old Testament precedent that is not often in favor with Protestant interpretation.  You can read more about that here if this is unfamiliar to you.

Enable with perpetual light
The dulness of our blinded sight.
Anoint and cheer our soiled face
With the abundance of thy grace.
Keep far our foes, give peace at home;
Where thou art guide, no ill can come.

These are the primary specific petitions of this hymn.  Open our eyes, cheer us, grant us peace… if you think back to one of the titles our Lord gave for the Holy Spirit – The Comforter – these all make perfect sense.  Christ has won the victory, Christ has redeemed us; it falls to the Holy Spirit to apply these truths to our hearts and minds, to point us back to Jesus.  Such sight, cheering, and peace are all thereby ministries of comfort and help.

Teach us to know the Father, Son,
And thee, of both, to be but One;
That, through the ages all along,
This may be our endless song:
Praise to thy eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Finally our plea is that we would know God the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that in this knowledge we would be able to worship and praise him forever.  Knowledge and worship, doctrine and doxology, teaching and liturgy, these are pairs that should never be separated.

Interesting that this hymn doesn’t actually mention anyone getting ordained, huh?  Yes, its function in the ordination liturgy makes it into a prayer especially for the candidate for ordination, but but textually it need not be so limited.  By all means, sing this and pray for your clergy.  But you can pray this for yourself, for all the Church, just as easily and honestly.  In the context of ordination, it makes sense that we should pray for clarity, for sight, for knowledge – not just for the candidate but for the whole congregation.  Calling a new minister of the Gospel, in any Order, is a “big deal” – one that will impact many lives for many years to come.  The Church needs to be in her right mind when placing the collar of recognizable authority upon another servant.

So on these Ember Days, be sure to pray for your Bishop and his clergymen, as well as for those individuals considering or seeking Holy Orders and the congregations in discernment with them.  The process is useless if the aspirant is surrounded by “Yes Men” whose eagerness to support blinds them from asking any hard questions about his true calling.  So pray this hymn with them and for them.

I don’t like this hymn

One of the big challenges of praying, reading the Bible, and worshiping alone is the tendency towards doing what we like and skipping what we don’t.  Left to my own devices, I’d probably just chant psalms and read the Old Testament, Ecclesiastical Books, and sometimes also the Gospels and Revelation.  Maybe the Canticles and the Lord’s Prayer and a collect or two would survive.  But the liturgical tradition, particularly the Prayer Book tradition, keeps steering me (and all who heed it) on a healthier track for more wholesome worship that keeps the individual and the congregation rightly balanced.

It is along those lines that I’ve been developing the Saint Aelfric Customary the way I have: taking on trust that the Prayer Book is a reliable book, we’re seeking to explore its options, with classical Anglican tradition in mind, and build a Customary – a style and plan of execution of liturgy – that makes full and proper use of the options at hand.

The hymnal has received similar treatment, and you can read about the Hymnal-in-a-Year recommendation here.  As I’ve observed before, the 2017 hymnal put out by the Reformed Episcopal Church is an excellent blend of old and new; I was glad to see a few contemporary songs – the cream of the crop – make it into its pages.  That said, there are still some tunes in this book that I’m not really that crazy about.  When it comes to music, my passion is mostly in the British folk tradition, and my training is primarily renaissance, baroque, and classical.  When it comes to Christian singing, this leaves a couple massive gap in my experience: African-American spirituals or gospel songs, and the American revivalist hymn style that came under its influence.

Enter Marie Ferguson’s Joys are flowing like a river, to a tune written by W. Marshall, both in 1897, “BLESSED QUIETNESS”.  This is one of the hymns in the 2017 hymnal appointed for today, Tuesday in the week of Proper 14.  The arrangement in our hymnal is not quite the same as what I’m finding on YouTube, but you can get the idea.  It’s just one of those awful schmalty tunes with to many flats in the key signature, with lyrics just dripping with sentimentality.  As my congregation’s music minister I will never appoint this hymn to be sung because I can’t play that style properly, and as my congregation’s priest I will never appoint this hymn because we do so little music as it is that I want to make sure that no song is wasted.  But today I’m trying to sing it on my own, because it’s in the hymnal, and some people who are more knowledgeable and experienced than I am decided it’s worth being one of 639.

Joys are flowing like a river,
Since the Comforter has come;
He abides with us forever,
Makes the trusting heart his home.

Blessed quietness, Holy quietness,
What assurance in my soul!

On the stormy sea, Jesus speaks to me,
And the billows cease to roll.

It’s a Holy Spirit themed hymn, of which Anglican hymnody tends to be rather scarce, left to its own devices (though this is true also of Catholic and classical Protestant hymnody too – the Church has always sung more about Jesus than about the Spirit), so it’s no surprise that we’re dipping into other traditions to bulk up this part of the book.

There is a collect in the prayer book that I didn’t understand at first until I found its biblical source (Isaiah 30:15), which sounds very much like the refrain of this hymn:

O God of peace, who hast taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength: By the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou art God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This “blessed quietness”, this place of “returning and rest”, is a good place to be.  In that spiritual calm of “waiting upon the Lord” and spiritual peace, one can know and feel the presence and power of God.  So although this hymn comes across as super sentimental, it is still filled with biblical imagery and truth.  Let’s see the other verses (omitting the repeated refrain).

Bringing life, and health, and gladness
All around, this heav’nly Guest
Conquered unbelief and sadness,
Changed our weariness to rest.

Like the rain that falls from heaven,
Like the sunlight from the sky,
So the Holy Spirit’s given,
Coming on us from on high.

See, a fruitful field is growing,
Blessed fruit of righteousness;
And the streams of life are flowing
In the lonely wilderness.

What a wonderful salvation,
When we always see his face,
What a perfect habitation,
What a quiet resting place!

So yes, this is very much an emotion-driven song, which can make it both very effective (if you’re in the “right mood” for it) or quite maddening (it you aren’t), and yet in its emotionalism it continually latches on to biblical images in a way that shows decent theological reflection.  The Holy Spirit’s role as Comforter could be said to be the underlying premise of these lyrics, and explicated in both emotional and spiritual terms.  And if you’re less set-in-your-musical-ways than I am, you may even enjoy the tune!

So I have to admit, I still don’t like really like this hymn.  But I can also say it’s a good hymn, and I’ll try to sing it with you today, if I can the hang of the rhythms.

A Hymn for Holy Matrimony

It is a curious thing that for all our culture’s love of weddings, our hymnals stand remarkably short on hymns for this blessed occasion.  Perhaps people had a tendency to choose other favorite hymns; perhaps weddings were not frequently celebrated with hymnody back in the great hymn-writing centuries; perhaps weddings have long been too secularized (at least in popular mindset) for enough people to dare consider singing a wedding hymn from a hymnal.  Blessed be the ties that bind is the only hymn I can think of that’s even marginally popular for weddings, and some hymnals don’t even put it in that category!  It’s appropriate, for sure, but it’s not specifically (or exclusively) about holy matrimony.

So let’s take a look at a hymn that is specifically about marriage: O Father, all creatingYou may notice that it’s also explicitly trinitarian, verse by verse.

O Father, all creating, Whose wisdom, love, and pow’r
First bound two lives together In Eden’s primal hour,
Today to these thy children Thine earliest gifts renew:
A home by thee made happy, A love by thee kept true.

O Savior, guest most bounteous Of old in Galilee,
Vouchsafe today thy presence With these who call on thee;
Their store of earthly gladness Transform to heav’nly wine,
And teach them in the tasting, To know the gift is thine.

O Spirit of the Father, Breathe on them from above,
So mighty in thy pureness, So tender in thy love;
That, guarded by thy presence, From sin and strife kept free,
Their lives may own thy guidance, Their hearts be ruled by thee.

Each Person of the Holy Trinity is called upon to bless and sanctify the marriage.  As each has been revealed in Scriptures to relate to and interact with us in particular ways, so this hymn prays for their respective forms of presence and guidance upon the married couple.

It is perhaps a “no-brainer” to most of you who follow this blog that a marriage needs the guarding and guidance of God to survive in a holy state and bear spiritual fruit, but it should be observed that the way many weddings are celebrated, even among Christians, often tends to focus upon the marvellous love the couple holds for one another.  This is all too often exaggerated to the point where the binding force and strength of marriage seems to be their mutual love; God is hardly more than a formal afterthought, a patron to invoke for the sake of custom and respect.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say this hymn (or similar songs) should be required at every wedding we officiate, but the prayer and sentiment it puts forth is definitely and sorely needed, not only in the ears of our congregations and wedding-goers, but on their lips as well.

Let’s see how the last verse ends it:

Except thou build it, Father, The house is built in vain;
Except thou, Savior, bless it, The joy will turn to pain;
But nought can break the marriage Of hearts in thee made one,
And love thy Spirit hallows Is endless love begun.  Amen.

Drawing from the language of Psalm 127, this stanza narrows in on the complete dependence of man upon God.  Note particularly that last line, “and love thy Spirit hallows is endless love begun.”  Divine-inspired love between husband and wife is not perfect love, nor love fulfilled, but still only love begun.  The world will not be saved by spousal fidelity, no matter what some false teachers say.  Rather, a holy marriage is only the beginning of a picture of salvation.  When God makes two hearts into one, a glimpse of his divine love is introduced, not consummated.  Only continual reliance upon that strength and foundation will survive the course there begun.  As St. Paul wrote, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3).

Most of my friends’ and family members’ wedding anniversaries seem to be either in June or August, which is why this Customary appoints the two Matrimony Hymns in the 2017 hymnal in early June and early August.  Feel free to move them around in your own use of this order for daily hymnody, as songs like the one we’ve looked at here are great prayers for your own marriage, or those of your friends and family!

A Hymn Old & New

If you follow this Customary’s “Daily Hymnody” plan, using the REC 2017 hymnal, one of the songs you’ll come to today (probably this evening) is #453, Before the throne of God above.  This is a song that I really quite like a lot, and it’s got an interesting history behind it.

It is best known as a contemporary worship song; the music was written (as far as I’m aware) by Vicki Cook in 1997, and it became relatively popular in the CCM world in the 2000’s.  As a music minister in the early 2010’s, it was on my shortlist of contemporary songs that I wanted to use along with the hymnal my church used at the time.  It was one of the only songs I was sad to lose when we went hymnal-only.  (That was mainly for practical and logistical reasons, by the way, not because of any serious push against CCM.)  But the 2017 hymnal has this song in it, so I’m quite happy to have it back again!

Despite its current popular tune only just passing 20 years old, its lyrics go back to the American Civil War period, 1863.  It never seemed to have universally settled on any one tune – perhaps the curse of the Long Meter Double metric is that there were too many possibilities.  Whatever the case, this song remained somewhat obscure until Cook gave it a unique melody, and it has thrived ever since.

A big reason I like this hymn so much is because it explores a critical theological aspect of Jesus that doesn’t get a lot of attention elsewhere: his priesthood.  I’ve addressed its lack of attention before, arguing for a greater place of prominence for it in understanding the atonement, our salvation, and the sacraments.  Let’s take a look:

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea,
A great high priest whose name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on his hands,
My name is written on his heart.
I know that while in heav’n he stands,
No tongue can bed me thence depart.

(The modern tune has the last line of this and the following stanzas repeat.)

This is essentially an exposition of Hebrews 7:25 – “[Christ] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” – and its context in chapters 7 through 10.  The second stanza addresses the self:

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see him there
Who made an end to all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died,
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on him and pardon me.

This is classic reformational soteriology – Jesus paid the price, cancelled the debt, for all sin.  Even in the midst of theological precision, the poetry is striking: “the sinless Savior died / my sinful soul is counted free.”  The final stanza does what the second stanza recommends, it looks “upward” to “see him there.”

Behold him there! the risen Lamb,
My perfect, spotless, Righteousness,
The great unchangeable I AM,
The King of glory and of grace!
One with himself, I cannot die;
My soul is purchased by his blood;
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ my Savior and my God.

If you are in a hymnal-only church, or just are personally critical of CCM (contemporary christian music), I recommend this hymn as a tasteful example of modern music-writing, and an example that modern settings of classic lyrics is indeed possible!

If you’re a contemporary music kind of person and aren’t usually into hymns, this song is an asset to you, too.  It shows how classic lyrics can still come alive on modern lips, without drastic reworking of lyrics and the addition of bridges and choruses.  If people can enjoy these words, perhaps there are more old hymns that can find their way back into the modern crowd also without doctoring!

Singing of Saint Anne

Here’s another holy day that we noted ahead of time: “The Parents of Saint Mary.”  Tradition remembers them by the names of Joachim and Anne, and Anne in particular has been the recipient of some devotion in certain parts of Europe – to this day it’s not unusual to find a Catholic church named St. Anne’s.

Because the couple celebrated on this day are closely related to Jesus (in this case literally his grandparents) this is one of the few “black-letter days” appointed in the 2019 Prayer Book’s calendar that this Customary acknowledges with a hymn appointed for the day.  In this case it’s #188 (in the 2017 hymnal), “Faith of our fathers“, a well-known classic.  As the title itself suggests, it is a celebration of the continuity of faith from the past through the present into the future.  It is in the All Saints section of this hymnal, though in other sections in previous hymnals, if I recall.

If you’re curious, even skeptical, why this commemoration should be so elevated when the people commemorated are barely (or not at all) known in Scripture, consider the implications of their identity.  As I wrote for my 4-year-old today:

Jesus had a grandma
they say her name was Anne.
So although Christ is God,
he’s also fully man!

I also took the opportunity to include this commemoration in a sermon a few years ago, which you’re welcome to check out.  In that sermon I mentioned a hymn that we’d sung.  It was a traditional hymn that someone translated from Latin, and I re-tuned to the melody of a contemporary praise song: “Lamb of God” by Twila Paris.

Nocti succedit Lucifer, trans. c. 2009 Kathleen Pluth.

Verse
The morning star is on the rise
And soon the dawn will fill the skies,
Foretelling of the coming Sun
Whose light will shine on everyone.

Verse
The Sun of justice, Christ, true Light,
And Mary, grace’s dawning bright,
And Anna, reddening the sky,
Have caused the night of Law to fly.

Refrain
O mother Anna, fruitful root,
From you came your salvation’s shoot,
For you brought forth the flow’ring rod
That bore for us the Christ of God.

Verse
Christ’s mother’s mother, by the grace
Your daughter’s birth brought to our race,
And by her merits and her prayer
May we her favors come to share.

Refrain
O Jesus, Virgin-born, to You
All glory is forever due.
To Father and the Spirit, praise
Be sung through everlasting days.

Note in verse 3 (the first refrain the way this is arranged) how Anne (Anna) is addressed: “faithful root, flowering rod” – these are some biblical images in the Old Testament used to point to the Messiah.  The family tree leading to Jesus is often described in root-tree-branch-flower imagery, and is especially appropriate for St. Anne and the Virgin Mary.

However you choose to spruce up your worship of God today, may it be a blessed time!

Let’s pray Evening Prayer together!

We’ve got a daily hymnody plan available, an order for using the Occasional Prayers, and some insight on how to sing Simplified Anglican Chant.  Let’s put it all together and see what Evening Prayer can be like. We did this with Morning Prayer last week, but now let’s add some chanting to spruce up this feast day commemorating St. Mary Magdalene.  I should warn you that there are a couple of stumblings, hesitations, and even mistakes as I read, pray, and sing.  That’s life, that’s reality.  I’m not here to perform for anyone, and I just want to encourage you to pray and sing, yourself, too.  Anyway, grab your 2019 Prayer Book, ESV Bible, and 2017 Hymnal, and listen and pray along!

 

Order of service (so you can get your books ready)…

  1. Opening Sentence (BCP 41)
  2. Confession *
  3. Invitatory Dialogue with Hymn #444 instead of the Phos hilaron **
  4. Psalms 108 (tune #748) and 109 (tunes #747 & 746)
  5. Old Testament: Ezra 10
  6. Magnificat (tune #743)
  7. New Testament: John 1:1-28
  8. Nunc dimittis (tune #750)
  9. The Apostles’ Creed
  10. The Prayers
  11. The Anthem (Hymn #175)
  12. Brief homiletic reflection
  13. Occasional Prayers #11-15
  14. The General Thanksgiving ***
  15. Closing Sentences

* I don’t read either absolution after the general confession when I’m praying the Office alone because there’s no “you” for me to speak to, so I take on the words of the laity in the prayer for forgiveness instead.

** The rubric at the top of page 44 allows for a hymn to replace the Phos hilaron.  Since the Phos hilaron is not a feature of classic prayer books I typically prefer to replace it with an Evening Hymn (or other hymn as in this case).

*** I tend not to pray the Prayer of St. John Chrysostom when alone, as the rubric indicates it’s optional, and because its language of being gathered for corporate prayer is not exactly fulfilled in private.