Benedict King, The Times and the idolatry or service of music.

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Perhaps it’s because it is August, but an article by Benedict King wishing good riddance to the insanely expensive cathedral choirs stirred up a good deal of anger.

It was an interesting article for two reasons. The first as that it raised some important questions and the second because the anger directed at it was out of proportion and made no attempt to deal with any of the points he had made. When that happens, it’s always a good bet that some totem, some idol, some tin-god has been disrespected.

I, like so many, have long had an interest in the dynamics of music in church;  worship, aesthetics, spiritually and choirs, so this seemed the moment to look a little more closely at the issues that King raised.

The whole of my adult life in the Church of England (before I saw the light and became a Catholic), involved observing the frequent sniping between choirs and parish priests.

The reason was  simple, though few people dared articulate it. King dared to raise it openly however. He suggested that the musicians might be  there as performers not as worshippers. And when you combined this with congregations now so small or small and wholly ignorant of the liturgy for culture, they, the congregations,  became not worshippers but audience.

From the point of view of spiritual discernment it was obvious to many that choirs were not there as committed disciples, but as performers, glad of an institution that hosted them with such generosity and resources. Every so often a power struggle would break out between the two communities sharing the time and space of the parish Church- the eucharistic community and the musical performers. It was the very brave and very occasional priest who took on the musicians, and even more rarely, won.

King in his article rightly traces the origins of the musicians in the English Parish Church. The origins of the English choral tradition were of course monastic. The great artistic strength of Anglican Christianity was that it replaced monks with musicians. The question few people have asked, is whether or not that mattered spiritually or metaphysically? Was it a loss to the spiritual integrity of the worship offered that it was done by sponsored musicians rather than monks whose music flowed from the sacrifice of their lives?

The relationship between the personal commitment or worth of the priest and the validity of the sacraments he celebrated was settled by St Augustine in his fight with the Donatists in 5th Century north Africa. But no such clarity has been achieved when you move the issue from the efficacy of the sacraments to the spiritual validity of the liturgy.

A recent scandal that has acted as a catalyst for the whole debate has been the decision to simply close and kill off the choir at Sheffield Cathedral. Many have seen this as the triumphant vandalism of the ‘woke’; and it may be that. But as it happens, the history of the relationship between the clergy and the musicians has not been of the best. Let the reader understand. In frustration and desperation it is possible that the cathedral clergy have decided to slice through rather than unpick the Gordian knot. It may be exasperated pragmatic pressing of the nuclear button in the old struggle with the competing alternative religion as much as it is a desire to worship the Lord in the beauty of grunge.

At this point I wanted to recollect the story that I had told to me as a 10-year-old boy in the church. At this point I want to recollect a story that was told to me as a ten-year-old boy in the church of St Mary‘s Wimbledon Hill.

There must’ve been some political problem in the church itself at the time but I never discovered what it was.

Our choirmaster was an immensely talented man called Dennis Aldersea. He had been an organ scholar at one of the Cambridge colleges, and according to the internet, an inspirational music teacher in London. One night he stopped the choir rehearsal and said that he wanted to tell us a story. It was in about an Italian monastery where a handful or not over tuneful monks faithfully sang the liturgy every day and night.

“One day a famous opera singer knocked at the door of an Italian monastery and asked to spend the night. The Abbot welcomed him warmly. Instead of contributing to cover the cost of this day the Abbot asked if the opera singer would instead sing the evening office of vespers.

The singer agreed with enthusiasm, and the monks had a night off and sat back and listened to his exquisite performance.

That evening as the abbot was saying his prayers he heard from God. The Lord said in a disappointed voice, “where were you tonight my son”?

“What do you mean Lord” replied the Abbot?  We were all there in chapel listening, and may I say we offered you one of the most wonderful Vespers I have ever heard.

“I don’t think so” said the Lord.  I was present always of course, but I heard nothing; only silence, no praise, no love, no adoration.

It was the first night that you have been silent since the monastery was founded. I was deeply saddened.”

The moral was clear. It wasn’t enough to sing; it wasn’t enough to be a musician, it wasn’t enough to be talented, it wasn’t enough to perform. Authentic worship was a matter of the heart.

Let us suppose for a moment that this story tells a theological truth. What is heard in heaven may be very different from what is heard on earth. Already we know from the saints that what matters in our daily actions is the love with which they are done.

“You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.”

–St. Therese of Lisieux

“Pure love … knows that only one thing is needed to please God: to do even the smallest things out of great love – love, and always love.” (140)

–St. Faustina

 

If this applies to worship it may not be enough to say that music carries us to heaven and gives us a vision of the numinous. It may well be that any music not sung with genuine devotion of the heart is not heard in heaven. If that is so, then many, perhaps all of our cathedrals have been silent since the Reformation.

One or two of the angry voices raised against Benedict King made a similar point. They claimed they had been to choral services in cathedrals and lifted into the heavens. This may be true, I have no way of knowing. But I am suspicious. It is a little too Platonic to my mind. Much too close to ‘beauty is truth and truth, beauty’.

This is Greek not Hebrew. What does Jesus say? “Blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God.”

This suggests that the route to the heavenly vision in not an ear well-tuned to polyphonic renaissance music, however lovely and beautiful it is, but instead a pure and penitent heart.

Too much of the praise of Cathedral music sounds like a peon to high art rather than the invitation to the renewed and contrite heart.

Vision in the Scriptures comes from obedience, or penitence, never from art; this is Athens rather than and in contrast to Jerusalem.

A great deal has been made of the rise in numbers in evensong. But this is the talk of desperation. Attendance in the C of E is in demographic free fall. If by contrast there are a few hundred extra attendees at Sung Evensong this is not ‘growth’ or success. And once again, no effort is made to assess whether or not those who go belong to the category of esoteric culture-vultures or are would-be catechumens driven by hunger of spirit that will not let them go.

It is wholly true of course that the musical education given by the Church and in particular cathedral choirs is and has been invaluable. I am one of its many grateful beneficiaries. But all this speaks to is another useful chapter in the Church’s commendable role as a patron of the arts. Valuable, worthwhile, dignified, meretricious; but forgive us if we note that Jesus went to His death on the cross, bearing the sins of the whole world to allow us to approach heaven uncondemned, rather than to facilitate our love of art and music making.

One word, one phrase infuriated some of the commentators particularly. King referred to the over-long, over-ornate, over fussy setting of the invitation to worship “Oh Lord open our lips”, lasting over a minute, as ‘camp’. Cue utter fury, as if he had put his finger in a wound. What wound would this be? Those who know, know. For those who don’t we can pass on. But, a reaction wholly disproportionate to the writing.

What if the exceedingly expensive choir schools disappeared? Could the Anglicans, like the Greek and Russian Orthodox use a small but gifted, dedicated and spiritually committed group of four or five singers +? There is as much of heaven to be glimpsed in a Russian Orthodox Church washed in the music of adoration and ecstasy as there in the cool intricate  polyphony of the West.

But the question of who sings it and what motivates them to sing it may be of the utmost importance in the economy of salvation and in the integrity of the Church.

The fact that Benedict King’s article produced such rage and reflex-vitriol suggests that the choral tradition in Anglicanism is not as pure a vehicle of revelation and salvation as its followers would like to believe. It may even constitute a different god – a different religion. And if that proved to be true, the temple post covid may be found to have been cleansed,  rather than collapsed beyond repair.

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