Okay, so we know that pop culture, and the clergy who have succumbed to its siren call, have had a substantial influence on the decline of church music. We can only marginally blame congregations. After all, who can blame the majority of the people for the choices they make. When someone is inundated with virtually nothing but mind numbing, purely commercial trivia most of their lives, without reciprocal access to something better, how can than they be expected to make an intelligent decision about anything, much less the music they use for worship? Moreover, it’s the church leadership who are supposed to give the “flock” what they need, not necessarily what they think they want (let’s face it, most people today don’t really know what they want; it’s much easier to have an authority figure tell you what you want than actually make a decision).
Yet, there’s still one more person whose influence in this matter is crucial: the music director has much more influence than most are willing to admit; and that unfortunately, leads us to the serious dichotomy of church musicians who adopt the use of this lowest common denominator, not-even-good-pop, music: They have either succumbed to the coercion of their clergy or the lay leaders; or they’ve gradually lowered their standards and descended to that nether world of existential relativity where Avery-Marsh ends up being “not so bad.” Often, dare I say usually, the latter is a result of the former. Church musicians, not unlike other highly specialised employees, are frequently susceptible to bosses who know little if anything about their craft, and who are more than likely unwilling to learn from the specialist as that would detract from their delusional sense of self-importance. As a result church musicians, being the ever pliant beings that they are, adapt.
Church musicians have the added disadvantage of dealing with the profligate practises of publishers who, through their diffusion of this form of church music, have aided in the metastasising of this cancer. Every era has its mediocrity; however, mediocrity is a relative term. Moreover, it’s an era’s mediocrity which gives us the yardstick by which we judge the overall quality of a society’s cultural intelligence and sense of direction. I realise that I’m treading onto much broader subject matter; but, it doesn’t take a lot see how the “mediocrity” of Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods compares to what is mediocrity today. I mean, really, is there any comparison to John Amner, Francesco Veracini, Johan Albrechtsberger, Theodor Kullak to Marty Haugen? Less and less does the serious church musician have a choice in the matter. It’s not that there isn’t high quality music being written for the church: Gerald Custer immediately comes to mind. It’s just that it’s become harder and harder to find it amid the volumes of dreck cluttering a church musician’s mailbox — traditional or electronic. If one is fortunate enough to find something new that is serious and well written then comes the quandary: are the clergy, choir or congregation willing to accept this “high art?” After all, this “highfalutin” stuff requires actual listening!
Curiously enough, we find out that it’s not the young who are interested in the kind of shallow entertainment that pervades the church nowadays; rather, it’s their predecessors, those who are now the leadership in the church, who seem so hellbent to make church “more fun.” In a survey of over 13,000 people of different age groups done for a report for the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music for the research division of Church Pension Group (CPG) on the possible revision of the 1982 Hymnal of the Episcopal Church (don’t you just love bureaucracy?), the majority of people under 30 and over 57 (italics mine) are against revising the hymnal for fear of it being popularised. One of the respondents, a 22 year old, put it quite succinctly:
“I think there is a huge assumption made that the younger generation wants guitar- and piano-based praise and worship music. …What we want to hear in a Sunday Eucharist are the classic hymns played on organ. And occasionally we want to chant. Church is the one place where our musical taste is not based upon fad, but instead links us with a much more important, more elegant tradition. If I wanted to listen to acoustic guitar and piano, I’d pick up Dave Matthews or Ben Folds. If I wanted rap, I’d listen to Lil Wayne. …For worship, I want music that connects to me a world outside of the in and out of my daily life.” †
This brings up an interesting issue, there is approximately a generation and a half who have a problem with ageing. Granted this started with the baby boomers (of whom admittedly I am one); nevertheless, the concern for “relevancy” (the buzz word of the 60’s and 70’s) then had more to do with what the church was doing concerning the Vietnam War and civil rights than whether music in the church “rocked.” Of course, the Roman Catholic Church, in its infinitely myopic approach to almost anything regarding its laity’s proclivities, as part of post-Vatican II thought that coming up with a “Folk Mass,” right at the time the folk music “craze” of the early 60’s had atrophied, would be a way of attracting younger people to the church. And the rest, as they say, is history. Somehow, somewhere, somebody in the church hierarchy got the impression that this low grade form pop music which they had determined would attract hordes of new, young congregants, actually believed it worked. Moreover, this delusion spread to the protestant denominations. For some, particularly, though by no means exclusively, the southern branches, of Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, Pentecostal and an infinite number of fundamentalist denominations, it didn’t take much, since that kind of simple-minded music fits in rather snuggly with the their equally simplistic theology.
Of course, a large part of it was financial. For the Catholic Church it was: why spend money on trained musicians when you could have nuns and guitars lead in the singing for nothing? With protestants it was any amateur with an electric guitar and a set of drums whose primary motivation was to have fun — under the guise of worship. Nevertheless, it has turned out to be an abject failure. Churches that have resorted to this and the faux-broadway ballade style of hymnody haven’t experienced any growth. On the contrary, the church continues to lose membership. Bad pop music has not turned out to be the panacea that the church leadership had hoped it to be. But, like so many other simplistically minded, ultra-conservative organisations or people, their minds are made up and can’t be be bothered with the facts.
Unfortunately, there’s only so much church musicians can do in light of the odds against them. But, at the very least, they could try not to become part of the problem. Church musicians, not unlike the general public, are their own worst enemies: as a church musician myself, I’m ashamed to say there are a number in the profession who, rather than merely acquiescing to the pressures from the clergy and lay leadership, actually embrace this degenerate form of worship. They really like this stuff; i.e., their standards and taste are so corrupted, so vitiated, that they reify the Wyndham Lewis axiom:
“Name anything where taste is at stake –– it will provide an example of the systematic forcing down of civilised standards.”§
Notwithstanding these encumbrances, it behooves the serious church musician to strive to bring to the congregation the kind of music which will give the listener a truly contemplative, mystical, transcendent experience that places one closer to God. That means eschewing the musically, emotionally facile, and theologically jejune drivel that has come to dominate (as in most contemporary art forms) church music. Good taste is taught. It’s recognising that not all music and the arts are acceptable — that there are standards to be met, principles to be learnt. I find it sad, and not a little pathetic, that church musicians who spent good money (either their’s or other’s) to go to a school and learn counterpoint, harmony, music history and perfect their performance skills are so willing, not just to compromise, but quash all of that scholarship for the sake of preserving what is usually a low paying, generally unappreciated job. Yet, it is the church musician who has the expertise and dedication to music and its significance to the liturgy, who understands the power of great music, who has the obligation not only to exercise that influence, but to teach, teach, teach — preach the “Gospel of Great Sacred Music” as it were — to their congregations if they are to experience an authentic numinous or metaphysical propinquity with God, and have any hope of any rebirth of the Church as a spiritual and world saving entity.
† Church Pension Group (CPG), “A Report to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music” pg.57
§ Lewis, Wyndham: “Apes of God,” ©1981 by the estate of Mrs. G. A. Wyndham Lewis, printed 1984 by Black Sparrow Press.