O God the Father, Creator of the heavens and earth;
Have mercy upon us.
It is the beginning of the Episcopalian Great Liturgy, chanted at Lent as the Cantor, followed by the cross, the choir, clergy and the congregation walk around the interior of the church. One of the oldest liturgies in the church, it was traditionally done many centuries past by walking around a village or town, calling on God for his blessing and grace. It is long—some 40 “verses” with accompanying responses from the congregation, and four simple, Gregorian chant-like melodies.
I recently had the opportunity to cantor the Liturgy. Battling a sinus infection made it—to my ear and throat—more a matter of survival than performance, but the congregation appreciated it if their comments are an accurate gauge of appreciation. I did it not technically as an Episcopalian, but as a musical hired gun, for I am actually paid to sing at the church.
This is not uncommon in metropolitan areas where churches commonly struggle to form and maintain choirs of consistent membership and musical quality. In the Episcopalian church where I am fortunate to sing, the Vestry decided–at the urging of our director–that in order to allow the choir to do music on an appropriate level and in useful quantity, a number of paid professional singers were necessary, and so it was that I became one of two tenors, joining a soprano, bass and alto, and the volunteer members of the choir. Without us, there would be no tenors, but there are other basses, altos and sopranos. Because we are all experienced, sight-reading singers, we can help the less experienced and musically educated singers perform music that would be otherwise impossible for them. And of course, we also take on the various solo works that would not otherwise be possible.
This might not sound like a big deal, but for a singer, it’s pretty unusual. Orchestral musicians are used to being regularly compensated for their work, but not so with singers, at least outside major cities and halls where unions rule such things. It’s not a huge amount of money, but it pays for my gas and some spending money, and it’s great fun to be paid for doing what I am—a singer.
As a high school singer, I attended a “hip” Lutheran church that had a sort of youth performing choir accompanied by a band in which I played bass and guitar. I was also fortunate to attend a school with an excellent chorale tradition and had the opportunity to sing madrigals, chant, and great chorale works from the Renaissance to the modern eras. I learned and loved Palestrina, DiLasso, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Rutter, even Ives.
From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want of charity;
Good Lord deliver us.
I suppose it was the impatience of youth that attracted me to what then passed for “hip” religion. I found ritual, the same chants, songs and liturgy, week after week, boring. I simply couldn’t understand how anyone found such things meaningful, even pleasing.
In the 80’s, what I’ve come to call the “canned” music wave swept through many churches. It is a wave that has never completely receded, but I receded from church when it arrived. By “canned” music, I mean relatively simple works provided with CD accompaniment, so that choirs could—often by singing little more than melodies—do contemporary cantatas and a wide variety of other works. For many church choirs, weak on numbers and talent, such things make a kind of sense. With CD accompaniment, even the smallest church can have a band and orchestra of professionals. Play those CDs loudly enough and any number of vocal sins may be covered.
They all sounded—and sound—alike to me. I’ve always felt they diminish church music—and the power of worship–by requiring so little of musicians and by appealing to pop culture. Such “music” dilutes the power of music to inspire and to teach. Thousands of years of music, the work of the masters, is substituted for formulaic pop. Entire generations of young musicians grow up with no, or inadequate, grounding in the music of true masters and in the traditions of their churchs. There is nowhere for them to go to learn and perform it. People become used to grand orchestrations and blaring speakers, and the still, quiet voice of music and worship becomes all but inaudible.
That it may please Thee to have mercy upon all mankind;
We beseech Thee to hear us Good Lord.
The photographs that accompany this article are of the church where I perform and worship. Nearly a century ago, the architect traveled to England and studied English country churches, using them as his pallet. The stone floors, brick, wood and mortar, and the cruciform shape of the building are inspiring and beautiful. But for me, it is always the music that evokes joy, inspiration, gratitude and humility.
And as the music takes me back across the ages, to the foundation of the church, of faith, I realize the power of ritual, of the familiar and lasting, to touch us most deeply. We do, after all, follow in the footsteps of giants. It is only when we return to the truly valuable and lasting again and again over time that we begin to understand its value, and that we begin to find what was always there, waiting for us to grow sufficiently to seek and find it. The familiar pitches, rhythms and cadences are healing, reassuring, and remove us–for an hour or so–from the flow of time, making us and all who came before us one–timeless. It is what we one day hope to be.
The Liturgy ends:
O Christ hear us;
O Christ hear us.
Now, as never before in my life, I have no doubt He does. And so I sing and listen to the still, small voice within, the voice across the ages, the voice of truth, salvation and of ritual.