Music that changes

December 4, 2014
Article image
Tripp Hudgins, center, and other musicians rehearse for the service at All Souls Episcopal Church in Berkeley. Photo by Jocelyn Bergen

As I settled into the pew at All Souls Epis­­co­pal Church in Ber­ke­ley, Cal­ifornia, my eyes turned to the crayons strategically placed in the seats as an invitation for the adults to color their bulletin along with the children. I had a strange kid-at-a-birthday-party feeling. I studied the order of worship and realized that the service would mix the expected and the whimsical.

We sang the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Al­mighty” during the procession. During the Gospel acclamation, however, the choir picked up stringed instruments and led us in a spiritual to which we clapped—which created a different sort of resonance and reverence for the Gospel reading. Throughout the hour, banjos and the organ frolicked together in a way that comforted and surprised me.

As new forms of congregations arise, new musical forms are developing. The walls that separate the secular and sacred, the intellect and emotions, and the contemporary and traditional are being deconstructed.

Tripp Hudgins, an Ameri­can Baptist pastor and a musician at All Souls Epis­copal, ex­plained that All Souls previously had a choir that was getting older and dwindling in numbers. It consisted of a dozen faithful people who couldn’t quite do what they hoped to do. At the same time, the congregation had an “Angel Band” which occasionally played in worship. The band began playing every week, going back to old-time music and drawing upon the folk revival that in Berkeley never ended. Then the band members stepped into the loft to learn the choir music. As they did, they were able to carefully tear down the sacred and secular divide.

Hudgins admits that the process wasn’t always easy. “We all have a spiritual soundtrack. There is music of spiritual significance that can bring us into worship,” he noted. “People from the choir era struggle when choral music is not there. That’s their music. That’s what they pray to. For them, the banjo is secular.”

But another generation has a different soundtrack. Its sacred music might consist of mountain music and songs by Mum­ford & Sons. Hudgins lights up with excitement as he talks about surprising people in worship with music that sits at the intersection of sacred and secular.

Bryan Sirchio, a UCC pastor, musician, and author, sees music as being at the heart of congregational change. He wants to develop more meaningful praise music—a theologically sound “heart music.”

“In the kinds of churches that have grown in vitality, music has been a big key,” Sirchio said. If we ignore music, then we “throw away the opportunity to do spiritual formation, build community, and sing our faith.”

At some services, he said, it’s often clear that a hymn has been chosen on the basis of its theological content rather than on the capacity of the congregation to sing it—and the congregation gives up before the final chorus. In another service, the words of the praise music songs might undercut the liberal theology expressed in the rest of the service. Sirchio tries to tackle the dissonance in a positive way: “What do we want our music to do? What are we longing to find?”

Sirchio, author of The Six Marks of Progressive Chris­tian Worship Music, wants music that reflects the fullness of human experience, including the struggle for justice; inclusive language for humanity and God; songs that reflect the personal and the communal, while containing emotional authenticity; fresh images, language, and ideas. Sirchio is forming a publishing company that will be a catalog of songs that speak “the heart language of the people,” with emotional resonance and in­tellectual depth.

Neither Hudgins nor Sir­chio is trashing the hymnbooks. Instead, they are seeking to engage with hymns in a different manner. David Gam­brell, a hymnodist who contributed to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) hymnal Glory to God, thinks that hymnal has been appreciated because it’s a “big tent book.” Within it one can find “classic hymns rubbing elbows with global refrains, gospel favorites, praise choruses, old spirituals, and new types of song that defy categorization.”

Gambrell highlighted many of the musical expressions that I experienced at All Souls. For instance, he pointed out how people can sing classic hymns with different instrumentation.

“The pastors, musicians, and congregations I talk to seem to be finally moving beyond the labels of ‘contemporary’ and ‘traditional.’ Instead, people seem more interested in finding the right song for the scripture and ser­vice, regardless of style.”

Communities of faith are deconstructing the musical silos in which we too often find ourselves trapped. A new, eclectic, vibrant spiritual soundtrack of faith is being created.


Nunc Diimittis

In the church of my youth, we would conclude the Service of Worship by chanting the Nunc Dimittis. It was also chanted at the conclusion of funerals. It's the fourth hymn in the Gospel According to St. Luke (the Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday). Over the years it found an important place in my life. It's a praise song. It's a song of revolution, for Simeon was singing of the restoration of God's rule over the empire.

Over the years the Nunc Dimttis has fallen into disuse. No, it has been forgotten. It's been replaced. As a result, I find myself displaced. I know that life changes. The last thing I want to do is quench the Holy Spirit, as cautioned by the Apostle. And this posting has had me thinking since I first read it. But I wonder if during the time we have forgotten hymns such as the Nunc Dimittis, we haven't also forgotten the deep message of the church that nurtured the communion of saints, the church of history, during which time(s) the hymn was sung for centuries upon centuries. I'm just wondering. That's all. I'm not involved in planning worship anymore. I join in the worship of the faith community to which I belong, but I still feel a loss through our having lost the canticles and psalter

(This is written by one who is also conversant with younger people about Mumford and Sons, Nick Cave, Kanye West, Vampire Weekend, and so one. Thanks for listening. [Yes, a very bad pun] Thank you for the posting, Carol. I read your articles with great interest).

Nunc Diimittis

Amen to mentioning the loss of the canticles and psalter. In my church we are using them occasionally. We always used the Nunc Diimittis at the end of a Communion Service when I was a child. I am so glad that I remember it so that I can reach into that reservoir to help us regain it and preserve the deeper meaning for all!