Sabbatical - Chapter 2

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Chapter 2: My musical/spiritual journey. 

A constant companion on that spiritual journey for me has been music. My personal spiritual awakening as a teenager coincided with the time that classical music also became very important to me. I think I was always conscious that my experience of God was closely related in my being to my experiences of listening to, and performing music. Music was a catalyst to a deeper world. George Steiner puts it well when he says in his book ‘Real Presences’ that ‘our capacities to compose and respond to musical form and sense directly implicate the mystery of the human condition.’ [1]

I went on to study music at university, where the exciting theological and spiritual discovery offered through the university Methodist society and the opportunities to be involved in a wide range of music making and experience combined to deepen faith and stimulate a call to the ordained ministry; although looking back, I am not sure that my faith journey and my intellectual journey were as integrated as they might have been. To some extent I inhabited two separate worlds.

It was while training for the ministry a few years later, after four rather torrid years trying to teach music in a new town comprehensive, that I began to reflect more systematically on the relationship between faith and music.

One catalyst for this was a chapter on music and theology in Frances Young’s little book: ‘Can these dry bones live?’ [2]and that led me to the work of Daniel Hardy and David Ford also members of the Birmingham theological faculty.

The other catalyst was the thinking we did on the sociology of religion and of worship, thanks to the work of the Birmingham university ‘Institute for the study of worship and religious architecture.’

This was in the days of Anglican liturgical reform, and I felt some frustration that much of the writing talked of traditional Anglican and even Catholic worship and compared it to modern liturgical, or charismatic worship, but that Methodist  worship with its emphasis on corporate hymnody went unexamined.

I remember reading that ‘The plainsong of Roman Catholicism or the solemn, repetitive diction of Cranmer suggested formality, obedience, humility and a longing for a remote transcendence. Now we have close circles of believers, centred on some immanent point, engaging in terse, forthright dialogue with the priest. Our rhythmic, major-key ditties suggest informal enjoyment of God in our fellowship with one another. …. Before it was the objective focus beyond us that united us; now the objective God is incarnate in our intersubjective communion.’[3]

I even began an MPhil on the sociology of music in worship, wanting to look at the relationship between the music people listened to socially and the music they related to most in Christian worship. Did people want church music to be different, to represent the ‘other’ or did they want something that affirmed their current musical and social identity? 

I had written a preliminary paper arguing that mission oriented churches, usually of an evangelical theology tended to use music that was closer in style to the music that the people they were trying to reach listened to on a day to day basis, going back to Moody and Sankey through the Billy Graham crusades to the charismatic revival of the 1970’ and 1980’s. But I had a sense even then, of what Martyn Atkins said in his 2012 General Secretary’s report to Methodist Conference, that ‘Methodist worship too often fails to reach the heights or plumb the depths’ and have throughout my ministry had a concern as to how the way we choose and use music can help us address that issue.

Sadly, the demands of circuit ministry prevented me doing the field-work that was deemed necessary to continue the MPhil and I was unable to pursue it. But I think the questions I posed then still remain, and I will return to them.

During the early days of my ministry, working in an ecumenical area where Methodist ministry struggled to get recognition alongside a dominant Anglican culture, I felt I was more accepted for my musicianship than my ministry.  (I was unable to preside at the weekly Eucharist, which was the only service in my one church during my probation, so I ended up playing the piano and running the choir). Upon ordination, for the first time in my life I felt the need to put my music on the back burner at least in my own church to affirm my identity as an ordained minister.

It was when I began working with a spiritual director a couple of years into my second appointment  that I was given permission and encouragement to see my passion for and engagement with music as part of my ministry as well as important for my psychological and spiritual health.

About that same time in the early 1990s, I was invited to be a member of a Methodist commission on music to prepare a report for the Methodist Conference. This was set up in the context of what are called rather dramatically in the United States, the ‘worship wars’, to help the church reflect on the issues around music. We tried to reflect on the issues around different musical styles in worship and their appropriate use, and also the need for training and development of church musicians within Methodism. We reported to the 1993 Leeds Conference, but the report was rather bland, buried in the huge Conference agenda, and was not clearly presented by the commission’s convener in the very short time allowed for debate. The recommendations around training, and the need for District music officers were not followed up, and the thoughtful ideas that we had carefully worked out together were lost.

It felt that music in church was seen as a peripheral issue, only for the enthusiasts.

However, rather to my surprise, after being asked to serve on a group to find ways of making new hymns and songs available for worship in the Methodist church, the Methodist Conference decided to commission a brand new hymn book, and I had to privilege on serving on the music committee for the result: ‘Singing the Faith’. Here we tried in practical terms to address the issues of range of styles, appropriate language (both verbal and musical), different ways of using music in worship, that we had talked about in different ways on the music commission.

The committee made the decision that every item considered for use in the book had to be sung by the committee! We recognised that the meaning and potential use of the item could only be assessed by experiencing it in performance, not just off the page. (Sadly, we did not revisit and sing the revised texts, that were modernised for reasons of archaism or gender exclusive language, or I think we might have made different judgments.)

The sense that the meaning of a hymn for a congregation is bound up in its singing, and not just reading it off the page was important in our selection, although of course, in that process, we brought our own musical identities and cultures to bear on our judgments, and it was creative and challenging to try and live with the different musical identities and cultures represented in the group.

Five years after its publication it is both gratifying to see how widely the book has become used in Methodism, but also slightly disappointing to me that despite some new material gaining a hold, the book is not being used to its potential to allow more liturgical creativity. We deliberately included material to help Methodist worship be more diverse and offer alternatives to the five hymn sandwich. In practice, my experience is of the new material being channelled into the same liturgical format as before.

That raises major questions about how Methodism today uses and develops music in its worship which I will return to in Chapter 6.

Meanwhile, I have been enormously fortunate to be able to pursue a musical life outside church. Thanks to the prompting of my spiritual director, ten years ago I found a singing teacher of some eminence, (a retired professor from the Royal College of Music who also happened to be an Anglican priest and spiritual director!), and with a new teacher, recommended by him, in Birmingham I have been able to keep on singing to a reasonable standard, both as a soloist and over the past two years as a member of the CBSO chorus, where involvement in music making of a world-class standard has been both a privilege, and a life-saver when life in ministry gets stressful. Taking part as a chorus member in a performance of Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ was an experience that lifted me into another dimension in a way that despite the dodgy theology of the opera, I can only talk of as inspired by the Holy Spirit.

I know I have to be careful here. I am an enthusiast, not just for music, but for the way the music is such an important companion to me on my spiritual journey. Fred Pratt Green’s hymn which says:

‘How often making music, we have found

A new dimension in the world of sound’

has been profoundly true for me both in worship and outside, and in that new dimension has often been where I would locate an experience of the ‘other’ whom I know as God.

But I am conscious of the time music takes in my life and of the fact that although my musical tastes are quite wide, my real passion is for singing classical music, and that is very much a niche areas.

I also know that not everyone finds music important - not everyone is musical. However, a recent article on The Role of Music in Everyday life, by Cambridge social psychologist Peter Rentfrow does begin with the statement that ‘music is a crucial element in everyday life’[4], and I think that does prompt the church as a whole to take it more seriously and reflect on its influence and the way it is used in worship and mission.

Yet I am also conscious that in my own life music can sometimes almost become too important. I am aware of the dangers of what Ignation spirituality calls ‘attachment’ I have to be careful that I remember that in spiritual terms music points beyond itself and is not its own end. I remember colleagues on the music course at university talking in terms like: ‘for music’s sake we must do this’, and a much loved song by Schubert: ‘To Music’ addresses music as ‘you sweet art’ , in an almost religious way.

A Christian ambivalence about music and its use certainly goes back to St. Augustine, who in his Confessions writes about once enjoying music so much that it might be said he was beguiled by the beauty of it:

This comes from a world-view that was suspicious of anything that gratified the senses, and influenced the Puritans in their objection to so much that we think pleasurable. I would want to challenge the theology behind that, for it seems to imply that God is not to be found in the joys of God’s creation, unless there is specific reference to the divine. I incline to a more sacramental understanding of the Christian faith which can speak of the way God takes the things of creation, and by blessing them, and transforming them, can make them holy.

John Wesley’s Methodism, despite some Puritan influences, on the whole embraced music. Although John Wesley himself had some ambivalence about instruments, he saw the spiritual value of singing, and his famous directions for congregational singing include the instruction to Sing lustily, and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.’

But as one might expect from him there is a warning to ensure that the music does not take over and that God is at the centre of the musical activity, so the last direction is:

Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim to pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing; and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven..

However, the caveats that some like Augustine have raised over the centuries do challenge me as to whether it is right to maintain some caution, or at least raise some questions as regards music from a Christian perspective. The challenge to those of us for whom music is of great importance is to see it as a sacramental gift, which can act as a vessel for the holy, rather than as an idol which is worshipped for itself.

There is no doubt that for many people music has power to influence their emotional states, and that power to relate to people’s emotions may indeed issue in changes to their behaviour. The music used in adverts, as background in shops is thought about with great care by advertisers and retailers in attempts to get people to buy more.

Rentfrow quotes a study done in a wine store that showed that ‘significantly more German than French wines were sold on days when German music was playing in the background, whereas more French than German wines were sold on the days French music was playing. What is more, when patrons were asked after their purchases about the reasons for their choice of wines, only 2% mentioned music!’[5]

This power of music to engage people emotionally, and even to influence behaviour means that it helps us engage with things both deep within and beyond us, whether consciously or unconsciously. There are dangers - it can be used manipulatively, whether by advertisers, or sometimes even by evangelists to evoke a positive emotional response to their message. However, that power of music to engage people at depth, is allied to a power to point people beyond themselves in positive life affirming ways, and as such I find it both a wonderful gift from God, and a means of engaging with the divine through opening up a non-rational, but not irrational world, where ultimate truths can be pointed to.

But does all music do this? Does different music do it in different ways? Does different music do different things for different people? And what are the implications of the answers to those questions for the way we use music in church?

There is part of me that wonders if I overestimate the importance of such questions, but I was reassured as to their relevance by the study by the Saltley Trust on ‘What helps disciples grow?’[6] In their research they asked 1100 church members of  various traditions the question ‘In the course of your life what ha helps your journey of faith?’, Music in church worship came out as the fourth highest response, after attending church, listening to sermons and praying by oneself, and actually came second amongst those who agreed strongly it was important.


[1]Steiner: Real Presences (Faber 1989) p 5

[2]Frances Young: Can these dry bones live? SCM Press 1982

[3]Ross K.A. Thompson: ‘Liturgy: Mystery of mystification? Theology and ideology in Christian symbols’ in ‘Liturgy and Change’  ed Denise Newton, University of Birmingham: Institute for the Study of Worship and Religious architecture. (c 1982)

[4] The Role of Music in Everyday life: Current Directions in the Social Psychology of Music: Peter J. Rentfrow in Social and Personality Psychology Compass 6/5 (2012)

[5]Rentfrow ibid

Sabbatical - Chapter 2