Sabbatical - Chapter 3

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Chapter 3: Music, Identity, Culture - and the church.

One of the things I find fascinating about music is how much it is tied up with our social and cultural identity, and how much its meaning for us stems from its relation to those identities.

Different types of music, and different ways of engaging with music become identity badges for different social groups, as for the mods and rockers of the 1960s, with British bands like The Who and the Yardbirds being associated with the Mods, whereas the Rockers went for American 1950s Rock and Roll.

This is particularly true in youth cultures. Rentfrow points out in his review of recent studies on the social psychology of music that ‘studies on people’s motives for listening to music consistently show that adolescents and young adults say their music preferences represent who they are - their opinions, values, and lifestyles.’ [1]

This is borne out by the practice on Facebook of displaying people’s music listening habits, so that others can see which bands or tracks they listen to most often. In this way people are making public statements about who they are, who they want to be, and how they want others to perceive them.

I know that my preference for classical music, while I might try and justify it on grounds of quality, is in many ways a cultural one, a sign of me being a bit of an outsider. I am conscious that the reasons I wanted to listen to Beethoven rather than Led Zeppelin as a fifteen-year-old were as much that I was more comfortable with conventional expressions of adult culture than with those that challenged the status quo, and were related to teenage rebellion, than about the quality of the music. Listening to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ now, I cannot understand why I wasn’t blown away with it at the time, it is such a fine piece of music. I don’t think it is any coincidence that the ageing demographic I see in the audiences at classical concerts is very similar to that in our churches.

It has also been shown that the music that people engage with during the ages of 15 - 25, because of the way our emotional, and our musical memory works, is the music that will most likely mean most to them for the rest of their lives. This is also the key time in which our sense of identity is forged. It is an interesting challenge for the church’s mission as to whether we try and work with people’s cultural identities or whether we offer something radically different.

Is it because of my rather unusual attachment to classical music that I found the culture of the Methodist church in the 1970s with its organs and hymns easier to take as a young adult than did many of my contemporaries?

The type of music that an institution uses will say much about which social groups it can relate to effectively. There are stereotypes in people’s thinking about the fans of different musical genres. Rentfrow quotes from his own research that suggests that ‘people have very similar stereotypes about the psychological and social characteristics of most music fans - particularly fans of classical, rap and heavy metal music. For example, fans of classical music are believed to be white, wealthy, hardworking, introverted, physically unattractive, intelligent and artistic, whereas rap  music fans are believed to be extraverted, relaxed, athletic and to drink beer and smoke marijuana. When the content of these stereotypes were compared with the psychological characteristics of actual music fans, the results revealed that many of the stereotypes have some validity.’

This, of course has implications for the church, and particularly its relationships with the young people who are now conspicuous by their absence from our church communities.

When I do workshops on music in worship, or more generally on mission, in Methodist churches,  I sometimes ask which radio stations people listen to most. My unscientific straw polls tend to reveal that while Radio 4 is the most listened to, next comes Classic FM, then in order Radio 3, Radio 2, with very few for Radio 1. When I ask about Radio 6 music, the majority of Methodists don’t seem to have heard of it! (Yet that station exploring more interesting contemporary rock music is the station my music graduate daughter listens to most in her shared house!) Those musical choices tell me something about the comparatively small cultural group in terms of age range, social and educational background from which Methodism draws its members today.

I have also met people, most notably the head of department whom I worked under as a school music teacher, who believed that certain genres of music, (usually classical) were morally uplifting and morally superior to popular forms. Roger Scruton, the philosopher argues that music still has the capacity to provide moral education[2], and in a church context Eric Routley, the doyen of music in the Congregational and United Reformed Church in the mid-twentieth century, and editor of ‘Congregational Praise’ actually wrote a booklet in the early nineteen sixties entitled: ‘Is jazz music Christian?’[3] and came to the conclusion, that it could not be, thanks to its inherent eroticism, and lack of restraint. (Showing a great misunderstanding of the discipline of jazz for such an eminent musician!)

In reality, such a moral superiority of classical music per se is impossible to sustain. It may be true that more complex music needs greater attention and a greater willingness to defer gratification than most popular music, but that does not by itself lead to moral improvement. My old head of department devised a syllabus I was meant to teach based on the lives of the great composers.
In teaching this I was meant to show how their great moral qualities were reflected in their music. The only problem was that the stories of their lives had to be heavily edited, or even changed, to make them acceptable for use in school. I had to avoid parts of the lives of very many of them which did not fit the picture he wanted me to paint.

On visiting the Topography of Terror, the museum in Berlin sited on the location of the headquarters of the SS, one of the most chilling areas was that which looked at the private lives of some of the most brutal concentration camp guards. There were pictures of them going home to lovely families, and to orchestral concerts and operas. It was significant how important German classical music was to so many of them, as indeed it was for Hitler himself. Their love for great music did not modify their horrendous behaviour.

However, even among those who have stayed in our churches, people’s preferences for different styles of church music have created divisions because they are seen to relate to different identities of theology and church(wo)manship.

Routley’s views, or dare I say prejudices, live on in the views of many trained church musicians of a certain generation. The idea that ‘highbrow’ music has a moral and cultural superiority and the divide in taste between the trained musician and the average church member has a long history. Martin Clarke (ref needed), traces how this was reflected in the choices of tunes that went into the earlier Methodist hymn books, (even those of the Primitive Methodists), with tunes that were popular in churches, like Sagina, for ‘And can it be’,  only put into Appendices. In the case of the 1904 Wesleyan ‘Methodist Hymn-Book with Tunes’ the music editor was Sir Frederick Bridge, organist of Westminster Abbey. It seems the committee were somewhat in awe of him, and his judgement was law. However, the book also contains an appendix of more popular tunes, which were obviously in general use, but which the committee under Bridge’s chairing felt were not up to standard and took no responsibility for!  Likewise, there is an additional tune section of 32 tunes in the 1933 Methodist Hymn Book, which I think are there for a mixture of reasons, although the four which survive into into Singing the Faith: Diadem, Lyngham, Rimington, and Nottingham are rarely first choices for those who are musical purists of a certain type.

The desire of the centre to impose a cultured musical taste, inspired by a classical musical aesthetic, on the wider church was a battle for the cultural identity of the church. Within Methodism the oral history is that the Wesleyan desire for cultural respectability ate away at the populism and mission orientation of the Primitives, after union in 1932. Evidence shows that it was more complicated than that, and certainly in practice, although the Primitives may have been more interested in the social gospel, the social demographic of Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist members is not as different as folk memory leads us to believe.

When Singing the Faith came to be compiled there were those in Methodism who feared again an imposition from the centre. With the wide availability of so much music for worship from different sources today, that would have been impossible even if it had been the intention. The committee certainly tried to reflect and resource the church as it is. They did make judgments on musical and poetic quality, and on the theology of words, but the aim was to compile a collection that would be  a resource for churches to use, alongside other resources if they wished.  The Methodist Conference, however, did decide to authorise its contents for use, so no preacher can be held up for heresy for choosing any item from it for worship! (while that does not mean every item is appropriate for every Methodist congregation.)

But while the influence of respected musical experts like Frederick Bridge and Eric Routley on church musical culture and the tensions that may have created has disappeared, new and perhaps more passionate tensions have arisen around church music. These have as much to do with identity, cultural and theological as with musical quality per se.

The rise of the worship song, of music with a  beat, that is influenced by secular folk or pop musical styles has over the past forty years raised tensions in many churches.

While trained musicians debated the musical quality of much of the new material, for many the problem seemed to go much deeper. People who would cope with a poor quality four part tune played on the organ, walked out when a song was sung to a good tune influenced by more popular styles  played on an amplified guitar, with drums.

For some, the association of church with a secular classical concert hall was fine, but not with a pop concert, which they associated with dance and sexuality, and they were not the first in history to object to music that could be danced to in church.

For others it was a liberation that church music didn’t just reflect the tastes of a middle class, middle aged elite. In the 1960s, the association of popular style music with the permissive society made it difficult for many of an older generation to see a place for it in church. They didn’t judge the music itself, but the identity that went with it.

Likewise, younger people judged the more traditional church musical fare as a symbol of its social conservatism and inability to look forward culturally.

What I find interesting technically, is how the social identity of music is not so much related to content of music as judged by what is on the page, but how it is related to its timbre. Guitars and drums and amplified voices seem to speak to a different social constituency than an organ and  an acoustic four part choir. It seems to be the instrumentation that immediately tells people where the music belongs, and in the 1960s and 1970s it seemed to many that organs belonged in church and guitars belonged elsewhere. To mix them up was to challenge a cultural identity in a way that many seemed to find difficult.

So the early objections to music with a beat in church were as much to the instruments and their associations, as to the content of the music.

However, as time went on, music with a beat in church began to raise further objections. Whereas in the 1960’s much of the folk inspired music for worship came from social and theological liberals, like Sidney Carter, during the 1970’s such music became associated with the charismatic revival and house churches, along with American evangelical missions to this country.

My first experience of evangelical worship songs came as a student in the mid-1970s, with a presentation of Jimmy Owens ‘Come Together’ musical. I have to confess it made a real impression on me, and the simple tuneful songs sung by hundreds of enthusiastic students, I found very moving. The setting of the Doxology was widely used across churches for a while afterwards, and looking for tunes in Long Metre for Singing the Faith we decided to revive it and set it to words on ageing by Susan Cherwien[4], as well as including another Owens song;  ‘God forgave my sins in Jesus’ name’.

A year or two later, I attended a house church for a few months. Here I was introduced to the extended time of ‘worship’, where a small number of choruses were sung repeatedly for a considerable period of time. It was a new experience of worship for me. Objectively, I knew the music was very simple and it could not bear such repetition, but spiritually it actually enabled my spirit to fly, almost like meditation, and when Brian Wren, writing in his masterly study of church music: ‘Praying Twice’ likens the repeated chorus to a Taize chant in terms of genre, I fully agree.

However, I had to leave the house church after a few months, because I could not cope with the judgmental, supernaturalist theology. I actually had no problems with the music. The words of the songs were in those days mostly simple adaptations from the psalms to which few could have objection, but I can see how for many that style of music became so associated with the theology of the groups that first produced it, that people assume any one who uses it adopts a charismatic, conservative evangelical theology.

Another related issue is that the enthusiastic singing of simple songs with a beat usually leads to an enhanced emotional atmosphere, and there was for many people a discomfort with overt emotionalism, and fear of spiritual manipulation. I can understand this, but the result has been in many quarters of Methodism a fear of emotions in general, and in my experience a lowering of the emotional temperature which has for other people made traditional free church worship seem emotionally somewhat stale.

So for many middle aged Methodists in the 1970s and 80s, the worship songs using guitars and drums offered either a secular identity that challenged the sacredness and the traditional high cultural aesthetic of Christian worship, or a charismatic/conservative evangelical identity that they did not wish to be part of, even if many of the songs themselves were no more conservative evangelical than many of Charles Wesley’s hymns.

The irony was that liberal open-minded theology came to be expressed in a cultural identity that related to classical music and a minority culture associated with the elderly, middle-class and privileged, while the more narrow charismatic/evangelical theology was expressed in a cultural identity that at least in some ways related to modern popular culture in its musical style. Methodism during the 1980’s with the exceptions of MAYC London weekends, did not seem to know how to respond, and during that period many young people within our churches, left for churches that related more to their cultural identities. Most of those had a conservative evangelical theology. That may have been an attraction for some in response to a Methodism that was coy about teaching young people much theology at all, but I suspect that for many it was because they did not want to be part of a community where the  culture resembled in many ways the stereotype outlined by Rentfrow of those who were fans of classical music: white, wealthy, hardworking, introverted, physically unattractive, intelligent and artistic, and where their emotions were expected to be bottled up.

As a young minister, with a love of classical music, who probably ticked most of the boxes above, (other than introverted,) I struggled with this, particularly when a thriving youth group of thirty or so teenagers and their leaders upped and left my second church after I had been there a year, for a ‘youth church’ in the Pioneer network down the road. There was there a critical mass of young people and a culture where they could feel at home. Many of them were children of church members and it was a painful time. The church itself never recovered and twenty five years later is on the verge of closure.

Still today, the sort of Christian music you engage with implies a theological identity.

Recently, knowing that the church where I was going to preach had an excellent worship band available, I chose to open a service with a series of three worship songs from Singing the Faith, and included another coupe of worship songs later in the service, as well as two more traditional hymns. Afterwards, a member of the congregation asked me, ‘Did you choose all the hymns?’ and was astonished when I said yes. It wasn’t expected that a Chair of District in his sixties, with a liberal theology would choose such material! It didn’t fit their understanding of my identity. Still, worship songs, with a beat, sung to guitars and drums, are almost automatically assumed to represent an evangelical/charismatic identity. This is without looking at the words, and many people who don’t bat an eyelid at the substitionary atonement set out in ‘There is a green hill’ will rail against it in a modern worship song.

Part of the work of the Singing the Faith committee, has been to challenge this; to try and say all of this material, across genres, can belong to the whole church, while recognising that some churches will for reasons of age, and musical background and ability, be more comfortable with some items than others.

I have to confess to finding it strange that there still seem to be so many people in Methodism who struggle with guitars and drums. For anyone born after 1940 their key years of gaining musical identity were after 1955, when Rock and Roll was at the centre of youth culture. Is everyone under 75 in our churches an odd bod like me who did not relate particularly closely to the main youth culture of my own day? Or is it because it is deemed to imply an identity, social and theological that does not fit with whatever is a Methodist identity?

Even if Methodist young people through the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, were finding a culture based on popular music outside church, the church musical culture they grew up with would have been rooted in the hymnody of the 1933 Methodist Hymn Book, and a common knowledge of at least a proportion of that traditional hymnody is still I suspect a key aspect of Methodist identity for those over 60, (which is the majority of Methodists), but also one that divides us from others.

An example of this from my own experience comes from when I attended a gathering of presidents and secretaries of Methodist University Societies as President of the Cambridge Methsoc in 1976, at Selly Oak Methodist Church. There were probably about 60 students present from all around the country. After the discussions and obligatory ‘Methodist social’, a small group gathered round the piano which had a hymnbook with tunes on it (MHB) and started singing their favourite hymns. Gradually more and more people joined in until most of the participants at the conference were there. As each hymn finished someone would call out a number (usually without looking it up), and we would sing the next one. It went on for an hour or so and finished with a sharing of the Peace. This unplanned hymn-sing was for many people the highlight of the weekend, and a deeply spiritual experience for us all. It shows how in 1976 for student Methodists traditional hymns were still well-known and a staple of their spiritual diet.

I suspect that marked the end of an era. Going to a Methsoc reunion only two or three years later and worshipping with the next generation of students, I was conscious that the musical diet was already changing radically.

One hymn that has survived as a badge of Methodist identity is Charles Wesley’s ‘And can it be’, and as Martin Clarke has shown in a fascinating study [5], it retains an iconic status across all groups of modern British Methodism, regardless of age or theological outlook. We will return to some of the implications of this in Chapter 5.

The challenge that Methodism faces as it declines and realises that its cultural expression is increasingly becoming ghettoised is how it now deals with its musical tradition. It may be that we believe there are things of infinite value in our tradition of singing together that we need to find ways of building on that are different from simply adopting worship songs led by an amplified band as our main diet. I personally have a lot of sympathy for that, and that thinking was behind many of the choices for Singing the Faith. However, I do find worship songs done well, inspiring and helpful on occasion, and there is no doubt that the churches that still attract young people are more likely to use a worship band than an organ for their music.

As we look forward I believe we have to aware of the issues of cultural identity, and how music can play into them positively and negatively. I hope that through growing awareness we can be more sensitive and creative in how we use music in church, so that it can work to lead people into a deeper experience of God and not be a stumbling block.

Part of that means that it is worth investing in music and choosing and presenting it well in our churches, for no culture identifies with music that is shoddy, tired and an effort.


[1]Rentfrow ibid

[2]Quoted in Ball (Loc 393)

[3]Eric Routley: ‘Is Jazz music Christian?’ Epworth Press, 1964

[4]Singing the Faith 617: O blessed Spring

[5] Yale Journal of Music & Religion

Volume 2 | Number 1


And can it be: Analysing the Words, Music, and Contexts of an Iconic Methodist Hymn: Martin Clarke

Sabbatical - Chapter 3