Sabbatical - Chapter 6

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Chapter 6: Reaching the heights and plumbing the depths in worship

Philip Ball, approaching music music from a non-religious perspective reflects that  ‘The almost universal use of music in communal ritual might be understood on the basis that its ability to arouse emotion and teeter of the brink of meaning, without any such meaning ever becoming apparent at the semantic level seems to recommend it for expressing or representing numinous concepts.’ [1]

While the composer Stravinsky writes that: ‘the profound meaning of music and its essential aim is to promote a communion, a union of man (sic) with his fellow man and with the Supreme Being.’

‘Expressing or representing numinous concepts’ and ‘promoting a communion of individual people with their fellows and with the Supreme’ being strike me as key ingredients of effective communal worship.

Of course, worship is more than that. We don’t just express or represent numinous concepts, and promote communion, we seek to reach out to God in praise and adoration, share around what we perceive as God’s word, and be inspired and sustained in our daily lives as Christians in the world. But without the element of the other, the numinous, [2] and a sense of communion with God and with others, worship risks becoming simply a mixture of a lecture and a concert.

When Martyn Atkins wrote that he had a concern that Methodist worship too often failed to reach the heights or plumb the depths, I identified with that statement, because too often that sense of the numinous, and of communion with God is absent. In my experience Methodism does still strive to engage a sense of communion with others, but Methodist worship too often feels like a social gathering of like-minded people with a spiritual element, rather than an encounter with almighty God.

What I have found interesting in this essay so far, is how frequently I have found myself writing about the emotional power of music, as well as its potential spiritual significance. We have seen how that emotional power has led even some who love music in St. Augustine’s footsteps to counsel caution in its use, and historically church music in the west has been that which has aroused internal, non-bodily related emotions, exemplified by boy choristers singing plainchant, as if to explicitly deny any emotion that could be related to the bodily, to dance, and thus to sexuality and supposed immorality. (A problem for Nigerian Christians who come from a culture where the word music is synonymous with dance!)

It is right that in relation to worship we have to be careful in how we relate to people’s emotions. The danger of an emotional experience that makes people feel good now, being mistaken for en encounter with God has led to a caution in some parts of the church of talking about emotions at all, or allowing worship to be an experience that touches the emotions. Yet, most of us access the deep parts of our being in some way through our emotions, and I believe that in modern Methodism, as descendants of ‘The Reasonable enthusaist’ as Henry Rack termed John Wesley, we are often so keen to be reasonable, that we have become afraid of being enthusiasts in our worship.

Of course, the way that we are comfortable in engaging emotionally in worship will be affected by our culture and our personality. Part of the challenge we face in creating communal worship is how great a diversity of cultures and personalities can engage emotionally in a single act of worship.

I find the work of Douglas J. Davies in his book ‘Emotion, Identity and Religion’ [3] interesting.

He sees religion as a major means of ‘creating and managing emotion and in creating integrated world-views in which experience and explanation, feeling and the naming of feelings, forge a focused way of life.’  He also notes that ‘each tradition favours a particular repertoire ….. of emotions and moods as the medium for expressing its worldview.’ [4]

As an example of this he recognises that ‘the disciplined silence of the Quaker meeting differs a great deal from a Charismatic worship meeting with its singing movement and periodic speaking in tongues and is likely to be matched by differences in theological outlook.’

He does not go on to explain why it is likely to be matched by such differences, and leaves the question why worship with a more extravert personality seems to be more likely to imply a conservative theology and a more introverted one. This seems in some way to relate to the fact we have noted before that worship that tends to use classical music is likely to be used by people who are more liberal in their theology than those who worship in a more contemporary cultural style with music with a beat.

Worship has to be an environment in which people find meaning for it to have ultimate value. As Davies points out ‘People find meaning to some extent through the interplay of their religious values and emotions and the sense of identity that arises from that process.’

I have seen how important music is for many people in affirming their sense of identity and in helping them engage with emotions, so it is not surprising that it has such a strong presence in Christian worship. Given that different genres of music speak to different cultural identities, and in recent years to different theological and ecclesial identities it is also not surprising that lack of understanding both of the power of music in relation to identity and of the way music works in worship has led to conflict about its choice and its use.

However, despite the issues that the use of music in worship raises, the strong presence of music in most types of Christian worship down the ages speak of its value as a remarkable spiritual gift.

For all the ambivalence of Augustine and the Puritans to the emotional power of music to engage the senses in ways that they might not like, there is something about the Trinitarian understanding of God, of the freedom God gives God’s creation, which makes the Christian religion unique among world faiths in its promotion of music as a creative activity. Indeed, I find the belief among many Muslims that music is ‘haram’ (non-Islamic) quite challenging, and wonder if their denial of the creativity that music, (and also figurative art) has brought to the Christian church, is a factor in the inherent fundamentalism and resistance to religious evolution in much of the Muslim world.

This brings me to explore the question of the different musical cultures that different branches of the church relate to in Britain today. I do wonder if the preference for worship songs in those parts of the church with a more evangelical theology is again related to the question of ambiguity. Is the music of worship songs less ‘ambiguous’ in its emotional range than that of the classically inspired hymns of more traditional liberal churches?

Truly creative music, of whatever genre, inherently asks questions of the tradition from which it comes, and I wonder if that then encourages those engaged in music that breaks new ground to ask broader questions about the religious tradition from which they come, if only subconsciously. This doesn’t necessarily lead to theological liberalism, Bach and Haydn were both people of simple orthodox faith, yet their religious music in very different ways leads one to deeper reflection on the questions that for example the passion of Christ, or the story of creation pose. In modern times, I would say that the music of John Tavener and James McMillan (the one devoutly unOrthodox, and the other a traditional Roman Catholic,) offers similar opportunity for spiritual reflection.

Great music does not simply offer emotionally comfortable certainties, at least it cannot blithely be unchallenging and still be great.

However, are we looking for ‘great music’ in worship? To reach the depths, I do believe we need to be looking for multiple layers of meaning in the worship experience, and music plays its part in that, but I am also conscious of the research around the relationship between musical complexity and accessibility, and of the need for music to relate to people’s cultural identity for it to have any meaning for them.

In church, music is usually used in relation to words, sung by the congregation, or by a specialist group. The layers of meaning come from a combination of the two, and it is that combination that needs to offer the right balance of complexity and accessibility, to offer a way into that deep ambiguity at the heart of existence, and a way through it to an encounter with the love of God. That might be asking a lot, but I wonder if those hymns and songs that continue to speak widely to congregations are those which, at least for those who are in tune with them culturally, do indeed have that balance.

To return to Charles Wesley’s ‘And can it be’ - while the musical experts have long wanted a more complex tune, ‘Sagina’ has survived because it offers an easy to sing tune with simple harmonies to a deeply personal and complex set of words about a moving spiritual journey. The ease of the tune helps us enter into that journey, and the depth is there in the words. Any more complex tune would make it difficult to internalise them in the way Methodists do so readily with ‘Sagina’.

I wonder if a worship song equivalent might be Matt Redman’s ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ For a worship song the words offer a rather unusual recognition that people find themselves in the desert place and on the road marked with suffering and the singing of the chorus: ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord’ is not a simplistic wiping away of the pain so much as a recognition that God is in it with us. Here the tune of the verse is slightly more challenging to sing, with a speech rhythm (that traditional Methodists can never get right), reflecting the thoughtfulness of the words leading into more straightforward chorus for the hook line of praise. For me, given my experience with Mark, this song does speak to the ambiguity at the heart of existence where we find God, and has a real depth because of it.

It is not just which music is used in worship, but the way that people engage with it that affects its significance for the congregation.

In the Methodist tradition the most usual way that people engage with music in worship is by communal singing. The very fact that we sing hymns together is part of our cultural identity as Methodists.

As someone who loves to sing, I am very comfortable with this.

For me singing is a significant part of my own identity, and it is a joy to take that into church in worship. It is also a part of my spirituality. Singing is breath made audible, and in worship can be a symbol of God’s breath, the Holy Spirit, being made audible in word and music.

Singing together in worship is also a wonderful way of building a sense of shared community, and shared commitment. Singing the deeply personal hymns and songs of the faith, whether by Charles Wesley or Matt Redman, with others helps deepen a shared spiritual experience.

However, I am conscious that singing with others is now not the cultural norm. While there is a small increase in community choirs and the like, singing is still very much a minority activity, and for someone not used to church, the expectation that you will sing when you go there can be quite threatening. Also, the size of Methodist congregations and the quality of the singing in many of them make it difficult for someone who isn’t comfortable with singing or who doesn’t know most of the items.

John Bell, of the Iona Community, in his book ‘The Singing Thing’ [5] makes a strong case for congregational singing with which much I identify, and his Big Sing workshops where he encourages untrained singers to branch out into unaccompanied part singing are inspiring. He sees singing together as the best way that people can creatively participate in the worship of God, and perhaps most important, through which we can give of ourselves. 

The book was written in 2000 and recognises the rise of performance culture. I wonder if it is even more true today. The more this culture prevails, he writes, ‘the less will ordinary people perceive that it is their prerogative to sing and participate in communal music making. Therefore when the Church invites people to sing hymns, it is doing something that is profoundly counter-cultural. It is both presuming that all can sing, and providing material specifically written so that the whole community can participate.’

He then blames those parts of the church that have gone down the route of performance culture, and I know how difficult I find it to worship both in a Cathedral evensong, when I am not allowed to sing, or in a youth oriented worship event, where the worship band is so loud that even if you know the songs you can’t hear yourself singing, let alone any other member of the congregation.

However, both Cathedral worship and youth events with professional standard musicians performing the music are two of the few areas of worship that are still attracting new adherents. Some seeker oriented churches, using the model of the Willow Creek church in Illinois in the United States, deliberately do not ask people at their public worship to sing, for fear of alienating them and just use professional standard performers for people to listen to,  although at the meetings for church members there might be some singing. Maybe the expectation that all people will sing in worship is too counter-cultural, and today speaks of church that is out of touch.

But, like John Bell, for me singing together is a key part of my cultural identity as well as an important expression of my spirituality, both individual and corporate. It is also a key part of the self-understanding of Methodism that we were ‘born in song’, and that we are a people who sing our faith, and in my heart I agree with him, when he says the professional performer is ‘no substitute for the voice of the people actively praising their Maker.’

How counter-cultural can the church be in its worship and still engage with the society it in which it is set? Using musical imagery, I think the church culture needs to run in counterpoint to the culture of the world around. By that I mean that it needs to run to a different tune to that of the world outside, but the two tunes of the church and the wider world must relate to each other in some way.

For example, it needs to offer something different to the social and political status quo in its understanding of the Kingdom of God, but the church must not be so heavenly minded that it is of no earthly use and its understanding of the Kingdom has to relate practically to the society in which it is set. Likewise, we offer a counter-cultural message, at least in our words, that all are welcome, but we have to put that into practice in the light of what we have learnt about safeguarding the vulnerable.

The relation of worship to the prevailing culture of the day has historically always been a tension and music has often been at the centre of the discussions. There have always been those who in wanting worship to express the beauty of holiness, believe that the worship culture should offer something radically different from the world around. The Orthodox tradition tries to create a taste of heaven in its worship, and Anglican Cathedral worship aims to offer an experience of the transcendent through something that takes the congregation out of the everyday. However, even though the Anglican cathedral musical repertoire is a strange land to me, it is in an idiom, that is not far removed from a musical culture I am familiar with. It runs in a counterpoint that harmonises quite easily.

I would suspect that those who relate to Cathedral worship, even as a ‘special’ experience, are those who are more likely to listen to classical music at home.

If the music of worship is so different from what people engage with outside, and from what people have been brought up with, will it help people to engage with God? On the other hand if it just mirrors the culture you are used to, and does not take you into new emotional and cultural areas, will it open you up to the ‘otherness’ which offers an experience of the transcendent?

Where does the Methodist model of worship fit in this?

My concern is that in our worship the culture in Methodist churches does not touch or relate to the dominant cultures of the society we are in, even in offering a critique of them. When I hear of a  Local Preachers meeting that recommends in 2016 that preachers watch the Simpsons, as if none of them have ever seen it before, and as if that is the cutting edge of modern culture, I realise how out of touch we are. 

Over the years a Methodist worship culture, despite two new hymn books in the last thirty years, still seems to hark back to a culture that seems embedded in the 1950s. There may be new hymns since then, but they are usually used in the same way. The organ continues to dominate the music. Even churches that don’t use an organ often have organ pipes showing, as if they wished they could use one, which simply serves to emphasise lost past glories rather than the present reality. In so many churches the way our buildings look and the way our worship sounds imply a culture that is far more comfortable looking back than looking forward. A Baptist minister recently related to me his experience of going to a major Methodist event which he described as entering a time warp.

We have to ask what our worship says about God, and what we think about God to any who might come and join us. Is God the God of the past, the present and the future, or just the past. Is God the source of life in all its fullness for all, or just for us? Is God someone we come to for comfort, to affirm our own identity or is God the one who inspires us to change, to follow Jesus into the challenging places, into cultures where we do not feel at home, to share divine love and work for justice and peace?

Roger Walton sums it up when he writes that ‘however it is communicated, the very nature of worship is to place the finite creature alongside the eternal and the transcendent…. it is the arena of meaning-making; it prompts us to make sense of our lives and engage in reflection’ and action. ‘This may be at the cognitive level of rational thought, solicited and aided by preaching. Equally meaning may be evoked at a more subterranean level by music, liturgy and architecture’[6]

It is those meanings evoked at ‘a more subterranean level’ that I believe Methodism needs to give far more attention to, for they, as much as the words we use will speak of the God we worship and of whom we believe the church is really for.

These meanings are ones that will relate more to our feelings perhaps than our cognitive understandings, and Roger Walton in a different book[7] speaks of the ‘importance of feelings in the search for meaning,’ leading to the thought that ‘many of our deepest ideas have an emotional component.’

Davies[8] shows how the interplay of religious values and emotions is tied up with our sense of identity and we have seen the role of music both in relation to emotions and identity for many people.

We have to take music seriously as a key element, along with our buildings and our liturgy that help shape an environment of meaning for people, one that is intimately connected with cultural identity. We have to ensure that it is also intimately connected with a relationship with the Jesus Christ, that leads us into ‘participation in the being and glory of God.’[9]

If worship in the Methodist church is to allow our members to plumb the depths and reach the heights in their relationship with the living God, I believe it is crucial we think hard about the link between those things that Walton describes as evoking meaning at a subterranean level and those which evoke meaning at a cognitive level. The way we reflect on the role of music and plan for the use of music in our worship is a crucial part of this.

As Davies puts it: ‘Music is the best symbol of the embodiment of our culture, for music has the capacity to unite not only the cognitive and affective dimensions of human experience, but also the social bonds of the participating community.’ [10]

This will work differently for different congregations, but when it is chosen and used effectively music has the power to open people up to a sense of the transcendent which allows a deepening of an awareness of God’s presence, and inspires us into a commitment to a deeper relationship with God. It genuinely can help worship to plumb the depths and reach the heights.

But for this to happen, it must be used wisely and thoughtfully, with an awareness of the way the music relates to the culture and personality of the congregation, to the balance between cognitive and emotional meanings, and to the way it helps build the community of faith. It also needs to be performed appropriately well. This thinking about music needs to be an integral part of the way a church owns and develops its own worship.

All worship must seek to speak to  ‘the real life, experience and struggle of twenty first century Christians’[11] also to the experiences of those who are not Christians, with whom we share in our society and the wider world. The way music is used can help and hinder the church in doing that.

This is a real challenge in a world where the predominant musical cultures are so different from the predominant musical culture of current Methodism. I am frequently told by those who embrace contemporary worship that we need to stop singing hymns because they are so outdated in their form, even if they have modern words. Yet I am conscious that my own personal worshipping identity is in no small part bound up with my relationship the hymns I have sung over the years, and that I really enjoy singing with other people.  I am also conscious that that is now unusual. I am the last generation to have learnt hymns at school, (other than some independent schools), and to anyone younger than me unfamiliar with church they will be alien.

In practice I am not sure that worship songs are any better in terms of familiarity. Their shelf life is usually so short that if you have not been in some churches that use worship songs over the last year it is unlikely you will know any at all. However, their idiom, the timbre of the most modern worship bands, is much more comfortable for people whose regular musical diet is Radio 1 and 2, i.e. the vast majority of the population under 60.

However, I do believe that the loss of hymnody would be an incalculable loss for the church, for the tradition of hymnody in which we stand as Methodists has enabled us to sing our faith in ways that offer a greater range of theological thinking and spiritual depth  than the tradition of worship songs, important and valuable as that is. At their best, hymns offer a combination of music and words that can be multi-layered and offer something of that ambiguity that is at the heart of our being, that worship songs do less often.

However, what worship songs do offer, that hymns do not, for those for whom they are not part of their heritage, is a more immediate emotional engagement with their spirituality, and their relationship with God, just as Elton John offered a more immediate emotional engagement than Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ at Princess Diana’s funeral. With an enthusiastic congregation, I still find that emotional engagement in many of our hymns; an engagement that points me to the transcendent God out of my own immanent experience: e.g ‘My heart is full of Christ, and longs its glorious matter to declare’ etc, but that engagement comes out of an experience that an increasingly small number even of Methodists share.

Any future for our heritage of hymnody depends on creative musical and liturgical leadership within churches, that helps us reengage with the tradition in relevant ways and that is capable and willing to work across musical genres. It also depends on a willingness of congregations to build on and adapt their musical traditions rather than simply try and preserve their inherited musical culture 

However we do it, I believe that for all its cultural challenges singing our faith together is a key part of Methodist spirituality and identity. At its best it holds the balance between head and heart, between corporate and individual, between relating to contemporary culture and being counter cultural.

We also need to recognize that the quality and appropriateness of the way music is performed in worship makes a huge difference to the worshipping experience of the congregation, whether consciously or subconsciously.

This is not to expect that every church has a cathedral standard organist, and a worship band that could take the stage at the o2 arena. However, we cannot deny that poor quality presentation of music, even if has been well chosen, sends out messages that conflict with the intention of the worship.

However, we need to be careful what we mean by quality. Worship is not something someone else is performing for other people. The concert standard musician may not be able to lead people in worship. The musician with a  limited repertoire, but with a deep sense of the needs of the congregation and the flow of the worship can be an excellent worship leader.

All those who lead worship in whatever role, need to be empowered by their own relationship with God, so that they can empower others in their worship. Music is part of that. All who lead music need to reflect on how they enable the worship of others, and how they help worship to engage the whole person as an expression of their relationship with God. It is important that music and people’s engagement with it must not make worship feel a struggle, (although that is not the same as saying it must always be easy!).

If music in worship sends many people signals about our faith, (who it is for, how we engage with God), and if it is a vehicle for opening the door into a deeper relationship with God and an experience of God’s glory, then we have to take it seriously and do it as well as we possibly can.

In Methodism we would never think of a preacher going into the pulpit untrained and unprepared, and yet if church musicians are willing and just about able, there is no expectation of further training and my experience of the preparation musicians have done for worship is somewhat variable. We face a huge challenge because our resource of musicians is fragile, and there is a justified fear that asking more from them, in terms of training would risk losing what we have, and that has to be taken seriously. However, I do believe we have to work harder at making the best of the resources we have, as well as encouraging others to be attracted to enter into quality music making in the life of the church.

The skills we need are primarily those enabling skills. How to play the organ so that people find it easy to sing the hymns, how to teach songs, knowing when it is appropriate to lead a song from the organ, or the piano/keyboard etc. An excellent starting point, is the fine introduction to the Music Edition of Singing the Faith by Martin Clarke, which sums up the thinking of the music sub-committee, and sets some clear guidelines for musicians to work to: e.g. ‘maintaining a regular pulse is crucial in encouraging and supporting congregational participation, irrespective of the style of music.’[12]

We are looking for people who can engage with the congregation and help to build people’s confidence in taking part in worship. We are also looking for people who understand the shape of worship, and are perhaps prepared to do the parts of the Worship Leaders and Preachers’ course that relates to the choosing and use of music in church. They need to be encouraged to feel part of the team leading people into worship.

Ruth Duck quotes Linda Clark as saying:

‘A successful music program is one that both expresses and forms the faith of the community … Thus, the first and primary responsibility of a church musician is to learn the faith of the congregation.’ [13]

It is important that we take that seriously. So that the ministry of the whole people of God is affirmed and enabled.

Resourcing this, particularly when we seek to reach across musical genres and affirm different musical/cultural identities is a huge challenge, but if we not going to stay in our time-warp it is one we have to find ways of addressing. One starting point can be in encouraging any young people we have with musical gifts to take part in worship, and listening to what they have to say, so that they are able to offer not just their skills but their cultural understanding of the way music works best for them into the mix.

Another initiative I believe Methodism needs to consider is an intentional programme of developing new congregations with specific cultural identities with particular attention to the style of presentation and participation, the music, the visual environment and the use of technology. The example of Jazz Church, where trained musicians and worship leaders come together and work hard in preparation to offer high quality worship in a particular style and culture, is a good example of what might be a way forward of developing new congregations that reach beyond usual Methodist culture.

Given the challenge of finding appropriately skilled resources to help us develop worship in more culturally varied styles, it may be that like Jazz Church we will have to find other ways of consolidating resources for worship occasions of particular cultural flavours that draw people together. It is interesting that this is happening with the national ‘Fellowships’ of Methodists from different countries, who commit to their own local Methodist church, but who also meet regularly gather people from a wider area for worship and fellowship in a Ghanaian, or a Fijian style. How such groups might relate to mainstream Methodist circuits is another challenge we face, but if Methodism is to have a future beyond its current ageing demographic we have to find some creative ways forward.

‘If worship does not have its grounding in people’s lives and cultural expressions, it will remain foreign, imposed and irrelevant’[14] This comment from someone from the Caribbean living in the United States is certainly true for those who come from different ethnic cultures, and is behind the national fellowships emerging in British Methodism, but it is true not just for people from different ethnicities, but for people of different generations, different social classes, with all the variety of cultural expressions that now exist within our society.

Methodism needs to learn how to respond to this, not just in the way we work with Methodists who have come to Britain from other parts of the world but in the way we work with all people whose culture is so different from the current culture of British Methodism, that we are not so much in counterpoint with them, as in total discord.

This will certainly take an investment of time and energy, and making space for those who have the necessary skills to make that investment is also something that needs attention. In practical terms it might also mean taking resources away from churches that can ill afford to lose them to invest them elsewhere. This is a risky strategy, and there will inevitably be hard choices if we are to develop essential new work with the limited resources we have.


[1]Ball: Loc 624

[2]Numinous, defined as ‘having a strong religious or spiritual quality, indicating or suggesting the presence of divinity

[3]Douglas J. Davies: Emotion, Identity and Religion  OUP 2011

[4]Davies p 8

[5]John Bell: The Singing Thing, (The case for congregational song) Wild Goose 2000

[6]Roger Walton: Disciples Together SCM 2014

[7]Roger Walton: The Reflective Disciple: SCM 2009

[8]Davies ibid

[9]Ruth Duck: ‘Worship for he whole people of GodWestminster John Knox p 24

[10]Davies: ibid

[11]Ruth Duck ibid p 23

[12]‘Singing the Faith’ Introduction p x

[13]Linda Clark: quoted in Duck p 85

[14]Pedrito Maynard-Reid: Quoted by Duck ibid p 35

Sabbatical - Chapter 6