Episco-upgrades: Excellence matters

This is the fifth post in a series. Click here for the previous post or here for the next post.

Sorry for the delay since the last post in the Episco-upgrades series. We’re actually practicing a little of what I’ve been preaching where I serve, and that work was all-consuming for a few days. I hope to blog about some big things we’re doing and bigger things we’re contemplating in the next few weeks. Life is exciting and at times a bit frightening, but always good. Pray for us!

In any case, John Shepherd’s rant about “trite music” has been making the rounds of Blogospheria Anglicana lately. And with good reason. Shepherd says that our liturgical offerings matter, because they can point us toward God — or distract us away from God.

This is why music of quality is a critical element within the life of the Church. It is a necessity, not a luxury. It is neither a frivolous confection nor an elitist distraction from the real business of faith. Music of quality, in the context of worship, does not entertain or divert. It reveals. [snip]

Music of this calibre draws us into an engagement so profound that its sense can never be exhausted. Any work of art, be it sculpture, painting, literature, poetry or music, whose implications are immediately obvious and can instantly be grasped can never enlist our imagination, and so cannot equip us for mystery; and what cannot equip us for mystery cannot equip us for God.

It should be noted that “trite” comes in all genres. Simply because something has been composed for organ and boy choir does not make it great, and just because something has been written for guitars does not make it trite.

Most trite music from the Baroque period has found its way to the rubbish bin of history by now, but I can assure you, there was plenty of lousy music in the eighteenth century. Many readers of Shepherd’s rant will have equated “trite” with “contemporary Christian” and that’s unfortunate. As I like to say, at the slightest prompting, there is some fantastic music being written today. But without the filter of a few decades, it’s a lot more work to separate the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes you have to sing a piece of music for a bit to realize that it doesn’t wear well.

There can be no doubt that the church — as a whole — must embrace the musical idioms of our time. That’s exactly what the church has done for centuries, and it would be foolish to stop now. However, that does not mean that every congregation is called either to embrace hip-hop or to preserve Anglican Cathedral music. We should not sneer at the hip-hop congregation for following St. Paul’s injunction to be all things to all people. Who knows? Perhaps some hip-hop composer of today will be seen as the edgy Guillaume de Machaut, who can finally be appreciated 700 years later. (Got it? We wouldn’t have polyphony or motets or even organ music were it not for certain edgy congregations back in the day.)

On the other hand, folks shouldn’t sneer at congregations who steadfastly resist efforts to move away from organ music and “traditionally Anglican” music. It is the conservative nature of the Church that has preserved our texts and much of our music for centuries. We owe the richness and depth of our present expressions to countless generations who would not let go of ancient patterns.

The balance is impossible to get exactly right, but we do well to admit our need of it. Now we get back to Shepherd’s point: no matter what genre or idiom we use, we must strive for excellence and avoid trite texts and trite music. To complicate matters, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is triteness in the eye of the beholder.

But there is more. Music isn’t the only place where to settle for less than excellence. We must seek to offer our finest to God, not just in music but in preaching, reading, serving, presiding, and in our artistic expressions.

It always amazes me when people are willing to settle for less than even mediocre when it comes to the worship of almighty God. If your car is broken, you’re going to find a “good” mechanic not a “nice” mechanic. So why do we let someone proclaim God’s Word in the liturgy and do a terrible job of it? Isn’t the proclamation of God’s Word at least as important as getting an oil change?

Parents occasionally object when we ask that acolytes arrive for the service with proper attire (dark slacks and dark shoes, for example). Only when I ask if it’s OK for their kids to wear whatever they want to their soccer game do they sometimes get it. Kids themselves immediately understand. I say, “You are setting an example of how to worship, and we want to offer our best to God,” and they get it. That, of course, doesn’t always mean they remember to wear the right clothes on the day they’re serving.

My point is this: we shouldn’t settle for less than our best when it comes to worship, in any area of our worship. To settle for less than our best in worship, but then to demand excellence at the restaurant or at the mall or at the athletic field suggests that these other things matter more than our worship.

Now anyone who reads this and who attends Christ Church will tell you that every one of my sermons is most certainly not excellent. We usually have at least one of our six acolytes in sneakers. Our lectors don’t always remember to practice the readings. But we’re trying, and I hope the direction is in the direction of excellence. I hope we are never complacent, and that we’re always trying to make sure that the next offering is a little better than the last one.

If we do all this for the sake of liturgy itself, shame on us. But if we do all this so that our liturgy does what it was intended to do — point us toward God and encourage us to follow Jesus Christ — then we have a chance of getting it right.

Now I finally get to the Episco-upgrade punchline: The Anglican branch of Christianity is perhaps best equipped to get this one right. We are fortunate to live in an age in which more and more people crave transcendent ritual and brilliant preaching to counteract the noisy din of consumption. And yet we too often settle for trite music, humdrum liturgy, and lousy preaching. As long as we continue to offer poor quality liturgy, every Sunday morning, we are proclaiming that the mall and the athletic field are the true powers of the world.

If we were to seek excellence in our offerings, a number of things would happen, I believe. We’d be glorifying God. Our faith would be kindled by powerful, transformative experiences. And our churches might start to fill up, as people find out that there is another voice in the world — a voice of incredible beauty, startling power, boundless generosity, and radical love.

The photo illustration is from my trip to Italy in the spring of 2009. Have a look at more of them, if you like.

This is the fifth post in a series. Click here for the previous post or here for the next post.

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5 Responses

  1. R. F. Solon, Jr. says:

    Scott,

    So what makes “good” liturgy? Black socks, practiced readings, and good sermons are part of it, perhaps, but are there more basic principles you’d suggest? I have some meta-ideas swirling around in my fevered little brain, but they aren’t quite ready yet.

  2. Scott Gunn says:

    Well, I think good liturgy might be the opposite of obscene art — that is, you know it when you see it, but it’s hard to define precisely.

    I’ve been to all sorts of liturgies in all sorts of traditions that seemed to me to be good. And the opposite is true as well.

    There are some characteristics of good liturgy, perhaps:
    * It is sacramental (that is, it manifests God’s grace)
    * It is done deliberately and with care (even improvisation is a skill that is learned, and that requires preparation and training)
    * It has a transformative effect on those who share in it
    * It is neither slavish in its adherence to tradition nor in its attempts to be culturally relevant
    * The intention is to offer the best we can offer

    Of course, black socks are irrelevant, unless you have chosen to vest acolytes in cassocks. Some of the best liturgies I’ve seen had no vestments whatsoever. But in their own terms, they possessed a high degree of integrity and were offered with great care.

    I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts.

    Peace,
    Scott

    P.S. Bad liturgy is easier to define: sloppy, humdrum efforts that “get it done” with minimal effort. No one is transformed.

  3. Tim Schenck says:

    This is a terrific post, Scott. Thanks for sharing this with us. I’ve always found it easy/judgmental to call something “good” or “bad” liturgy. It’s the same way we’ll talk about someone who “gets it” — usually meaning they subscribe to our own point of view. The opposite, of course, is someone who “doesn’t get it” ie. they’re are limited in their ability to grasp something.

    I’m pretty sure if you studied growing congregations, the commitment to excellence — whatever this looks like in a particular context — would be front and center.

    Off to send your post around to a few folks…

  4. Empy Schneider says:

    Words of wisdom from a retired priest in the diocese, “If you make a mistake, do it with grace and dignity.” I have shared these words with acolytes whom I have trained, and I think the words, “grace and dignity” have a lot to say about our offering of worship!

  5. @Scott — The threshold between spiritually effective liturgy and dead stuff is indeed, as you point out, undefinable, even though we can recognize that difference in our immediate, participatory experience.

    In fact, I think it’s an error to attempt to define it. How many times efforts to “do something” completely lose their energy in verbal discussions, verbal suggestions, verbal resolutions, that never arrive at anything concrete enough to make a perceptible (i.e. “experienceable”) difference at the next worship service.

    I’m reduced to just telling participants when a moment during the eucharist moved me: a gesture, a pause, an inflection of the voice.