What will enable this congregation to worship?

Musing on the various hymn/music memes going round, and pondering a way of gathering several thoughts and threads together. The question I want to ask is: what will enable this congregation to worship? The three parts each carry weight:

– what will enable – this is the end purpose in the choice of music (as of other elements) in a service. Will this get in the way, or will it allow those present to engage?

– this congregation – not congregations in general, not other congregations attending at other times of day, or times past or future, but this congregation here and now

– to worship – not be entertained or intellectually stimulated, have prejudices pandered to or preconceptions picked apart, but worship – to come into the presence of the living God in spirit and in truth, in adoration and thanksgiving.

So – a question, not an answer, but I think it’s a good question.

10 thoughts on “What will enable this congregation to worship?

  1. It is not only a good question but should be THE question. In your last point about not to be “entertained or intellectually stimulated” I would add “or aesthetically stimulated.” I know we have had discussions about the relationship between truth and beauty, but I think we also need to beware lest our aesthetic sensibilities become our reason for doing what we do. Just because something is aesthetically plesing does not make it worship.

    That said, our worship does already include intellectual stimulation of a kind in the sermon/address, though with a practical focus. And although we need to beware of entertainment for its own sake, if something is entertaining it is also engaging, and often culturally appropriate fo those who have gathered. It is just that these must not become the determining things.

    This places a considerable responsibility on those of us who have to take the decisions (personally or as part of a group) not to let or own personal tastes and preferences take too prominent a place when planning acts of worship.

  2. Sam, I wrote the above before I had read your previous post (because of the way my Google reader is set up), so some of my comment has already been addressed there. Great C S Lewis quote there.

  3. how about if you give ‘worship’ primacy, but still celebrate intellectual stimulation, aesthetic stimulation, and entertainment? you make it sound like worship is antipathetic to these other stimulations.

    How do you know, by the way, that when a mass, or service, or rite is said and done, that worship took place?

    how do you assess or evaluate or notice ‘worship?’

    scott gray

  4. To be able to worship God, one must, as it were, focus on Him. Therefore, entertainment of the congregation and worship of God are utterly incompatible. In the music some people propose for use at a Catholic Mass are included the following gems: “Sing a New Church into being”, “We come to share our story”, “Gather us in”, and many others which fail to worship God because they aren’t interested in Him or addressed to Him. Perhaps one should make a distinction between public and private worship of God? The aforementioned songs would still not qualify, but the distinction would allow us to keep St. Paul’s admonition: Pray always.

    On the other hand, “Godhead here in hiding”, Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ masterful translation of St. Thomas Aquinas clearly is aimed at the worship of God. Could it be set to music which is still dreadful? Of course. Schubert’s Ave Maria and Mozart’s Ave Verum clearly demonstrate the ability to take a worship-ful text and make it serve to worship something other than God.
    Dorothy Sayers had some interesting thoughts on this, when she opined about the difficulty of inventing a modern prayer. I don’t have the text in front of me, but roughly what it boils down to is not that it is impossible to write a prayer in 2011, but that that which is venerable — tried and tested by previous generations should neither be mutilated by moderns nor discarded as irrelevant.


  5. Thanks all for the comments. Definitely agree that ‘aesthetic’ can be in there. As for discerning worship, and whether all the different elements are in appropriate balance, I suspect that it’s something that can’t be defined in words, but is known through experience (in other words, it is possible to have the equivalent of ‘good taste’ in worship, a nose for Quality).

    If worship is the full expression of loving God, and we are enjoined to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, then I suspect that good worship is something that enables it to take place, ie it engages and enables heart, soul, strength and mind. So a full enjoyment by the mind is not incompatible with worship (I would say) but they are distinct, that is, it is possible to have something which the mind fully enjoys which isn’t worship, and where it is. More thought needed there I think.

    Chris, please do say more about “Schubert’s Ave Maria and Mozart’s Ave Verum clearly demonstrate the ability to take a worship-ful text and make it serve to worship something other than God.”

  6. Sam:

    A worship-ful text could be something like the Nunc Dimittis, or the Magnificat, or one of the psalms or…even a Te Deum or Non Nobis (to tip my hat to Shakespeare.

    “Ave Maria” is, clearly, a worshipful text, in that it is intended to bring honor to Our Lady. Ave Verum Corpus is intended to serve to bring the assembled pray-ers to worship Christ in the Eucharist.

    On the other hand, Schubert’s music was specifically (if not by name) banned from use at Mass by a Papal document called Tra le Sollecitudini: music whose purpose is to serve principally secular or entertainment purposes has no place in the liturgical worship of God. Verdi, therefore, is a great writer of Italian nationalistic opera, but the same style of music is not, precisely because it is intended to be operatic, suitable for use in the liturgical worship of the Church.

    Mozart’s Ave Verum has the same soupy-emotive quality, this time coupled with chromaticism. Other pieces he wrote are no doubt of great value. (I’m not a fan of Mozart, but that’s largely beside the point: he is acknowledged as a great composer.)

    Let’s take a different example. Palestrina took many melodies from all sorts of places and made them into pieces suitable for the worship of God: Sicut Cervus; Missa L’homme arme; Missa Papa Marcelli …. In doing what he did, he changed the original melody and surrounded it with a proper worshipful context. What has happened in the last 50 years, at least in Catholic circles, is that the parishes have accepted the music which sounds as if it belongs on a Broadway stage and tried to incorporate it into worship. It fails because the intent of the music of the Broadway stage is to entertain, NOT to worship God. If you pay to see a Broadway play, and if it fails to entertain, the show closes.

    Take another example, if you like, which uses a good prayer but uses it for a non-worshipful purpose. Sebastian Temple’s Make me a channel of your peace”. St. Francis wrote a beautiful prayer, but Temple’s setting of it can’t serve to worship God because the music is all about the nauseatingly sweet style of singing.

    God bless,


  7. Musical self expression is a most joyful way to converse with god, and let’s face it we’ve been making music a darn site longer than we’ve been monotheists.

  8. Sam,

    Here’s another thought, as a way of spoiling a thing of beauty (which is what really is involved in the two pieces I’ve mentioned). Take a fugue by J.S. Bach. Now play it on out of tune violins, out of tune oboes and harmonicas. A thing of beauty has been rendered displeasing. The manner of representation spoils the thing being represented.


  9. Chris – sorry for the delay in coming back to you on this. First off, very much agree with you about ‘Make me a channel’ – see my earlier comments here: http://elizaphanian.blogspot.com/2011/02/another-hymn-meme-and-some-more-good.html

    A few years back we used (if memory serves) the Schubert Kyrie in our Good Friday liturgy, and it provoked a long conversation about how to establish what music was appropriate for services because I hated it – I thought it was much too light, joyful and giddy for what should have been a solemn occasion. So I very much understand the point you are making there.

    However, where we may differ is that I suspect there are places where something structured “to entertain” can be valid for worship, eg when Wesley takes pub song tunes and turns them into something glorious. I think that as the church continues to live a tradition (rather than simply inhabit a dead one) it must continually seek fresh ways of expressing worship. That will, of necessity, involve false steps.

    James – we sang before we spoke, but I’m not sure that’s an argument against speaking…

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