Sunday, December 06, 2020

Traditional Worship

 My son's podcast this week (First Methodist Houston, Episode 97) was a discussion of the false dichotomy of traditional versus contemporary worship - especially music. I liked it, but there was one point that they had not really covered in the half-hour that I would like to bring in.  There is no traditional worship in the sense people think. It has become a commonplace to notice that what was contemporary worship in 1980 is different from contemporary 2000 and contemporary 2020. This seems to amuse people and many think it proves something-or-other. Yet it is just the same thing as has always happened, just on a somewhat shorter time-scale.

I wrote the 100th anniversary history of the Lutheran church I was attending in 1981, the congregation of my mother, my mother's mother, and her mother's mother. One goes through old records, of dinners celebrating the new building or the retirement of a pastor, or of the 25th and 50th anniversary celebrations. I also knew the oldest parishioners or knew of them, and they beamed at me, Louise's grandson (or Augusta's great-grandson) doing the history.  They were quite willing to be interviewed and talk.  I pulled out a very early bulletin from a dinner and pointed to hymn titles - insert Swedish Chef talk here - asking if they remembered it.  Usually, none of them did. Occasionally, we would grab an old hymnal and look it up and try to pick out the melody and a light would dawn "Oh yes, I remember that tune, I think." These women (and one man, I think) would not have been thrown that it was in Swedish, as a few still preferred that. Yet a hymn important enough to a congregation to have sung it at the dedication of a building in 1888 was generally not recognised by people born around 1900. They remembered old Swedish hymn and still loved them, and were they to travel to that time and sit around a piano they would doubtless find much that was shared. But not all. 

One can attribute this to switching from Swedish to English in the 1940s, which happened in many other immigrant congregations, but this doesn't begin to cover it.  The hymns I sang in a music traditional Congregationalist church in the 1960s overlap only slightly with what they are singing now, and that is in a full-choir/big organ/4 verses hymnal/no-screens-ever church now. We sing an old favorite like "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah" and think Ah, just as in the days of my youth.  They don't do this nowadays in other churches, more's the pity. That is a partial truth. Some still carry forward among the Presbyterians, the Episcopal, the Baptist, and other English-speaking churches, and the Methodists still do sing some Charles Wesley. But they don't sing quite what they used to a hundred years ago. Churches vary hymns week to week and some just drop out.  As with so many things, we don't notice what is missing.

The music for holidays hold on the longest, yet even those get weeded.  I have a fantasy of what will happen when the youth croup comes to carol me at the nursing home or when I am shut in, and they ask me if I have any favorites. The fantasy itself is now dated, as I don't think youth groups do this much anymore.  But just pretending, I will smile in innocence and say "Yes!  Once In Royal David's City," and when they look alarmed, or blank, I will offer "Lully, Lullay?" "Good Christian Men, Rejoice?"  I think those are all on those little sheets you've got there."

The Catholics switched out from Latin at Vatican II, but otherwise we would think of them as exemplars of continuity, and this is true in many ways.  But the music is quite different these days. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer is similar now to the 1928 version...but not quite. They did hold one version from about 1662 to 1840, which is quite a long run.  Yet in that time the music changed as well, as well as what feasts and fasts were prominent. The Liturgical Year has anchor points, but is flexible. We think of long-held traditions, but Presbys of 1900 didn't sing what Presbys of 1800 did, nor is the order of worship the same. When they crossed from the old country to here they came in contact with other hymns and adopted them over time. "How Great Thou Art" was Russian, then Swedish. Episcopalians visiting England find that they know the tunes and the words, but they are mixed up. Go to YouTube and find a long selection of old hymns.  You won't know

Much does hold.  The Mass retains similarities across centuries, but not entire, and national differences have always been there. 

What is happening is not Contemporary vs Tradition. Those that say they are trying to hold on to longstanding traditions in order preserve truths of the faith are not accurate and I fear, not even always honest. They attempt to lay claim to the entirety of the historical faith and ask "Well, you don't want to give up that, do you? So here then, keep these hymns.  They've got all that, and this new music doesn't."

What underlies it all is Everyone Has Preferences, no two alike. So what will we do about that?  Some of my favorites are not sung anywhere anymore, I don't think. No one is singing Bob Stromberg these days, are they? (He mostly does comedy now.) We have pieces from the liturgy in the Lutheran Book of Worship (Red Book: LCA Augustana) that I'm sure not Lutherans even do anymore. The Agnus Dei ffrom the Chicago Jazz Mass circa 1970?  Didn't think so. Yet I find plenty to like, wherever I go. Some things are silly, yes, with people trying to recapture some folky image from 1960 or 1980 - the songs they worshiped with when they first knew Christ, yes, those are always dear, or clinging to a camp meeting motif that only the very oldest in the congregation even remember.  Mine are different. 

What will we do is the real question?

11 comments:

Christopher B said...

We have pieces from the liturgy in the Lutheran Book of Worship (Red Book: LCA Augustana) that I'm sure not Lutherans even do anymore.

I grew up on the red Service Book and Hymnal (ALC congregation, nee 1st ALC). For the denominations that became the ELCA, the red hymnals were replaced with the current Lutheran Book of Worship with a green cover about 1980. As an aside, the LCMS folks that started the whole new hymnal project bailed and never adopted the LBW.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You might remember the "Create In Me A Clean Heart" from the Red Hymnal then. Lovely harmony. We sang it for years in the car.

james said...

I've said that if we were fully serious about serving each other, there'd be a contest to see who got to clean the toilets in church this week.

Within reason, I should try to make the other person comfortable praising God with the songs dear to his heart, and he should be trying the same for me. Uncle Screwtape had somewhat to say, as usual. "You would expect to find the "low" churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his "high" brother should be moved to irreverence, and the "high" one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his "low" brother into idolatry. And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labor. Without that the variety of usage within the Church of England might have become a positive hotbed of charity and humility."

Unknown said...

It was long ago an in another country, but I did for a while attend a "Reformed Presbyterian Church" which was firmly in the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exclusive_psalmody camp, where we progressed in order (Psalms 1-3 on the first lord's day of the year and 148-150 on the last, with two or three per week in between -- and in numerical order.). Their reprint of some version of the Scottish Psalter had assigned tunes, but "the number of tunes has been so limited as to render it possible for the congregations to learn to sing them all". Someone gave a pitch, and then we sang enthusiastically the melody only - certainly no harmony, and definitely no accompaniment. Every psalm text in the book was sung once each year (in order), and each tune in it used many times over the course of the year.

Given that they stuck to this as religiously as some stick to the KJV, I was kind of doubtful that it has changed much in generations. However I can look them up on facebook, and now they are using a new printing of the psalter that has some new alternate rhyming translations of psalms in 'long metre' rather than common meter, and often has 'B', 'C', and even 'D', tune choices -- many of which (gasp) are just hymn tunes common in other traditions, but with only the melody line notated.

At the time though, I felt like I was the inheritor and participant in a tradition unchanged for centuries.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

How close is it to the Genevan Psalter? That would be a few centuries of continuity in at least one aspect of the service.

Christopher B said...

Yes, I do remember that. I eventually warmed up to "This is the Feast" but still miss the old "Gloria in Excelsis Deo".

You can tell a Star Wars fan was raised Lutheran when "May the Force be with you" is answered, "and also with you."

Unknown said...

"How close is it to the Genevan Psalter?"

Well of course I had to go look it up now.

The answer is about 20% duplication. The compilers of the 1650 Scottish Psalter had the "Anglo"-Genevan psalter from Knox (a translation from French but informed by English Bibles and Hebrew) and thought the number and metrical variety of tunes in the original to be to big in number for easy congregational singing -- much better to limit the number of tunes, and have most of them in "common" (ballad) meter.

What modern musicologists have found is that those places (like the Netherlands) where the direct translation of the Geneva Psalter remained commonly and widely in use, the use of it shifted over time to singing dirgelike in mostly 'whole' notes. For example, one of the most popular Genevan tunes is now known as "old 100th" in English-speaking places and used for the Doxology (Praise God from whom all blessings flow) and "All people that on earth do dwell". So even where the use of the same 'book' is continuous over centuries with the music written in near-modern musical notation, local custom has changed the rhythm and tempo to reduce complexity over the years. Depending upon where I've lived, I've found that the version(s) in my church hymnal for that tune may be very close to the Geneva rhythm or very square and drawn out or anywhere in between - with the 'simplifications' in different places for different churches. And sometimes when I think "I thought I knew this tune but it's different here, I'd better follow the notes", I find that my expectation, what's being played by the organ, and what's written on the page are 3 very different things.

When we moved to our current town and joined the (liturgical, Episcopal) church, I was startled to find that the organist played the hymns as I remembered them from my childhood, rather than how they were written in the notation in the hymnal. Apparently after her playing organ for decades in this church -- and in spite of the many music teachers in the congregation -- I was the first to not only comment that what we heard wasn't what was written on the stave, but identify which hymnal version she was actually playing. So I suppose it doesn't surprise me that the rhythms and tempos change over decades and centuries, even with written music right in front of every congregant.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Unknown - very good stuff to know. Thank you. I would say that in general the same psalm, on the same day, but in different translation and in different meter is not a big change over four centuries. If the other daily psalms are mix-and-match tunes and meters, that's still pretty close. A person from 1600 showing up and trying to follow along would be able to hang in there through the differences.

random observer said...

I can't speak to it in the specific Christian context, but consider this loose analogy.

For much of history, monarchy was the normal and prestige form of government. it was so normative that it was perfectly possible, desirable, and could be successful for a rebel/usurper to seize power and assume the throne of his predecessor with all its prerogatives. A change of dynasty, even if not usurpation, did not end the institution. New states sought native or foreign monarchs to be legitimate. In China, although many new dynasties were founded by ancient nobility, several were by peasants. These nevertheless, using the mandate of heaven concept, assumed the imperial throne, considered it both legitimate and necessary to do so, and were widely accepted as doing the proper thing.

Now, new states do not seek monarchs. If any existing one ends it will never likely be restored and, most illustratively, the institutions are more closely bound up with the legitimacy of the existing monarch and his/her near heirs. In China again, residual monarchism is completely associated with the heirs of the [Manchu] Ching dynasty. On the tiny chance an emperor were to be restored, it would have to be one of them. No new dynasty is going to emerge and actually call itself such, or proclaim the return of the imperial system. That would seem ridiculous to all, in a way it would not have not so long ago, and more ridiculous than would restoring a Ching emperor.

The general conclusion- when a tradition is dying, or is even seen by many of its members as dying, or at least as under assault, the specific content of a particular time and place becomes wildly more important and identified with the very thing itself.

For my part, I might wish it otherwise but not for Christmas music. Everything I have heard written since 1900 is rubbish, except as radio or tv soundtrack material. But that's me.

random observer said...

Then again, now that "Baby it's cold outside" is considered a "rapey" sexist hate crime, I'm more inclined to appreciate it's comparatively gentle approach to coarse human sexuality, so I don't consider myself a complete musical reactionary.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ random observer - understood. I hated the song until it was condemned, at which point I at least softened my hatred. But I still hate it on other grounds. The guys is just being a jerk