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?