Sing the Lord's song

Serenhedd James proposes practical solutions to some of the problems currently facing Anglo-Catholic church music, and calls for a balance between retaining past treasures and remaining open to new developments

In the July New Directions, Julian Barry paid generous tribute to Dr Mary Berry, champion of traditional liturgical music and doyenne of the study of Gregorian chant. With her passing, we have lost a scholar whose teaching constituted nothing short of a window on the past, through which the traditional music of the medieval Church began to be returned to the Church of the Second Vatican Council. Given the present signs from Rome, it is to be regretted that Dr Berry's work could not have been continued throughout the current pontificate.

However, it is Mr Barry's closing remarks which have been the catalyst for some observations on the state of Anglo-Catholic church music in general.

Importance of teaching

First, a contradiction. While I agree that plainsong should not be performed turgidly, I still maintain, despite Mr Barry's well-charted purist preferences in this field, that the sensitive use of organ to accompany chant is a help, not a hindrance. There is nothing quite like unaccompanied plainsong; nevertheless, accompanied well and sensitively, chant can be even more enthralling. It is not the instrument but the player that can be the problem - after all, any organist inexperienced enough to play plainsong sluggishly is likely to play other hymns just as unsatisfactorily.

Mr Barry asks who will continue Dr Berry's work. Well, there are plenty of people who would be delighted to see plainsong performed better and more widely in the liturgy, clergy and laymen. There are those who, while not touching Dr Berry's learning, nevertheless know enough about the matter to be able to communicate it to those prepared to listen. There is a captive audience in the theological colleges - why not incorporate simple studies in liturgical singing into priestly formation? If a priest goes to a parish able to read music and to sing basic tunes confidently, then a congregation can be easily led and taught. There is far too little recognition of the value of note-reading in the Church as a whole - and little more frustrating than being part of a congregation struggling their way through an unfamiliar Mass setting when one would have been able to sing it confidently had one been provided with the notes.

Mr Barry is quite right in saying that Anglo-Catholics have been too keen in their enthusiastic acceptance of some very shoddy congregational Mass settings. This is not helped by today's lack of common ground when it comes to music for the Ordinary of the Mass, coupled with an almost frenetic ongoing obsession with innovation. Take this year's National Pilgrimage Mass at Walsingham. A Mass setting unfamiliar to many - difficult to sing despite the rehearsal - and a gospel Alleluia and sequence which consisted of the tune of Eastern Monarchs, Sages Three set against the tune of We Three Kings.

The intention I am sure was laudable, but what should have been a thunderous shout of praise heralding the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ turned out as a combination of faltering singing, embarrassed silence, and in at least one quarter a fit of the giggles. I do not care much for the Celtic Alleluia, but at least it is well-known, catchy, and singable; as is Dom Gregory Murray's New People's Mass, which was sung ad hoc, lustily and to great effect at the second Mass at last year's Walsingham washout.

The horns of the dilemma are, of course, those of welcome familiarity and eager openness to new ideas. While we should be willing to embrace new music in worship, are we really prepared to turn our backs on the treasures of the past? My argument has long been that we do not in fact need to; that both situations can co-exist perfectly satisfactorily.

A cathedral Precentor once remarked to me that it used to be easy to plan the liturgy for diocesan Eucharists because one could be sure that if one chose either John Merbecke's Communion Service or Martin Shaw's Anglican Folk Mass, then the congregation would know the music inside out. If one was feeling spiky perhaps the Creed might be sung (in English, of course) to Credo III, in which case the AngloCatholics would belt it out and everyone else would do their best to keep up. (How many cathedrals now sing the Creed at all, at either the Eucharist or the offices?)

Modern language

The problem is that while many clergy would like to be able to retain well-known settings for the Eucharist, they are all too often so committed to the cause of modern-language liturgy that to retain the traditional-language Ordinary for the sake of a familiar tune is an insurmountable obstacle. Those lucky enough to have a competent choir to sing the Ordinary for them often solve the problem by having the choir sing Latin polyphony while the congregation follows the modern-language translation, although this is a luxury restricted to the few. Surely the answer to this problem is an edition of the Ordinary with the modern-language words set to the well-known tunes like Merbecke, Shaw, and the Missa de Angelis. Many churches have already devised their own versions of these settings -now is the time for a standardised edition from which congregations can sing confidently, in their own churches and at larger Anglo-Catholic gatherings. Watch this space - and order your copies now.

A little postscript: at the end of June a priest offered his First Mass in a little town in Norfolk. There was no choir, just three cantors leading the congregation in the Missa de Angelis (but in Latin, of course!). There was no orchestra, just a modest organ, sensitively played. Sitting next to an old friend from undergraduate days, we sang the well-chosen hymns lustily, and joined in enthusiastically with the Ordinary, printed along with the music in the order of service, as well as with the Salve Regina at the end. None of the music was new; nor was it the musical smorgasbord that many of us have become used to at such events. But it was sung with confidence, dignity and sincerity; in its simplicity and its understatement the sacrifice which God's angel took to his altar in heaven must have surely been as close to perfection as the liturgy can ever hope to reach this side of eternity.

Serenhedd James is Director of Music at Woodcote House School in Surrey, and was until recently Organist of Pusey House.

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