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This is part three in a series of posts on music in the Catholic Church. Part one covered my background and experience of Church music growing up and part two looked at the modern “happy clappy” style of church music.

Last time I was fairly critical of the upbeat poppy style of church music which sometimes seems like the only alternative to dirge-like traditional hymns, acknowledging that it’s a style of music which certainly appeals to some people but just doesn’t jibe well with my notion of what music should bring to the mass.

I wanted to add a corollary to that, however, which will then lead on some more positive posts on musical options in the modern church.

Everything in moderation

On the pilgrimage I took part in this summer there was a terrific music group, organised by one of the nuns who was with us (who, I might add, were a far cry from the black-and-white picture of a nun you might have in your head! Another eye-opening part of the trip for me…)

They led the music at the Westminster group services we had during the week. Some of these were masses in local churches, others were simple informal gatherings for prayer. The music was guitar led, with various simple rhythmic ‘shaker’ instruments among other members of the group. If you’ve read my previous post, you won’t be surprised to hear I was slightly apprehensive to see what the music would be like!

Fortunately, where the choir at the catechesis sessions I described last time were all-out, American-style pop music worship songs, our Westminster group’s choir managed to find a wonderful middle ground: blending traditional hymns with some modern worship songs. All guitar-based, but not over the top. Some clapping encouraged, but again, never quite being frivolous. In truth, at the start of the week I found even this mode of church music a bit much, but by the end of the week it had really grown on me and I found it uplifting.

Perhaps more importantly I found it helped me engage with the congregation around me as we all raised our voices in song, energised by the music – but without being transported too far from the reflective context of the services themselves.

It was a really useful experience to observe this more moderate take on modern worship music. I won’t claim to have loved every aspect of the music, there were still moments that rubbed me the wrong way, but I’m sure it was an excellent compromise to appeal to the 120 assorted young people in our group.

Language, Timothy

Later, as I reflected on the Sion Community’s music and the Westminster choir’s approach, I realised that a big part of what puts me off the ‘happy clappy’ style isn’t the energy, nor the instrumentation or the gleeful energy. It’s actually the modern-day words used. The simplistic everyday vocabulary which can make the music seem frivolous.

Compare the following lyrics. First, verse one from a page chosen at random from the “New English Hymnal”:

The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue eternal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day
Does his Creator’s power display
And publishes to every land
The works of an almighty hand.

(and that’s not even chock-full of thou, thine and thee!)

Compare with the chorus of the song which most irked me during catechesis sessions:

Cause we’re stirring up deep deep wells
We’re stirring up deep deep waters
We’re going to dance in the river, dance in the river
Cause we’re stirring up deep deep wells
We’re stirring up deep deep waters
We’re going to jump in the river
Jump in the river and everybody singing now

(Full lyrics to Deep Cries Out)

The traditional, slightly formal, old-fashioned language used by traditional settings and hymns are a double-edged sword. They keep the content of what you are singing at arm’s length, set apart from the everyday language we use talking to friends and family.

This can be seen as a positive thing, keeping our worship as something ‘better than’ everyday life, and showing respect to God by talking about him in a different way. But if God is truly to be present in our lives, and not just kept in a box set aside for Sunday mornings, then surely we should be connecting as intimately with him as we do with anybody? More so, even.

And so I’ve come to realise that a large part of what makes me uncomfortable and self-conscious about modern happy-clappy church music is that there is no hiding. The language used is simple. It’s modern, it’s forthright and it’s bold. It is unashamed and unapologetic.

All of which makes the reserved Englishman in me uncomfortable, but is, I now believe, something to be admired rather than avoided.

It’s actually similar to what I posted about bird watching a few months ago: behaviour and self-expression which I once saw as embarrassing and dorky I’ve now come to see as a grounded self-knowledge and confidence worthy of respect. So when I see somebody posting “I love Jesus!” on Facebook, my instinctive response may still be “well, great. I love lamp.” but I realise now this is more about the limits of my own faith rather than any problem with theirs.

About a month later, my parish hosted the first reunion mass for the trip, and it was truly a wonderful thing for me to have my own church filled with young, energetic, enthusiastic voices singing in worship together. Seeing how alive the church could be in song really helped reinforce my desire to try to build up the music in our church.

And that’s not to say I’ll be at the front strumming a guitar. And I’m pretty sure I won’t be “jump, jump, jump – jumping in the river”. But I feel like I can see a worthwhile, achievable and potentially wonderful middle ground between the stilted music of the past, and the sometimes over-the-top music of the 90s. And that’s a middle ground I’m excited to explore.

Church band photo: timothymorgan@Flickr.