Christianity: Aesthetics: Spirituality: Life: Stuart and Moira Gray

Christianity and the Arts: the need for a more professional approach

Stuart Gray
Moira Gray
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What element of Christianity enjoys the greatest survival? Is it its theology, or its preaching, or its social consciousness? This article considers the possibility that Christianity has, and is surviving, not because of any of these worthy elements, but on elements which speak more to the spiritual aspirations of humanity, aspirations based on more visible and audible means of approaching the Divine, elements which raise us from our mundane physical existence onto a level of spiritual understanding and satisfaction.

I remember a comment made to me by a prominent Dean in the Church of England. I was arranging a concert in his cathedral by my singing group, the Clerkes of Westminster, and we were musing over the value of music in liturgy. As a prelude he related an anecdote about a final voluntary after Choral Evensong which would be appreciated by many a choirmaster. After the service he had complemented the organist on it to be asked, "didn't you recognise it?" "No" was his response. The organist then said his left hand had been playing in the proper key of the responses as sung by the choir while the right hand played in the key opted for by the Precentor! The main point the Dean wished to make was the value of music and that it was a good dean who recognised that cathedrals depended on their musicians for their survival. That is what attracted the congregations.

The veracity of this is witnessed by attendance figures generally. Many of the main growth figures in the Church of England have centred on specific liturgies, particularly within cathedrals. It is easy to understand rises in congregations at Christmas and Easter. There is a social and feel good factor in attending at these times, the prelude and cathartic justification for a subsequent more personal and secular enjoyment. But what about Advent, for example? This occurs at the beginning of December, at the height of the secular materialist promotion of their version of 'Christmas'. Why do so many take time out, especially at this time, to reflect on one's own mortality and sinfulness? Why have cathedrals such as Salisbury to put on 2 Advent Carol Services based on medieval liturgy, only to have to make them both by ticket, such is the demand?

In contrast, long gone are the occasions when the advent of a new liturgy enjoyed such an appeal. In simple terms new liturgies are 'wordy', full of inclusive language and intended to York Minster: side aisleinvolve all participants. Good committee stuff. They depend purely on themselves for their complete and logical expression. In this they appeal only to part of our brains, the logic dominated right hemisphere. Other considerations such as time or place play no part. Compare this with an Advent Carol Service in Salisbury Cathedral. What is on offer engages all the senses, the setting a wonderful medieval building, candlelight, music, ancient words, all unfolding in a most theatrical way with a stress on the 'otherness' of our existence rather than on our participation. Because it engages all the senses the result is more edifying, especially on the spiritual plain. And that, surely, is the prime object of liturgy, to lift us out of ourselves onto another plain of existence, the only plain on which any communication with the Divine can take place.

Yet what do we find in 'normal' church services? Nothing but the great social event of the Christian week where anything goes in terms of standards, performance and attire. Gangly youths stutter their way through interminably obtuse passages from the Bible, of which they show little understanding. Either the organ wails its fat diapason way stolidly through the hymns or 'the Music Group' play out of tune (flutes sharp, voices flat) the new modern hymns which in reality are as out of date as songs from 1960's shows but less catchy. The choir, if it has not been sacked by the vicar as elitist (after all only he is allowed to be elitist), mumbles its way through some banal Victorian anthem or attempt something more boisterous, often complete with actions, where their raucous rendition is matched only by the wailing of babies giving their none too silent approbation.

OK. So I exaggerate to make a point. In one sense there is nothing wrong with this type of service. It is inclusive - all can take part no matter what their ability, and it undeniably has that element of personal involvement, often vicariously, when we see others like us, our friends, relations, our children, taking a prime part in the worship. It makes for social cohesiveness, making us feel warm, accepted, in tune. Moreover it represents us as we are, warts and all, in our worship of God. In this it reflects the modern approach to liturgy reflected across all denominational divides. Vatican 2, for example, in 1963 encouraged the active participation of all people in the Mass through new vernacular translations while the new prayer books in the Church of England followed a similar path with the Prayer Book Measure, 1965. These developments gave rise to the explosion of folk and other modern musical expressions, often to the exclusion of more traditional fare. Beloved by many, surely this has to be acceptable.

I wonder. Is that the point of liturgy, the involvement of all no matter what the ability or content? A form of worship which remains comfortable, undemanding, yet always on an earthly level? Let me return to the word 'Liturgy' in its original context. The word is derived from the Greek meaning the 'work of the people'. Originally it had no religious overtones. The first religious appellation is found in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible originating in the 3rd century BC, the version often used by New Testament writers for quotation. Here it refers particularly to worship in the Temple at Jerusalem. Now Temple worship was very specific and could be undertaken only by an elite few. The ordinary person played no part. Why? This was serious stuff! We are talking of the point of contact between God and humanity in which only the best is acceptable, and performed only by those with years of dedication and training. Hence Temple worship was very clearly defined. If you care to wade through the book of Leviticus you will see what I mean. Everything had to be precise, ultra clean (even the birds or animals to be sacrificed). Why? God was the ultimate expression of perfection and to offer God anything less was regarded as unclean and unworthy.

Now whether we like it or not this was the religion into which Jesus was born and operated. He lived, died and was buried a member of the Jewish faith. He visitedYork Minster: screen Jerusalem for Temple worship and taught there. Never did he condemn Temple worship, only the vulgar side effects such as profiteering. Indeed he said (referring to the Temple), "my House is a House of Prayer, not a den of thieves". From this we can deduce that he had no problem with elitist worship, but only so long as it was focused on the true worship of God. In the Jewish religion this demanded perfection of expression, or as near that perfection as humanity could attain.

Let me bring the debate straight up to the 21st century to look at our alternative modern response to these new expressions of inclusive liturgy. Here I deduce two entirely different strands of approach, one emanating from within Christianity, one born of new scientific knowledge of our brains.

There is a feeling among some Christians that modern liturgies have gone off the rails, particularly in respect to music, and the words used. Prominent among such is no lesser person than Pope Benedict who has issued a promulgation requiring Roman Catholic congregations to take more notice of the great music of the Latin masses, music from Palestrina to Mozart, in enhancing the liturgy. Moreover there is a rise in the number of ancient Roman masses in Latin, the Tridentine Mass, all over Europe. These, as anyone will know (often to their cost!), require considerable skill for their execution. You cannot merely stand and hope to deliver! Performance of any serious religious music requires considerable thought for its proper execution. One not only has to know the mind of the composer and the artistic devices used to convey the meaning of the words (itself an art spent many years in perfecting), one has to 'feel' the words and the meaning as they are sung. It is impossible to convey the depth of the interaction of words and music otherwise. Effort, energy, practice, knowledge, ability, and above all that indefinable awareness of the other members of the choir and their part in the music all combine and interact in a great act of love of that music. All these aspects are essential in producing a work of art on the spiritual plain.

I mentioned the word 'performance'. Too often these attributes are used to denigrate the role of the choir, accompanied by the word 'elitist'. Let us remind ourselves of the beneficiary of this 'performance'. It is none other than God, for whom nothing is too good or too perfect. Religious music contained within the liturgy is not primarily for the benefit of humanity. It is not, for example, part of that inclusive element where all take part so that we can all go "Ah, wasn't that nice? Didn't they do their best?". This viewpoint keeps our feet firmly on the ground, our purely self-satisfied earthly view of the 'spiritual'. We are not concerned with the Divine, only with what we are doing here on earth. In this it is essentially a selfish and egotistical approach to worship, born of an inevitable ignorance of a wider perspective which this genre produces where human emotion is confused with eternal spirituality. (Here one must differentiate between hymns and other liturgical music. Hymns are, and have always been, the proper musical response of all humanity to God. But there it remains.) Our worship, or interaction with God, is diminished if we do not offer the best available, if we do not try to rise above our mundane existence and expression of that existence. Put it another way. We spend considerable time, money and energy on so many aspects of our human existence. We spend years, for example, in merely learning the art of walking! Think of educating ourselves to cope with the future and one is talking in decades. Yet how much time and energy do we devote to liturgical music?

What is wrong with elitism? The whole of life is based on elitism. Education and examination systems are based on them. True, the import is to open third level education to all, especially the Open University, but dedication, required standards and the ability to learn new skills are inherent in the system. And there is that dreaded examination system at the end which fails those who have not the aptitude or dedication. In business promotion is based on aptitude, experience, ability and effort. The only exception appears to be Anglicanism where elitism is applied subjectively. It remains elitist in the way it selects its intermediaries with God, its bishops, priests and deacons, but curiously abandons any thought of this when it comes to worship, the way our spiritual selves resonate with the Divine.

Think in terms of any skill, wYork Minster: interiorhether it is art, music, computers, building, gardening, the Olympics, relationships, even marriage, and you are thinking lifetime. We are content to give our utmost attention to these aspects of life because we know that without them we will not succeed. We are going nowhere. Further, our lives can be in danger. Employ a plumber or an electrician who has not spent the requisite years of training and qualifications and your house will be a mess of floods and short circuits. In fact if you want to learn about true elitism and dedication to what is right read no more than the Building Regulations, 2005. From this date if you want to make any serious alterations to your property you need to employ properly qualified and certified people to undertake them, otherwise you are breaking the law.

Think now of liturgy and our skills in its expression (or the lack of them!!), where our spiritual lives can be in danger. Why do we so denigrate the necessary ability at the most crucial point of our human existence, at that one point which separates us from eternity, a divide we strive to remove through that liturgy? Is our devotion to our spiritual existence so much less than our devotion to those aspects of our earthly existence where we demand total qualified competence? Are we so egocentric in that we deem anything is acceptable to God but not to us, i.e. that a qualified plumber has more value to us than a qualified choir? Think of our eternal existence. We spend but three score years and ten on this earth, yet we expect a life thereafter. We expect, as Christians, to live with God and the angels in heaven in eternity. That, after all was the promise. On earth we now demand fully qualified and experienced workmen to fulfil our lifestyles, to keep us safe. We have decided that nothing else is acceptable, even illegal.

Yet what are we offering to attain that state of existence with God in our modern liturgies, an infinitely more important step of our subsequent lives hereafter? What steps are we taking to develop the skills necessary to tune ourselves onto a more spiritual plain? Are we prepared even to consider the need for such steps? Have we any concept of what dangers lurk if we do not reach a spiritual plane in our worship, if we confuse the need for emotional stability and satisfaction with unity of spirit on that higher level?

Let me examine the problem from another perspective. What separates us from the rest of creation? Music is one aspect. Our feelings for adornment of space, for creativity and beautification of our surroundings is another. Great expressions of these appeal to an inner psyche, again lifting us from our humdrum existence. In liturgical music, for example, historically we did not merely build organs we beautified them. We strove for excellence of looks as much as excellence of sound. Our great cathedrals and churches have been built not purely as spaces in which to worship. They were built to appeal to the senses, to create feelings of awe, grandeur and wonder. They often took decades, even centuries to build, such was the devotional need to get it right. Often an expression of the domination of a particular culture - yes (here one thinks of many a Norman cathedral built in England to establish their sense of control of destiny), but within that construction there remained that overwhelming sense that building for the worship of God was of supreme importance. It often demanded new, untried techniques pushing the boundaries of architectural and construction practice to new dimensions. Small wonder it is that in our present age we continue to use and revere such structures while many a contemporary Norman castle, built on more 'mundane' traditional lines is now lying in ruins.

Why should this be? We look at the malaise of current Christianity in whichYork Minster: nave expressions of spirituality and effort to attain this have been subjugated to a religious form of political correctness, inclusive and of whatever ability. We live in age of the here and now where everything has not only to be inclusive but also immediate, undemanding, and "cost effective" (i.e. cheap). We have no time for anything else. We have become too egocentric to consider the future, even if that future is our eternal life. Christianity has lost the sense of perfection, or even the need to strive for it.

Think, for example, of youth and music. I am often told that the young do not like traditional church music - too boring and irrelevant to them. They need something modern - of their generation. It depends on who is training them! In Limerick I was asked by a new bishop to include the school choir at the service of his consecration and enthronement. They learnt music from Renaissance through Victorian to modern. It was very strenuous, needing much rehearsal since many could not even read music. Afterwards I asked them which they had enjoyed singing the most. Very dismissive they were of the modern songs. They were evenly split between the Renaissance and the Victorian. Asked why? Because it challenged them. They had to work at it, but the reward of accomplishment, of moving onto a higher plain of spiritual expression which that music provided, was something they would never forget.

Lessons? Yes. Christianity needs to challenge people more to dedicating themselves to a sense of excellence in aesthetics as well as life, to risking and thereby achieving new heights in their spiritual lives. And it should start with the clergy! (But that is another story!)

Pictures on this page are of the interior of York Minster
taken in January when all Nave chairs are absent