Sermon preached by The Rt. Rev. Howard Gregory, Bishop of Jamaica & The Cayman Islands at the Choir Workshop Closing Eucharist held at St. Luke’s Church, Cross Roads, on July 19, 2015

DSC_7221 tweaked

Let us pray.

Almighty God, send your transforming power into our lives as we seek to serve you this day.  Grant unto us wisdom, courage, grace, and strength to faithfully fulfill the ministries to which you have called us.  We pray in the name of Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Psalm 150

Expressions of Appreciation to Donald Morris, and his assistant, Audley Davidson, for leading this special workshop for choirs; the Rector and Members of St. Luke’s Church, for the gracious hospitality in hosting the sessions and this final Eucharist; the Choristers who have given of their time to be a part of this event; and the Rectors and congregations which have offered support to their choristers in the staging of this event.  Special thanks to my administrative assistant, Miss Rhena Williams, who was most persistent in contacting the Rectors and their choir representatives in preparation for this workshop.

One of the books with which I have been recently engaged is that written by a member of the Millennial Generation, Rachel Held Evans, entitled “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church.”  It may be that I have already lost some of you as you are wondering what on earth is the millennial generation?  Many of you know about the age cohort known as the baby boomers, and the following cohort known as generation X.  But there is yet a third cohort whose birth years range from roughly 1982 to 2003, and whose outlook on life and values have been influenced by the era in which they were born.

Millennials have grown up in a technologically dominated world of an online and socially-networked world. They tend to be tolerant of difference and confident in their approach to life, a confidence which has been argued spill over into the realms of entitlement and narcissism.

Our millennial writer to which I have referred speaks specifically to the values of this generation and how it applies to the church:

…we’re tired of the culture of wars, tired of Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power.  Millennials want to be known by what we’re for…not just what we’re against.  We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith.  Instead we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it is uncomfortable.

We want to talk about the tough stuff-biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice-but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers.  We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind, without wearing a mask.

That sounds to me like serious stuff.  But what I find interesting is the further comment which relates to music in the life of the church. Let me quote her words for you:

…we can’t be won back with hipper worship bands, fancy coffee shops, or pastors with skinny jeans.  We millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell b.s. from a mile away.  The church is the last place we want to be sold another product, the last place we want to be entertained.

It is appropriate that when we meet on an occasion like this, when music in worship has been the focus of a workshop for choirs which has transpired during the past week, that we try to get some proper perspective on the place of music within the life of the church, so that we do not turn it into gimmickry and entertainment which can alienate the very generation and persons we are seeking to engage and involve.  In doing so I want to take the route, of going the way of the biblical tradition, our Anglican Tradition of music, and then deal with some practical and pragmatic concerns.

Psalm 150 cannot really be appreciated without looking at the Psalms which immediately precede it, as the whole book of Psalms comes to a climax in this Psalm. Psalm 146 is a hymn praising God for his help; Psalm 147 is a hymn praising God for his universal power and providential care; Psalm 148 is a hymn calling upon all created things to praise God; Psalm 149 is a hymn that is intended to accompany a festal dance which is celebrating God and his goodness; and then comes Psalm 150 which is a doxology marking the end of the Psalter. It speaks of all the instruments which should be harnessed to form the great orchestra to accompany the singing of these psalms of celebration, a glorious and climactic act of praise and worship of God.

Here we need to note that there is no mention of the instruments serving entertainment value or replacing the voices of the people. The instruments are to accompany the voices, not replace them. This is to be noted, as there are some congregations in which the members think that the organ, and at worse the choir, are there to do the work while the members look on or merely mumble a few sounds which not even the person standing beside them can hear. It should not be surprising that at times, some of the most meaningful worship experiences in which I have participated have been in congregations where they have no instruments to accompany the worship or anyone to play it.

Some time ago I was in a place called Kentucky in Westmoreland, way up in the hills. There they have no instrument accompanying the singing, but just about any hymn announced the people knew and sang lustily.

I had to congratulate them on the way they made the worship come alive. What a contrast to some of our congregations which have choir and organ.

The other thing to note is the end to which the blending of instruments and voices is directed, namely the worship of God. In this feel good, self-serving age, we need to be reminded that we human beings are not the subject to which the music of praise and worship is addressed.

There are Christians who claim that instrumental music has no place in the church, as it is not of God, for example, the Church of Christ, and so all their congregational singing is unaccompanied, and voluntaries prior to or after the service are anathema. It is therefore incumbent upon me to dispel any such false notions which we may have about instrumental music as something which is pagan and outside of the sphere of divine activity and worship, a perspective which has been articulated by some Anglicans when drums, steel pans and other instruments are introduced into public worship.

In addressing this matter I want to draw your attention to a publication which was produced as the outcome of a Commission on Church Music which was established by a former Archbishop of Canterbury and Spiritual Leader of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop George Carey, and which was submitted in 1992. The publication is entitled, In Tune with Heaven: The Report of The Archbishop’s Commission on Church Music.

It is a publication with which every Anglican should be familiar and one which I quote on occasions of this nature when we are called upon to reflect on the place of music in the worship life of the people of God.

The Commission rejected any notion of the division of life into the sacred and the secular, with music being placed in the category of the secular. It is unequivocal in its assertion that music is of God and must occupy a place of significance in the relationship between human beings and God.

“Music is an integral part of God’s great act of creation. Like all manifestations of truth, beauty, goodness and love in their many forms, it has its origin in God. It expresses something of the mystery, the order and the glory of creation and its Creator”.

Here we come face to face with one of the features of Anglican theological reflection and distinctiveness. Much of Christian preaching which we will hear around us, focuses on a theology of the Fall and of the Cross. In this way the focus tends to be on the sinfulness/fallenness of man and redemption from sin. What you often will not hear is that God created the earth and declared it good. Furthermore, it is into this created order that God chooses to become incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. Music, as part of the good creation, is by no means to be designated “secular” and placed outside of the relationship of human beings with God.

If music then is a part of God’s good creation, then it holds within itself the prospect of divine revelation, since we believe that all of creation is a channel for God’s revelation of Himself, but constitutes one aspect of all creation and manifestation of God’s very being and nature. As the Commission Report states, “By music people are easily moved, inspired and uplifted”. Music therefore has the potential to raise the human being at the depth of his or her being into another realm of existence in which deeper encounter with the divine takes place.

There are many Christians who are stuck with a kind of biblical literalism which insists on the fact that God took seven days to create the world and at the end of it was so tired that he had to rest. Seen in this mode, creation becomes a kind of final and completed act which does not reflect the reality of God’s relationship to the created order and to the process of creation itself.  The point is that creation has never stopped. Creation continues as an ongoing act/process in which the divine has invited human beings to participate as co-creators and the sphere of music is one in which this is amply demonstrated.

Not only did God create music as an artistic expression, but humans are invited/enabled to continue to demonstrate their creativity through the music which they create. It is for this reason that we are able to be inspired by and enjoy the great choral and instrumental works of music of the ancient, modem and contemporary genres. As the Commission further expresses it, “To regard music as an unnecessary indulgence not only denigrates one of God’s gifts, but also suppresses human creativity”.

We must remind ourselves though that when the organist goes to the console, he/she goes there not to entertain us on a Sunday morning, or to draw attention to himself/herself, but to facilitate, and enable our worship, by creating the kind of ambiance which sets the tone for worship, and in accompanying the singing, invites the best of our offering of our voices and ourselves to God in worship.

In recent times we have come under the influence of persons who have introduced some strange practices into Christian worship. We now have a thing called “Praise and Worship” which has been introduced as a primer to worship. Let me say that, to designate a period of 15-20 minutes before the Holy Eucharist or Morning and Evening Prayer, with hand clapping and loud singing and call that “Praise and Worship”, is quite presumptuous. There is no greater act of praise and worship than the Holy Eucharist. Traditional Anglican approach to worship has seen the time before worship as a time for silence and for laying aside the things which have occupied one’s life and time up to this moment. This time is usually facilitated by the music which the organist provides.

The Commission points to the fact that there is an “unsurpassable power of music to set a mood”. What happens before a service, for example, is important, whether it be silence or the use of worship songs or the playing of an instrumental voluntary.

The importance of music for setting the appropriate mood, both for and within an act of worship, cannot be over-emphasised. Those who are responsible for its choice and performance wield an influence which is awesome indeed.

The reality is that by the time some persons get to worship they have had a fight with the children about getting ready for church, or there may be conflict with one’s spouse, concern about bills to be paid, or a whole lot of problems with the workplace which are disturbing one’s mind. Coming to the act of worship one just needs the time, space, and ambience to pull oneself together and perhaps even experience the one moment of sanity one gets for the week – that moment of solace, prayerfulness, and reflection. It is therefore not the time to sell the church supper tickets, distribute the rally cards, or walk up and down greeting every one with the anecdotes from the previous week.

The Archbishop’s Commission had some important words for us in this regard in looking at music in the context of worship:

Below the level of hymns, psalms, readings and prayers there needs to be an undercurrent or reservoir of prayerfulness. What is required is a prayerfulness in all who are present, which is wholly integrated with the action of the liturgy and which deepens it at every point. Music is one aid to recovering this undercurrent of prayerfulness.

More telling as an aid to prayerfulness, however, is silence, for prayer in worship is not what the minister does, or even what the people do when they join in the set-piece text. It is what continues when the speaking or the singing stops, and the silence starts.

This is part of what we Anglicans who are so quick to jump on every bandwagon need to hear. Noise, hand-clapping, and supposedly lively activities, do not define the parameters of prayerful Christian worship.

The Commission continues its Report by saying:

The loss of silence has been a serious impoverishment of the liturgy for a thousand years and we need to recover its use, together with music, as a means of deepening the prayerfulness of worshippers.

Although we are now witnessing a dearth of competent organists to assist in the worship life of the church, and some are seeing the organist and the organ as anachronistic, the reality is that the musician and the instruments which can assist us in the creation of this atmosphere of prayerfulness and silence, will always occupy a place of significance in the life of the congregation. Let me also add that along with the dearth of musicians one is also seeing a major contraction in the use of the hymns of the Church as persons are growing up today knowing only the two line choruses that lack depth of content. This is one of the horrors of the school system these days and those of us who are serious about the Christian education of our children need to pay attention to what is happening.

“Those who are responsible for its choice and performance [music in worship] wield an influence which is awesome indeed”. The Commission further highlights the influence of those who direct the music life of the worshipping congregation in these terms:

…… in the preparation for the Sunday liturgy there needs to be (especially on the part of those who lead it) a desire above all to worship God.

Music in the context of the life of the Christian congregation is an instrument of ministry and pastoral care for the people of God. It has the potential to convert the unbeliever, to encourage the faithful, and to express the praise and thanksgiving of the grateful soul. Regarding music as an arm of the ministry of evangelism, the Commission had this to say:

No less significant is God’s use of worship and music to confront those present with the Gospel, with all its promises and demands. For some, his way into their hearts is through its promises and demands.

F or some, his way into their hearts is through music and they are brought to faith, or have their commitment renewed or deepened, because of what they hear or sing.

Music has considerable potential for evangelism both in itself and through its devotees.

It is fashionable these days to hear persons declare that they did not get anything out of worship, as if when they come to worship someone owes them something and they are supposed to leave feeling that they have won the Lotto jackpot. For this reason some persons are now finding the entertainment paradigm very appealing. So for some Christians the Gospel Concert is the most appealing and uplifting event. For others, the closer that the worship experience can approximate to a gospel concert the better. Needless to say that, in this model the gospel is reduced to its entertainment value. This is precisely the point we heard the millennials rejecting earlier.

Our exploration of music in the context of congregational worship can serve as a useful corrective to this distortion. In the offering of our worship with its various components, including the instrumental and vocal music we are making our offering to God. But in a strange way, God is seen to change the tables on us, and takes what we are offering and turn it into a gift for us. If this is true, as we shall see further, consider what it means for a Christian to come to Church with a kind of grudging attitude, assuming that everyone else has some responsibility for letting him/her feel good and feel that they have worshipped, without any sense of his/her responsibility to offer up with the rest of the worshipping community the best that he/she has to offer. The Commission captures this perspective in the following lines:

In our worship God often takes what we are trying to give him, no matter how inadequately, transforms it and makes of it a gift to us. We think we are doing one thing, only to find that God has turned the tables on us and given us much more that we have been able to give him.

The Commission continues:

It is impossible to define the point at which our offering of music to God becomes his offering to us, since both usually happen at the same time. We use it to create an atmosphere helpful to worshippers and as a vehicle to express our feelings for God, with or without words or dance. He uses it simultaneously to reveal something of his nature to us, or in some other way to “speak” to his people, or to draw people to himself, or to bring the congregation together.

Psalm 150 is regarded as one of the greatest hymns of praise ever written, because it invites the whole creation to join in a great act of praise and thanksgiving to God, and does so in a way that makes mention of the use of the great instruments of the day, all of which are captured in the options of musical tones which the organ and other contemporary instruments offer. This afternoon as we come in this act of worship we give thanks for those who have given of their time and talent during this past week to focus once more on the way in which the human voices, joining with the instruments are means by which our spirits are lifted and our relationship with God nurtured through music well- rehearsed and performed.  And so, may we together join in both the spirit and the words of that great Christian hymn, 0 Praise ye the Lord, as a way of offering the joint praise of musician and congregation alike:

O praise ye the Lord, all things that give sound;

Each jubilant chord re-echo around;

Loud organs, his glory forth tell in deep tone, And sweet harp, the story of what he hath done.