Who picks the music in church and how is it picked? This has been my privilege and burden since planting a church five years ago. I began with the understanding that this was a privilege, but quickly learned that it’s also a burden. As our little church slowly grew into its rich, ancient heritage, I began to feel keenly the burden of choosing music to accompany our blossoming Liturgy. This burden was greatly lessened when I discovered the ancient Proper Chants of the Western Church which accompany certain moments and actions in the Liturgy (Procession, Offertory, Communion). These chants, prescribed for every Liturgy and linked with the lectionary readings, have been basically settled since the end of the first millennium A.D. and adhered to pretty universally throughout the West. The comprehensiveness of scope, the connectedness to liturgical actions and to the Church Year, and the ubiquity of use (until very recent times) make the chants not just something to sing during the Liturgy, but an integral part of the Liturgy itself.
But there’s also room in the Liturgy for psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs which can be sung by the people and that don’t necessarily accompany liturgical actions. These won’t be prescribed like the Propers, and choosing them, I realized, would still require my discretion. Since everything else in the Liturgy has such a weight and authority to it, from the Collects to the Propers to the Scriptures themselves, when I go in search of additional music I tend to look for songs that qualify for the “Vincentian canon” of everywhere, always, and by all — in other words, songs that are everywhere used, ancient and time-tested, and universally accepted. I look for ancient songs because they have a durability that tends to prove their quality, and they also help to connect and unite us to our ancestors in the faith who would have sung the same songs. But I realize that not all songs are profitable simply by virtue of their ancientness, which is why to qualify for St. Vincent’s rule they must also come to be affirmed and taken up by the faithful across geographical, cultural, and linguistic borders. Songs like this I find in the very earliest roots of Christianity like O Gladsome Light and the Trisagion; or from the pens of great bishop-Saints like Ambrose (Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth) and Germanus (A Great and Mighty Wonder); or from monastic poetry like Be Thou My Vision and O Come O Come Emmanuel; or even from great prayers in the Church like St. Patrick’s Breastplate and O Heavenly King.
Universality, antiquity, and consent are a good triple-guide for finding appropriate music to fortify and adorn those moments in the Liturgy which allow for such adornment. So to look to more recent compositions that haven’t met approval across space and time is to risk raising my own judgment to the level of the Church’s judgment. The Church, by consensus and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, reveals over time what is and is not appropriate and in accordance with the Faith (it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…). Do I have the temerity to decide on the holiness of character, the pedagogic merit, the orthodoxy of a song or hymn that is no older than a decade or two, or even a century or two? No, not in a definitive sense. But it just might be within my scope to at least approach that determination insofar as it regards my own parish. For this is how every other Christian hymn eventually met the approval of the wider Church — first through entering by a particular parish or monastery. I must realize though, that by introducing a song into the life of my parish, I will bear responsibility for whatever spiritual effects the song’s potential demerits may have on the parishioners. I wish more people in this role would consider the responsibility they bear. It’s bad enough to cause people to stumble in the world, but to cause stumbling in the assembled People’s heavenly worship is to literally risk knocking people down from heaven!
How then would one approach the task of rightly judging a song? Acquire the mind of the Church. Bring yourself into conformity with that mind which is bigger, older, broader, solider, more nuanced, better balanced, more at home in paradox, and possessing an infinitely greater perspective than your own. This can only be done by immersing yourself further and further into the Tradition of the Church, learning her songs, rites, and prayers by singing them, participating in them, and praying them. If the only mind we’ve acquired is the mind of our times then we will fail to understand and be at home in the Church’s lived Tradition, and we will miss the trajectory the Church has already set for herself into the future. That trajectory, that line by which everything is measured, is what was in ancient times known as the rule or canon of truth. And so when the Church judges something to be in perfect alignment with the perfect Way, she canonizes it, be it a Saint (by virtue of his or her conformity to Christ) or a “scriptura” (by virtue of its elucidation of the perfect Way and its Spirit-inspired, apostolic authorship). This should be the goal of every song, poem, and prayer: to offer its unique contribution along the Way and not apart from it or in addition to it.
It would help to have a practical example to demonstrate what I’m talking about. In the next installment, I want to look at a song that meets virtually none of the Vincentian criteria and yet which I believe conforms to the Way in a freshly creative and helpful way.