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On Church Music: Sometimes I Miss the Anglican Hymns

Before I became a Catholic, I was a member of the Church of England, in a parish in which we sang Christian hymns with organ accompaniment. There was a choir which sang an anthem at the time of communion. The music was good, and the words of the hymns seemed to be representative of Christianity.

I studied music at the University of Durham (that is, Durham, England, not Durham, North Carolina), and it was at Durham that I was received into the Catholic Church, though I had started attending Mass before I went to university. In Durham, there is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, Durham Cathedral (as well as one of the ugliest buildings in the world, the student union building — but I digress), and the music in Durham Cathedral is magnificent.

My parents had in their house a copy of an old edition of “Hymns Ancient and Modern” — not the edition currently used, but an older one, which was standard in the Church of England for decades. There must be over a thousand hymns in that book, but all those I have played and sung through are musical, and, what is really quite astonishing, I am not aware of one line in any one of those hymns that contains anything contrary to Catholic doctrine. There were hymns by J.B. Dykes (who was, curiously, an Anglican minister in Durham, at St. Oswald’s), Sir Arthur Sullivan, W.H. Monk (who edited the first edition), and Parry; harmonizations of plainchants; and, for some no doubt profound theological reason, the national anthem, “God Save the Queen” — including the glorious and forgotten second verse:

O Lord our God, arise,
Scatter her enemies,
And make them fall!
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix;
God save us all!

Again, although I did not attend a Christian primary school, we had hymns in school assemblies, though admittedly, they were often not very good, such as “Colors of Day,” but at any rate we sang hymns, and the headmaster complied with the now almost universally ignored law of England and Wales (I am not aware that it has been repealed) that there should be, in schools, a daily act of public worship of a broadly Christian nature. Perhaps, twenty years ago, a case could have been made that England was in some way a Christian country. I do not know how many could make that case now, when, as my priest remarked at Mass this morning, many people have never heard the words of the Our Father, and it has to be printed out in full for funerals.

In my childhood and adolescence, then, I was exposed to religious music, some of which was at least quite good. Not all of it was good — I am sure we had to sing that pagan song “Lord of the Dance” at primary school — but some of it was.

* * *

One day in the summer of 2007, I went to Mass for the first time. I shall not identify the place. The music was so awful — I mean almost physically painful — that I consider it literally miraculous that I ever came back. There were tambourines shaken and out-of-time, out-of-tune guitar-playing, and it sounded simply ridiculous. I remember distinctly the last hymn, “Follow Mee, Follow Mee, leave your home and familee…” It was…I do not really know what word to use…I shall stick with “awful,” though I could use words that, I feel sure, would not be printed by a traditional Catholic publication.

Now, I do not want this article to be a rant, or to suggest that Catholic music is universally bad. Quite clearly, it is not. The quality of Catholic music depends on all sorts of things. There are many places where there is a good choir (I am privileged to sing in one), and it is possible to select good hymns even from a book that contains some bad ones. I am thinking of the hymn book one sees all over England — Celebration Hymnal for Everyone. Many of the hymns are fine, but some of them are as nauseating as the title of the book itself. Some of them contain a Protestant theology that cannot be interpreted in a Catholic sense (such as “Amazing Grace”); some of them implicitly or explicitly deny transubstantiation (there is one hymn that contains the words “He comes to me in sharing bread and wine”); one of them was composed as a hymn to the Hindu demon Shiva (“The Lord of the Dance”); some of them are blasphemous (“Let Us Sing a New Church into Being”). Admittedly, I have never heard “Let Us Sing a New Church into Being” actually used, but it is, rather disturbingly, in the hymn book. One of the hymns contains the words “wheat and grape contain the meaning,” which I do not understand, because the bread and wine are eliminated by the words of consecration. Then there is “Gather Us In,” which is musically bad and theologically erroneous. (“Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven, light years away…” What on Earth is that supposed to mean?) I know someone who apparently shouted, in a loud voice, “This is heresy!” when “Gather Us In” was sung at the entrance to Mass.

Frequently, the issue with hymns is the words, not just the music, but often bad music goes with bad theology. The interminably sustained notes at the end of Marty Haugen’s phrases merely prolong his denial that God is physically present in a place, or even, we are astonished to learn, in Heaven. This person writes lyrics that inform us that God is not in Heaven, and we sing his songs to worship the God who is in Heaven? How astonishing! It is one way of spreading heresy, I suppose, writing heretical hymns. It worked well for Arius.

Sometimes, however, it is only the music that is bad, while the words are from Scripture, like that piece of musical pabulum “Follow Me,” which I have endured many times since I first heard it at the first Mass I attended. Toolan’s setting of “I Am the Bread of Life” is perhaps the worst attempt at word-setting that I have ever come across anywhere. The words do not fit the melody; the scansion of all the verses is different. “On Eagle’s Wings” is perhaps not as bad as some people think it is, but the augmentation at the end of the last verse, where every note is twice as long as in every preceding verse, is simply ghastly.

I will remark in passing that all the hymns I mentioned in the last paragraph put the congregation in the person of God. I am not saying there is anything wrong with quoting the words that God Himself uttered, but when every hymn used either treats the congregation as God or presents Jesus as the congregation’s boyfriend, I suggest that something has gone wrong somewhere.

The other thing that I will remark on about the hymns I mentioned is that they are all very much of a certain age. That age was somewhere between 1965 and 1985. Do people think music that belongs, if it belongs anywhere, in the 1970s is modern? This is the trouble with trying to be up to date. The people who, if they ever stumbled across a Mass celebrated ad orientem, would make comments including words like “going back sixty years” are themselves going back fifty years by their insistence upon using music (and other things) that belongs in the 1970s. There has grown up a new tradition. Tradition itself is not a problem — just the traditions we had before.

I have seen a very good hymn book in the Brompton Oratory in South Kensington. It is called simply The Catholic Hymn Book. I think they may have compiled it themselves, in order to create a book of Catholic hymns that are actually Catholic. It would be good if such things were multiplied, rather than what we have at the moment in England, at any rate. I suppose that that combustible volume (Celebration Hymnal, I mean, not The Catholic Hymn Book) must have an American equivalent, but I am ignorant of it.

Western art music — of which much Christian sacred music forms a significant part — is not the only kind of music in the world. But to replace Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Palestrina, Allegri, and more modern composers of real sacred music like Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and Gorecki, and the tradition of sound and orthodox hymns, whether by Catholics or non-Catholics, that has grown up over centuries — to replace all that with music unworthy of anything but perpetual oblivion, let alone the public ritual worship of Almighty God, is an iconoclastic act of sacrilege. It is to do in the musical realm what was done by the Iconoclasts of the East in the eighth and ninth centuries, and by various denominations of Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in the realm of images and statuary. It is just as violent a destruction, but perhaps less obvious.

It seems to me that the music we sing at Mass ought to be beautiful and reverent. It should be our desire to offer to God the best we have. Where beauty in music or anything else (architecture springs to mind) has been taken away from the Church of God, we need to put it back again, by both restoring the treasures we have lost and by, may it please God, increasing the treasury. Considering that the Church itself stated in Sacrosanctum Concilium that “[t]he musical tradition of the Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art” (paragraph 112), it is astonishing that it should have been neglected and treated with what I can only call contempt for such a long time.

Image: “Go Make a Difference,” GloriaAndTom via YouTube.

1 thought on “On Church Music: Sometimes I Miss the Anglican Hymns”

  1. This echoes my experience in every way. I’m 54. I converted 2 years ago with my family Brought up Quaker, I actually absorbed basically all those wonderful Anglican hymns. After 30 years of leftist atheism, I came to the Church – and I also almost never returned because I couldn’t get past the awful music. What I like: the call and response, scriptural music during the liturgy; monastic plain chant done well; and sometimes some of the hymns when there is a good choir. But most of the time, it’s just awful …and on Spotify on the way home, start listening somewhat guiltily to the Anglican playlist (Parry is my favourite). I would like to see more Latin mass, more really traditional singing done well (definitely no guitars) and a selective pillaging of the Anglican hymnal /BBC Songs of Praise….and a brutal weeding of all the awful 1970s stuff….especially where the words don’t scan and the awkward rhythms destroy any sense of harmony and balance

    But on another note, hymns/liturgical music are not the only role for music. I’m English but immersion in the traditional fiddle music and ceilidhs of middle Ontario …large Catholic families….music which patterns and is patterned by a network of large loving families, dedication to family, faith but also place-based communities……This proved to be my Iona. If I go back to Northumberland (as I think we probably will), this is the spark I will take back…. Catholics who are really interested in re-invigorating Christendom, in the formation of individuals and families (or what the left calls ‘the long March through the institutions’) should really attend to both music in the mass, and music/dance/feast days and celebration in the community. If we want teens to stay and actually orient themselves to the Faith, Mass should be sacred, demarcated, continuous with ancient tradition and absolutely strange/awe-inspiring (no tambourines) …but Saturday night, should swing….creating a space for every age-group and generation, and re-engaging/muting perhaps youth culture in favour of just a healthy, Christ-centred ‘culture’


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