Tuesday, May 24, 2005

No Adults Need Apply

Courtesy of titusonenine we have this report from the Telegraph about a church in England which is tearing apart because of the rector's replacement of the standard BCP service with what is being called "happy-clappy" liturgy. Anglicans and Catholics everywhere are familiar with this sort of story-- heck, Catholics in the USA have had to suffer through this for decades.

What's most interesting about this story, to me, is the emphasis placed on how the normal service is passing away, to be replaced forever by this new way of doing things. For instance, in the first sentence the vicar is attempting to "modernize" his services. Pews are contrasted with "flexible seating" (i.e., stacking or folding chairs). Then there's the statement from the diocesan spokesman: "Sometimes a church may believe it right to move in a particular direction, which may involve taking risks and perhaps unsettling or upsetting some."

That statement is, of course, vacuous nonsense, justifying anything at all. It matters entirely why people are unsettled or upset; chances are, some of them may have good reason for their reactions!

A glance at the parish's excessively well-concealed website does not give an age for the rector, but unless he is the victim of early balding and grey hair, I'd guess he's at least in his middle forties. (His curate looks older still.) Maybe England is behind us in the USA, but unless one wants to use "modern" in condescending contrast to "post-modern", there's nothing really very modern about this style of service. It's squarely in the evangelical (in the American sense) tradition.

"Condescending" is important here because the whole premise is that younger people want this sort of service style. It's an overgeneralization, of course, but there's that other problem: young people grow up. The happy-happy, "always Easter and never Lent" style is (a) a bit dated already (it can be traced straight back to evangelical/RC circles of thirty years ago) and (b) rather patronizing, as though young people aren't ready for any of the serious part of religion. What young people really want is to be treated as the adults that they think they are. Meanwhile, the people who are old enough to be their parents, which is to say, those running the parish, are tempted into indulging themselves in the fantasy that they are young again (no), with it (definitely not), and oh so sensitive to their childrens' needs (not too likely).

And while I'm at it, there's another juvenile problem here: this service style definitely doesn't "play well with others". I don't know what English hymnals look like these days, but the 1982 ECUSA hymnal has a huge range of material from practically every musical tradition on earth. Spirituals, plainsong, psalter tunes, sacred harp, Lutheran chorales, Russian hymns and English folksongs sit side by side in the pages and on the service sheet. The organ or the piano steps up and accomodates them all. But for some reason, "contemporary" music won't fit in.

Unfortunately the very beautiful African choral music wasn't well known enough in the 1970s to make it into the hymnal. This is indisputably contemporary stuff. But to fit into the "contemporary" service, it has to be dumbed down. The problem? It's a capella, and it's sung in parts. This is apparently too grown up, so the tyrannous guitar has to take over the song leading, and everyone has to sing the melody, like school children.

It's time for contemporary music to grow up. Have the courage to sing what generations of men and women sang for centuries before.

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