So what is there, then, in ‘Roman’ liturgy that makes some Anglicans murmur quietly to each other ‘N.Q.O.C.D.’?
Well, there’s the music, of course. The CofE has a truly splendid patrimony of hymnody (just think of those unmatched translations of J.M.Neale), and has some excellent, and many good, choirs up and down the country. But not as many as it had, and there are also excellent choirs in the Catholic Church, though not so many, of course. My impression is that many, if not most, CofE parishes now struggle if they want to maintain a musical tradition, largely because there simply isn’t the body of layfolk to draw on. And it also strikes me that the number of parishes replacing Hymns Ancient and Modern with Hymns Weird and Wonderful is increasing. A lot of this is simply because our culture itself is becoming increasingly dumbed-down.
The question, of course, is should we pander to this, or should we set an example and wait for people to discover what riches lie in store for those who take the trouble to educate their tastes?
It is true that our music in the average English Catholic parish isn’t much to write home about, from the point of view of educated taste. But it does have genuinely popular appeal. Oh, not for everybody, of course, (not for me, in fact), but if one were to take my parish here as typical, then things that make me gag, such as:
The ‘Clapping Gloria’
Sing it on the mountains (oh-oh)
He sent me to give the good news to the poor,
I left my boat by the lakeside,
and many other gems really do (mirabile dictu) touch people’s hearts. In some mysterious way they articulate an interior disposition of faith, and tug, I dare say, at the same heart-strings that Donny Osmond tugged at when he sang ‘Puppy Love’. In our case, the motive is to direct this good impulse towards the love of God. If people’s experience in church is a positive one for them, they will feel better about coming again next Sunday, and in the context of all this pap they will hear the authentic word of God and hopefully have it applied in an orthodox manner in the homily; they will be present at the August Sacrifice and receive its fruits.
So why should one put up with low standards? Because I suspect that more of my parishioners listen to Heart FM (or perhaps Radio 2) than to Radio 3. Palestrina would no doubt sound nice to them for a little bit, but they couldn’t keep it up for a whole Mass, and it wouldn’t touch them, and certainly not in the way it would touch me. There wouldn’t be much to bring them back next Sunday, (though if I were a parishioner and there were Palestrina each Sunday, I would be hammering at the doors).
Let’s consider two examples of the successful use of demotic music, one Anglican, one Catholic.
In the nineteenth century, Fr Faber founded, under Newman, the London Oratory. As any fule kno, the Oratory loves splendid liturgy, and only the most splenetic and unforgiving Anglican would find it wanting in the taste department. But Faber understood what St Philip Neri understood; that actually you have to meet people at least half way. Faber filled the Oratory not at High Mass, but at the Evening Services for which his famous (and some infamous) hymns were written. These hymns, which waver between the sublime and the sentimental (sometimes managing to be both at the same time), were set, it is said, to music that Faber heard emerging from the various pubs up and down the Brompton Road. It was an innovation for which Booth and the Salvation Army usually get the credit, but Faber did it decades before. And it worked! The music was awful, but crowds of the poor poured in to worship God. Those who preferred nicer music went to other services, though many (like the then Duke of Norfolk) went to both.
My Anglican example is a local one. The most Anglo-Catholic church in town is on Shoreham Beach, and it belongs (I think) to the Affirming Catholicism movement. At least, its vicar is a vicaress, and an admirable woman who recently entered a den of lions to defend Christianity, but that’s another story. I attended her plumbing-in (a curious affair presided over by the Bishop of Chichester, the only male on the sanctuary, who personally instituted her even though he doesn’t even believe her to be a priest), in a packed church—admittedly plumbings-in are always big events. More importantly, I gather that the church is very successful indeed, Sunday to Sunday. Rare indeed (sadly) for a church of the Anglo-Catholic tradition these days. The music, however, would probably curl your toes: the setting of the ordinary was, er, unique. Imagine Rodgers and Hammerstein, with a touch of Lloyd Webber, and maybe a bit of Sound of Music. I caught the eye of another Anglican colleague, himself a fine organist, to see his eyebrows disappearing into his scalp; we both got the giggles. But the people raised the roof; somehow with them it struck just the right note; that parish has the pitch of the house, it knows its audience and gets it right. For Shoreham, that is; I doubt it would work in Kensington.
So, whether it’s Kendrick or Byrd, Estelle White or Mozart; the important thing is that it is received. It is not my job to educate people in taste; I am supposed to educate them in sound doctrine, and I will be able to do so more efficiently in a context where they feel comfortable.
So, how low am I prepared to sink?
Let us be clear that in my tolerance of awful music one must firmly exclude texts that are heterodox (and they certainly exist), however saccharine the tune—I have a few more of these in my sights at the moment—because even Arius understood the catechetical importance of music.
Second, one must do one’s best to make sure that the performance is as good (in its own way) as one can manage. A dispiriting performance of dreadful music will lift nobody’s spirit.
The music also has to centre upon the Mystery, which is to say, be uplifting when it needs to be uplifting, and be reverential when it needs to be reverential, remembering that the August Sacrifice lies at the heart of what it is all about.
A cleverer question is: Should we do this at Mass at all?
There, the jury is out in my opinion. Hymns were not permitted at Mass in the UK until the mid-1960s, and there is a very persuasive case to be made for their banning once more, since they have a tendency to debase the liturgy for a number of reasons, which I won’t go into here—the New Liturgical Movement site deals eloquently with this debate. But let us not delude ourselves that the mere banning of hymnody at Mass will result in a taste explosion, if I can put it like that.
For a start, you will not change people’s expectations and tastes for at least a generation, and those who will not or cannot take the trouble to educate themselves to appreciate the chant will vote with their feet.
Before permission was given for hymns to replace the proper texts, one must not imagine that the Liber Usualis was duly sung in every parish; in most places, the Introit, Gradual &c texts were instead ‘peeped’, which is to say, sung to a psalm tone, or (in the case of classy choirs) to Carlo Rossini’s or J Edmonds Tozer’s harmonized versions. These were the Catholic equivalent to Salomon Sulzer’s music for the Synagogue, and in their day probably (mutatis mutandis) not a million miles in spirit from Paul Inwood. The Kyrie, Gloria &c were sung almost invariably to Mass 8; parishes with a choir might sing their way through one of the settings in the Cecilian tradition; there were a host of settings of greater or lesser awfulness—I well remember that we were using these well into the 1970s when I was an organist at Epsom.
There were rare town-centre churches that would make a decent fist of the chant, and when a tradition could be built up, the results could be superb. I was privileged to be the assistant priest at one such church in the early 1990s, where the plainchant tradition had continued, at least as regards the Ordinary, and Masses 1, 8, 9, 11, & 16 were lustily sung at their appropriate seasons by the choir and congregation, a glorious tradition shamefully suppressed by another man in the late 1990s. Hymns (good ones), however, replaced the propers.
The next problem is that plainchant, though relatively easy to sing, is not very easy to sing well. When chant is sung well, there is nothing better. When chant is sung badly, there is nothing worse.
It’s usually sung badly.
A nasal drone wheezing its way through an interminable gradual…… Give me joy in my heart, keep me praising, any time!
Is the Mass the place for spiritual uplift? Of course! Can one be spiritually uplifted by bad music? Obviously some people can: the majority of my parishioners believe that they can. I must just put up with it for the sake of the greater good.
Which is all to say………
I wish it were possible for me to have both a Mass with rubbish music and another Mass with decent stuff; I’m sure that if I could offer a genuine choice, people would eventually begin to get the point. But I have three churches, each of which has a Mass and a large majority who do not like what I like. The best I can have is what I call the “music-lovers’ Mass”, which is the Sunday evening Mass, with no music at all.
My people are wonderful people, and as far as I am concerned, the important thing is that they are here at Mass. Our church is full each Sunday, thanks be to God, and if the cost of that is dreadful music, then bring on the tambourines!
My job is not to make people appreciate good taste, but to persuade them to holiness.
That being said, Anglo-Catholics are quite right to point to, and deplore, the presence of deliberate dumbing down among Roman Catholics. This occurs where the people listen to Radios 3 & 4, and the priest listens to Radio 2 or Heart FM, if I can put it like that. It is where the priest imposes his taste on an unwilling people in the wrong direction.
The absolute I will stand by is that a priest would be extremely foolish to impose a private taste upon a congregation that thinks otherwise, especially when things are actually done quite well in their particular style, but that he would be worse than a fool to take a good tradition and destroy it because of some prejudice against what he might call elitism. It was this shocking philiistinism that gave us the cultural revolution in China and the cultural devastation at the Reformation.
If the ‘Patrimony’ will bring us a better musical style, readily available in more localities than at present, then this can only do good. But we must be clear that it will be addressing a particular clientéle: it is unlikely to attract many of those who are now Roman Catholics, because its tradition tends to be its own, neither demotic nor Gregorian (exceptional places aside). But I expect that it will exert another of Pope Benedict’s gravitational pulls as long as it can demonstrate itself to be reasonably successful.
Next, I shall do my best to address sanctuary ritual.