Friday, August 03, 2012

Worship Groups and Wesley's Rules

John Wesley's rules for singing:
1. Learn these Tunes before you learn any others.

2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or 'mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

3. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.

4. Sing lustily, and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of it being heard, then when you sing the songs of Satan.

5. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

6. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

7. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
I have a lot of time for Wesley. Rule 7 is very typical of his deep passion for seeing God in all things and puts him very much in the company of Du Caussade, Brother Lawrence, St Francis of Assisi, and St Benedict himself. It is tantamount that before we do anything, we first do it for the love of God.

The final cause of a hymn is for the greater glory of God and not, repeat not, for enjoying oneself. If we sing hymns for sensual reasons only then we shall sow what we reap, mere superficiality. My recollection of singing in the last days of my involvement with the CofE was that people sang because they "liked the tune" or because it made them feel happy.
There is an affinity between today's CofE with the Church of the post-Restoration and before the Oxford Movement in that the singing of hymns is accompanied by a band. Often this band is called the "worship group", primarily because it saw itself as leading worship. Yet, what we can often see and hear of "worship groups" is the band doing all the work while the congregation bask in the atmosphere when really it is their duty to join in. According to Wesley's Rules, a true worship group should seek to be of a secondary nature, playing the notes that are written without standing out.

Before I am accused of being musically snobbish, the same is very true throughout the English Choral tradition. A congregation cannot ordinarily join in with the execution of a Mass by Byrd, Palestrina, Ockeghem or Striggio. Their raison d'etre, we are told, is to enhance the worship of the Congregation. But how? By using the typology of heavenly choirs? Given the nature of the Catholic Mass, every ceremonial action and ritual is indeed a sign to draw one closer to Heaven. The choir then must seek to fulfil that type, just as the priest should seek to fulfil the person of the alter Christus in his role.

A hymn or anthem must always begin with the words which have to be sound theological poetry. Too many modern hymns have succumbed to the skill of the prattler of pious platitudes and of the egotist in which the word "I" makes a more frequent appearance than addresses to the Divine. It must mean something and convey truth upon which people can build their lives as well as sing in Church. One can tell the spiritual health of a parish by the quality of the hymns that it sings. A parish that doesn't mind what it sings is not likely to be thinking carefully about how it is approaching worship.

Likewise, the execution of sacred music requires thought. A choir, or worship group, should not seek first for people's enjoyment but rather for their alignment with God. Music that will have them "bopping in the aisles" is distracting from the presence of God. While it is possible for hymns in church to be accompanied by a guitar, often the guitarist treats the situation like a jam session and again people enjoy the music for the music. Of course, music is a gift from God, and musical skill is a gift from God, but it is imperative that one tempers one's musical skill and restricts one's exuberance with careful thought on "how am I going to play in order to bring the reality of God and the truth of His words to the congregation here present?"

Finally, execution of sacred music must allow people to sing with it. Many hymns and songs tend to become solos for someone who tries to emulate the late Whitney Houston by warbling all kinds of melismata over a tune. Some modern songs seems to be written to accommodate these vocal meanderings. The Reformers imposed a "one note to one syllable" rule for Church Music. While this might be rather excessive, it is not a bad maxim. Melismata can be left to the singing of a good choir who can execute them with discipline and the desire to narrow the gap between Heaven and Earth.
Surely that is worth working for!

1 comment:

JamesIII said...

Wesley's rule #7 is exactly why I love well-chosen and well-executed free harmonizations. One becomes enveloped by the hymn text and tune. It also presents the familiar old song and idea in a new light. Isn't that what Our Lord did with the Old Testament Scriptures?