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The language of God — now more than ever

17 April 2014

Sacred music provides a way in to religious experience, even for those who do not recognise the divine, argues Jonathan Arnold

Noel Ford

OUR musical heritage in the West has never been richer, more popular, or more exciting. The popularity of sacred music alone, from plainchant to 21st-century compositions, has never been greater. Perhaps it is time to broaden our ideas of what sacred music might be, and consider what power it might have for us and our faith.

More and more people are looking outside institutional religion for answers to their spiritual yearnings - to music of all kinds, among other things. So the Christian Churches are presented with both an opportunity and a challenge: to engage with those who find spiritual solace in sound. Music is a crucial way of encountering the transcendent and numinous, and of reaching out to those on the fringes of faith.

One of our greatest living composers, James MacMillan, has written: "If modernism has . . . brought in its wake a desecration of the human spirit, we must penetrate the mists of contemporary banality to restore the idea of the sacred, in which our true and fullest freedom resides. Without it, our lives become meaningless."

MacMillan's work exemplifies this search to restore the sacred in our culture through music. Sacred music might be defined by the intentions or beliefs of composer, performer, or listener; by the setting of a religious text; by the context of religious worship; or by its sacramental use. But, if we are a little more daring, we might identify it as an art form that, when perfected, appeals to the needs, desires, and doubts experienced by all human beings, regardless of its context.

I have witnessed this phenomenon often, because for many years I made my living from singing sacred Christian choral music in both liturgical and non-liturgical settings. Now, as a priest, I am still intrigued by the power of music, whether defined as sacred or secular, to point us to something greater than ourselves. The theologian Karl Barth went so far as to connect apparently secular music with the divine, if it is great music: "Why shouldn't we see a divine spark in the genius of a Mozart or a Wagner?" (He hailed Tannhäuser as a piece of "powerful preaching".)

But even if it is narrowly defined as music intended for religious devotion and liturgy, sacred music, from all ages, has never been more popular and accessible to millions than it is today, in concerts, CDs, digital downloads, broadcasts, and podcasts. As the historian Tim Blanning wrote: "It is one of the great ironies of history that [J. S.] Bach's religious music should be so much more available, and so much more esteemed, in a secular age than at any other time."

In addition, attendance at British Anglican cathedral services, where the choirs of our famous choral tradition are heard in worship, rose by 35 per cent between 2002 and 2012. Our so-called secular society is, apparently, saturated with the sacred. Music is now often the preferred vehicle by which people approach the divine.

THIS represents a welcome opportunity for believing communities, because music that leads any listener or performer beyond materialistic and consumerist culture and towards a greater reality, provides an indication of spiritual health within our society, and undermines the assumption that we live in a post-religious society.

Whether the listener of sacred music chooses to recognise it or not, the combination of melody, rhythm, and harmony, crafted by a great artist, appeals to needs deep in the human psyche. Those needs still clearly exist, even when an age is considered to be secular. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Artists (1999): "Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience."

Truly great music, whatever the context in which it is performed, is sacred to the degree that it directs us away from the ego. It speaks to a humanity united by shared frailty, doubt, and a desire to admire something transcendent; and it is a remarkably durable vehicle in which to convey the message of faith, or at least of mystery

This is, surely, something to be celebrated. The terms "mystical", "transcendent", or "spiritual" are increasingly used without reference to religion or God, but in fact find their most meaningful significance within a theistic setting. People will continue to flock to hear professional musicians perform on concert platforms and in our cathedrals; and serious engagement with this music will leave even the most confirmed atheist reaching for religious language to describe the experience.

As MacMillan so eloquently puts it: "I believe it is God's divine spark which kindles the musical imagination now, as it has always done, and reminds us, in an increasingly de-humanised world, of what it means to be human."

ST PAUL exhorted the Colossians and the Ephesians to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, which we still do in our churches. But, since the first century, the musical art-form has come a long way. Through modern media, music has now become so accessible that all places of worship - from the smallest church, with very limited resources, to the grandest cathedral with a choral foundation - can tap into this immense treasury.

This Easter, near each of us there will be a performance of great music - much of it sacred, and some of it world-class in standard. If you cannot get to these events, there are recordings and broadcasts; or you could gather in local groups to listen to, or perform, music that you find nourishing and life-enhancing. The options are many.

Great music, wherever we find it, has the power to change us, by the renewal of mind, heart, and soul. It also gives us the means by which we can explore our relationship with God. Let us embrace it.

The Revd Dr Jonathan Arnold is Chaplain and Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford. He is a former member of St Paul's Cathedral Choir and The Sixteen. His latest book, Sacred Music in Secular Society, is published by Ashgate.

Review of James MacMillan's new St Luke Passion

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