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Places where they sing

04 July 2014

Ronald Corp looks at theological dialogue with musicologists about congregations


Christian Congregational Music: Performance, identity and experience
Monique Ingalls, Carolyn Landau, and Tom Wagner, editors
Ashgate £60
Church Times Bookshop £54 (Use code CT834 )

THE saying is often attributed to St Augustine of Hippo that those who sing pray twice. This would be a good motto for the book Christian Congregational Music, which explores the part played by congregational music in Christian religious experience.

The various contributors, drawn from a wide field of expertise, investigate how musicians and worshippers perform music, and how they experience or identify with belief through their music-making. The main thrust of the book is to sound out how faith, feeling, reception, and performance interact. This dialogue about faith and theology with musicology (as the afterword says) is "new and to some extent nascent".

Part One of the book is concerned with performance itself, and looks at the musical experience of a specific African-American church, besides considering praise and worship music in the Black Church in the United States. There is also a chapter on jazz music and its particular attributes of improvisation, while another chapter considers hymn-singing and how the words speak to the heart with the aid of the musical setting. It quotes C. S. Lewis, who said that hymns were "an extreme case of literature as applied art".

Part Two again looks at particular case studies - Mennonite hymns, congregational music in Hungary, the marketing of worship media in US Christian-music magazines, and praise and worship music that arose out of the Jesus-people movement of the 1960s and '70s.

The final part is titled "Experience and Embodiment", and in its first chapter looks at the sensual theology of the Moravian Church in the 18th century. There follows a discourse on worship, transcendence, and danger, which takes as its starting-point the "Hotel Lobby" thesis of the sociologist and cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer. A chapter, "Really worshipping, not singing", analyses "traditional" and "contemporary" church music (the research was carried out in Canada); and the final chapter considers the various musical worlds of the contemporary worshipper, with special reference to St Aldate's, Oxford.

Along the way, we share the contributors' personal experience of music and belief, and this approach provokes various questions for today's Church. Hymn books tend to be museums of past glories, and the words of the hymns may not speak to a new context. What do we do about that? Is jazz a good metaphor for the Trinity in its tripartite attributes - composer, performer, and listener? (That metaphor would surely hold good for all music, not just jazz.)

Have we lost the passion that the early architects of Anglicanism,such as John Donne and George Herbert, expressed? Are the advertisements for recordings of religious music adhering to a stereotype when they show listeners wearing headphones and withtheir eyes closed, obviously transported to a place of peace, escape, spiritual ecstasy, and personal religion?

It is good to ask these questions, and theologians and musicologists alike will find much thought-provoking material in this book. St Augustine of Hippo wrote that he felt the need to confess his sin when the singing had a more powerful effect on him than the sense of what was sung. This book alerts us to that potential transgression.

The Revd Ronald Corp, an assistant priest at St Alban's, Holborn, in London, is a composer and conductor.



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