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Contemporary Worship Music and Everyday Musical Lives by Mark Porter

10 March 2017

David Martin on music at St Aldate’s, Oxford

Contemporary Worship Music and Everyday Musical Lives
Mark Porter
Routledge £95
Church Times Bookshop £85.50


APPLYING the discipline of ethnomusicology to issues of faith and practice is a fairly recent academic exercise. Mark Porter is a serious musician and a committed Christian with an interest in how the standard musical style of a particular Christian community connects or fails to connect with the often passionate tastes of the members of its congregation.

Obviously, this is an important question to explore, whatever the characteristic musical style of a church, and Porter approaches it with great subtlety. It fits into the study of congregations and their dynamics provided by Mathew Guest and Nancy Ammerman. It also complements the comparative study (Monique Ingalls et al.) of the music of very different kinds of Christian group from black churches to Mennonites and Hillsong.

Porter’s inquiry lies more in the catchment area of case studies of Hillsong, since it focuses entirely on the version of Evangelical Charismatic religion preached at St Aldate’s, Oxford — a church that some might feel marginally Anglican.

For those who don’t know, St Aldate’s fosters a popular-music culture of soft rock which has some roots in the Jesus Movement and is now widespread in essentially “gathered” Evangelical churches all over the country, some moderately conservative theologically, others very conservative, for example in relation to women and the expression of homosexuality.

Although it advertises itself as three-generational, the interviews quoted suggest a concentration in the twenties and thirties. Seeing that it draws particularly on Oxford students, the congregation is quite cosmopolitan. It is here that I would have liked an ethnography of the church to help out the ethnomusicology, particularly as the respondents were not representative.

The underlying issue is one of ecclesial authority and the choice of a particular rock-music style to provide recognisability, cohesion, and continuity, as against the desire of particular individuals for more variability and the creative expression of their talents and tastes. The choice was at one stage thought by Evangelical leaders to be somehow “neutral”. This is a classic sociological dilemma roughly corresponding to the tension between institutional maintenance and Charismatic freedom.

One solution at St Aldate’s is the provision of space for continuous prayer on a model set up in Kansas, which seems also to be a space for diverse musical expressions, though I have the impression that diversity extends to traditional hymns only with some difficulty.

Of course, some people are not that musical, which helps: a very non-PC thought. Others cultivate a tolerant indifference for the common good, however “cheesy” they consider what is on offer. Others discern bridges between their responses in church and the spirituality that they experience in secular music gigs. One thought St Aldate’s two years out of date musically. Another, who also sang in the Oxford Schola Cantorum, recognised that none of this kind of music was up to much (my own view of popular music generally). For her, the problem was that serious music in the Schola was sung by unbelievers. Difficult.

The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

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