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Assist Our Song: Music ministries in the local church by Douglas Galbraith

07 January 2022

Ian Bradley considers clergy and musicians

DOUGLAS GALBRAITH has had a long ministry in the Church of Scotland, encompassing university chaplaincy, urban and rural parishes, and a post at church headquarters. He is also a music graduate with much experience of choir direction and extensive technical knowledge of organs. He combines these talents and interests in this book, which offers both an overview of the part that music plays in Christian worship and much sound practical advice for those engaged in it.

If there is an overarching theme, it is perhaps that too often we sell God short through sloppiness, shallowness, and informal mateyness. Galbraith writes of “benedictions which brush our foreheads without healing our souls” and approvingly quotes the American Presbyterian theologian Edward Farley’s observation on a typical service in his own denomination: “If the seraphim assumed this Sunday morning mood, they would be addressing God not as ‘holy, holy, holy’ but as ‘nice, nice, nice’.” For Galbraith, the language of worship “must be such that lies between speaking in tongues and mystical silence and must partake of both”.

There is much sound advice for organists, choir, and clergy. It ranges from the strictly practical and pretty obvious — “never speak to organists while they are in the middle of playing voluntaries” — to the more nuanced and discursive: there is a particularly sensitive and sensible discussion of the vexed question of the desirability of the organist’s being a church member or, indeed, a believer. Galbraith pleads with the clergy to delve more into their hymn books, go beyond their comfort zones when choosing hymns, and even learn to read music. Organists are not let off the hook, and are told to play the words as much as the music of the hymns and anthems that they are accompanying.

A preponderance of the examples cited in the book are drawn from Scotland, and more specifically from the Church of Scotland. But this does not detract from its potential usefulness to Anglican clergy, organists, choirs, and, indeed, congregations, who are reminded that in their own important music ministry they are “apprentice angels” and very much participants rather than passive consumers. This book won’t end the worship wars that rage in so many churches, but it does provide some calm and helpful reflection on them. A copy could profitably be installed both in the vestry and the organ loft of every church to remind their respective occupants that they are engaged together in the same holy task.

The Revd Dr Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews. His most recent book is
Arthur Sullivan: A life of divine emollient (Oxford University Press, 2021).


Assist Our Song: Music ministries in the local church
Douglas Galbraith
Saint Andrew Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.99

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