The invitation to write an article about church music brings to mind several questions with which I have been wrestling for a long time, in my earlier days as a practitioner and more recently as a teacher. It was my growing uncertainty about the role of music in worship that prompted me to spend a year as a student at the Virginia Seminary and eventually to seek ordination in the Episcopal Church. Whatever wisdom I may have gained with regard to church music came largely through the seminary community, in daily chapel, and in discussions with students and colleagues. The experience of the past fifteen years has increased my uneasiness about the use of music in church and deepened my conviction that music must have help from other theological disciplines. To be fruitful, church music needs deep biblical, theological, and liturgical roots.
According to ancient tradition, music is a divine gift used by men to appease and entertain the gods and give mortals a foretaste of immortality, through magical incantations and the ecstatic dance. The way in which music has served the major religions of the world has led to the assumption that music is the handmaid of religion. Like all other generalities, this needs careful scrutiny. Music may be the handmaid of pagan as well as the Christian religion: the question is, does music serve all religions equally well? Is there no difference, for example, between its use in Dionysiac orgies, in Orphic mysteries, and in Christian worship?
Worship is a universal phenomenon, but Christian worship is unique, and this uniqueness has a definite bearing upon the question of church music. Christian worship stems from faith in God’s revelation in the Word made flesh, in Jesus Christ, evoking a response ...1
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