“When we praise God we become aware of the unity which underlies our differences,” the compilers of an Episcopal hymnal said some years ago. The carols we sing at Christmas, for example, include the Roman Catholic “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” the Unitarian “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” the Episcopal “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the Lutheran “All My Heart This Night Rejoices,” the Moravian “Angels From the Realms of Glory,” and the Congregational “Joy to the World.” The hymn compilers also noted that we are at one when we sing the Wesleyan “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” the Baptist “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” and the Plymouth Brethren “O Lamb of God, Still Keep Me.”

Time wipes out the context in which hymns make their debut and they go on to assume a transcending purpose. Faber wrote “Faith of Our Fathers” as a prayer for the conversion of England to the See of Rome. “The Church’s One Foundation” was the expression of partisans at a time of controversy within the Church of England. Both hymns now belong to all Christians.

Perhaps in our badly divided world we need to recognize anew the reconciling power of hymnody. This Lenten season is a good time to start. While continuing to respect theological differences, we nonetheless stand to gain a great deal by making music together. Anyone who has had the thrilling experience of singing in a Billy Graham crusade choir, in which thousands of voices join in four-part harmony, knows that. There is a tremendous fellowship experience when we join hands in musical praise to God.

An Anglican clergyman, John Mullett, said in a recent treatise on the Psalms that music “has the power to heal, it has the power to calm. It has the power to seduce the beloved. It has the power to induce work. Music in the twentieth century has the power to unite the ‘one people’ of God.” He goes on to ask:

When we live in a world where racial hatred is threatening us with intercontinental hatred in the not too distant future, is the Church to stand aside and let this great vehicle of common humanity lie idly by? The Church must sing and shout in thundering unison. If you can do nothing else, “O clap your hands together, all ye people.… For God is the King of all the earth” (Ps. 47, 5. 1, 7) [One People, One Church, One Song].

Perhaps the best boost for Key 73 could come through a specially composed great piece of music in which everyone could share!

Canon Winfred Douglas in Church Music in History and Practice wisely notes that “it is a grave impoverishment of our culture that so many classify music as an amusement, and not as a collective voice of mankind that unites men on a higher level of spiritual sensitiveness than they could otherwise attain.” Many evangelicals say they were “blessed” by certain music when what they mean is that it gave them emotional gratification—the same kind that is available in cheap secular music. Douglas makes an eloquent case for music in worship:

Music is … essentially an utterance, an elemental utterance of the whole man. Its message is not primarily addressed either to the intellect or to the emotions, but to the complete personality of the listener; and that message, to be valid, must spring from the complete personalities of both composer and performer. In it, heart speaks directly to heart, mind to mind, life to life. To singer or to listener, the message becomes as his own voice speaking within, not only an external revelation of beauty but also the vital utterance of his own soul, so that he adores with the voice of Palestrina, prays with that of Bach, rejoices in the mighty tones of Beethoven, loves and suffers in the surging crescendoes of Wagner.

Not all religious songs are hymns. Augustine defined a hymn as a song embodying the praise of God. If a religious song does not contain explicit praise of God, it is not a hymn. Many songs with Christian themes (and often poor music) serve more to gratify man than to praise God. An example is “O That Will Be Glory For Me.”

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Significant influences have been at work in church music since the turn of the century. The work of Ralph Vaughan Williams (the centenary of whose birth was celebrated last year) in revitalizing hymnody has been felt throughout the English-speaking world. As musical editor of The English Hymnal of 1906, he coupled fine folk tunes with old and new texts, restored many existing tunes to their original form, and reintroduced many plainsong hymns. He also contributed compositions of his own, which include the almost universally sung “Sine Nomine” to Bishop Walsham How’s text, “For All the Saints.”

In the 1940s, Benjamin Britten began to write a series of pieces for church use, including the cantata “Rejoice in the Lamb” (published by Boosey and Hawkes) to a poem by Christopher Smart, a joyful setting of “Psalm 100” (Oxford), and the opera “Noye’s Fludde” (Boosey and Hawkes), whose performance involves practically the whole church community in playing or singing simple tunes. A growing number of “mainstream” composers have been doing their share to promote lively music for churches of all sizes on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, Canon Winfred Douglas devoted many years to enriching the Episcopal liturgy by restoring the use of plainsong and upgrading hymnody. The noted composer Leo Sowerby wrote extensively for the Church and taught widely in workshops and seminars.

The Cambridge Hymnal, published by the Cambridge University Press in 1967, is perhaps the most representative example of the hymnody of mainstream musicians. Its “Index of Composers, Arrangers, Transcribers, and Sources of Music” is a Who’s Who of composers who have influenced the course of music—from Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, and Bach to Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, Edmund Rubbra, Alan Ridout, and even Stravinsky!

About fifteen years ago in England, Father Geoffrey Beaumont wrote his “Twentieth Century Folk Mass,” a setting of the liturgy in “popular style.” His aim was to have his music speak to the young people in his parish who never darkened the door of the church. Father Beaumont’s setting unlocked a Pandora’s box; the result has been some of the most trite music ever created for the worship of God as well as some things of real excitement.

Out of this whole “pop movement” emerged the light music of Malcolm Williamson—a series of hymns, cantatas, canticles, and eucharistic settings in a popular idiom that he maintains are not for posterity but, like a paper cup, are to be used once and thrown away. Williamson is a soundly trained, serious composer, and his light music is a valuable touchstone for assessing the enormous output of this “folk-pop” religious music scene.

The United States has been no less active. Songbook for Saints and Sinners, a collection of seventy “now pieces” (published by Agape, a division of Hope Publishing Company), is a very good anthology of texts and music in the folk idiom. Under the editorship of Carlton Young, who wrote some of the tunes, are pieces by Richard Avery and Donald March, Peter Scholtes, Ray Repp, Sydney Carter, Kent Schneider, Ed Summerlin, Sister Germaine, and Daniel Moe. Recently Carlton Young and Agape issued another pop hymnal, The Genesis Songbook, which includes texts and music by such persons as Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie.

The most recent and, to many people, the most puzzling phenomenon has been the use in some of the churches of avant-garde music, particularly electronic sound. Although electronic music has been a part of the musical scene for more than twenty-five years, its introduction into church is quite recent and has been spearheaded by the work of Richard Felciano, a young American composer whose compositions have added a new dimension to the experience of worship. Profoundly influenced by the writings of Teilhard de Chardin, Felciano has produced works for organ and electronic tape with such titles as “God of the Expanding Universe” and “I Make My Own Soul From All the Elements of the Earth,” and liturgical anthems such as “Signs” for Advent, “Sic Transit” for Easter, “Out of Sight” for Ascensiontide, “Pentecost Sunday,” and “Three-in-One-in-Three” for Trinity (“Pentecost Sunday” was published by World Library of Sacred Music, Cincinnati, Ohio; the others by E. C. Schirmer). Others have followed his lead, and there is a growing body of music, some of it quite simple from a technical point of view, capable of opening eyes and asking questions and functioning provocatively, in the best sense of the word. Felciano’s “Two Public Pieces” (E. C. Schirmer) for singers and electronic tape come quite close to classification as “congregational hymns.” The voice parts are technically simple, but the resulting “occasion” is capable of great impact.

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There is no need for the music in any church to be dull or fixed in a rut, and there is nothing threatening about new trends in music. The limits to what may be achieved are dictated only by the resources in any parish and the imagination and daring of clergy and their musicians. Music of centuries ago is still very much with us; Bach was never more alive than he is today. Yet through their music, churches may be places where exciting things happen, where creative new ideas coexist with established custom. This is a great time to be singing a new song to the Lord, and more and more, singing together.


Some days are like that. Everywhere you turn you run into arguments and hostility. It all began for me when I got up. Hostility oozed from my pores, even in that early hour. I felt like a friend who used to say, “I had to get up before breakfast this morning and it’s been all downhill from there.”

Predictably enough, when I was crossed on the job, right at the beginning of the day, I reacted explosively. Kicking over my chair, I departed in a huff—temporarily.

After working off some aggression by doing some errands I stopped by the donut store. Only one other customer was there so I settled down to improve my spirits over a cup of tea in silence.

Just then the door burst open and one of the store’s delivery truck drivers came in with a tray of baked goodies. He banged the tray down on the counter and grumbled, “He didn’t make them like he was supposed to.…”

The rest of his gripe was lost as the woman behind the counter snatched up the tray and began her own litany of complaints—rising to ever more shrill heights—as she went through the door to the kitchen.

Apparently a large number of items were on her agenda because the only words I heard clearly amidst the banging of trays were, “… and you didn’t have to try to get the damn car started.…”

Later when I arrived at home I was greeted with the intelligence that my young son in a fit of obstinacy had refused to play the autoharp in front of the rest of the class and had sat out the music period in the school office. Frankly, I’m on his side—autoharp solo indeed!

George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”

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