Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Hymns from School

In this recent piece on NPR,  Brian Eno (Roxy Music and U2 producer) makes a case for the importance of a capella singing. He observes that it has "civilizational benefits" 
When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That's one of the great feelings — to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.
He thinks this is so important that he states,
that if I were asked to redesign the British educational system, I would start by insisting that group singing become a central part of the daily routine. I believe it builds character and, more than anything else, encourages a taste for co-operation with others. This seems to be about the most important thing a school could do for you. 
What is odd is that I grew up in a British educational system that had congregational singing at the start of everyday in our school assemblies--I am sure Brian Eno probably did too. We sang a bunch of Victorian and Edwardian hymns as well as the hymns of the folk revival in the state and private schools I attended.  We had all the militaristic imagery that helped build a bygone empire (Stand Up, Stand up for Jesus, Onward Christian Soldiers) as well as the strange hymns to British nationalism which simultaneously filled Kitchener's Army and seemed to mourn the terrible losses of the First World War (Jerusalem, I Vow to Thee My Country).   We also sang of other people's wars (The Battle Hymn of the Republic) as well as sustained fantasy violence (the hobgoblin and foul fiends of To be a Pilgrim).

We sang of God's creation with Victorian sentimentality (All Things Bright and Beautiful). We observed the sacred and academic year; I particularly remember the advent hymns (O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Hills of the North Rejoice) though Easter was well represented as it fell during the school year (There is a Green Hill Far Away, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross). We asked for forgiveness from our "foolish ways," in Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. And we sang our liberal Protestant concerns in Sydney Carter's When I Needed a Neighbor (were you there?) and for a good work ethic in Lord of All Hopefulness

Many hymns used at school accrued alternative lyrics ranging from silly ("Most highly flavored gravy, Gloria!") to the pornographic (no repeatable examples).

Even if Eno seems unaware that group singing used to be a regular part of the school day, given my passion for group singing and the fact that I am now seeking to research and write on the subject, I would have to agree with him and say this was the most important thing that school did for me.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Let the Fieldwork Begin!

With the end of the school year, I am excited to have a semester of study leave from Ashland University. This is being supplemented by a writing grant from the Virginia Seminar in Lived Theology. All of this means that for the next year I will be hunkering down to research and write a book on congregational singing, church and reconciling communities.

Isaac Wardell of Bifrost Arts.
This week I have been in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Isaac Wardell, the founder of Bifrost Arts, was kind enough to let me interview him and ask him all kinds of questions about his passion for encouraging congregations to sing. There is a great article about Wardel's work called "Bifrost: Enriching the Church and Engaging the World. . . Through Singing." You can see from the title why I am interested learning more from him. He has written a set of Sunday School materials on corporate worship -- I recommend you download a free copy of his Liturgy, Music and Space

This morning my family attended Trinity Presbyterian Church and heard the fruit of  the congregation's labors. In the resonant modern sanctuary the worship team led the large congregation with its volume set at the acoustic level of the 9ft Baldwin grand piano.

At the service I participated in this morning at Trinity, the connection between the sacramental life of the body and congregation's singing was very strong. We welcomed the newly baptized into the Church with  a cappella singing (Amazing Grace) and as we moved forward to share in the sacrement of the Lord's Supper  the band dropped away again as we sang "I Love You Lord."

In the article about Bifrost I already mentioned, the minister of Trinity Pres, Greg Thompson, reflects on Isaac Wardell's influence and hints at the sacramental character and function of singing. Thompson explains that Wardell is moving the congregation "toward greater congregational engagement, which is to say, lots of people really, really singing. I have been amazed as I have seen everyone from children to Chinese students to Boomer conservatives gathered around not just the same table but around the same songs—and singing.”

Let the fieldwork begin--I will be traveling to Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi over the next few months as well as to churches closer to home in Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. I'll keep y'all posted.