I have thoroughly enjoyed this conversation on the responsibilities and joys of the lay musician in the church. As Todd Granger summed it up, each contributor engaged with a clear attitude of “surrender to the Word of God, incorporation in the community, humility, and the discipline not only of music-making but of submission to godly authority.” To see added to this common theme of humility the regular encouragement to patience only highlights the fact that we must always keep the end in mind.

I began this conversation by sketching three purposes of worship: duty to God, service to one another, and the delight and rest given to us by God in our labors. Through John Wesley, Granger reminded us of the ultimate goal of our music-making in worship:

“Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually…”

To put it in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, we are to  “offer up our selves” that is “our souls and bodies”in a “reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice” of praise. [1]

And here is where I find myself at slight odds with our good friend John Wesley. He seems to set attendance to the “sense of the text” at odds with the “sound of the music,” betraying, perhaps, a Stoic understanding of the passions as inherently vicious for being bodily. Indeed, wary theologians throughout history — Augustine among them — seem to have begrudgingly granted music in worship as a necessary concession to man’s weakness.  But God created us with bodies from the beginning and, from the beginning called it good that sense experience leads us into truth. Granger noted that music uniquely supports and encourages corporate unity, but it can also help us to rightly order our passions — in this case, to lift up our hearts to the Lord. While remaining aware of music’s ability to disorder our passions as well, we should not seek to bypass the means God has created to lift our hearts to him.

And here is where I must make an amendment to my own essay.  The delight and rest that we find in worship is not irrelevant to our song, but is its very motive force. As Caleb Skogen reminded us, we “approach God in corporate worship to be served by God first,” which demands a response “full of thankfulness and rejoicing.” We are moved to sing by a love placed in our hearts by Love himself. Further, we are moved by this Love to sing of our love for him in a way that most certainly does “get carried away.” Music in which the music is suited to the sense and the sense to the music, indeed, “carries us away” into a deeper understanding and love for God. What’s more, we should carry others along with us.

And this is the true place of the second reason for worship —  and the one that’s taken up most of our thoughts: service to others. Musicians in the church, of every stripe and skill level, have been given a particular gift to accompany the Gift Himself. The active gratitude of use flows so naturally from this gift, that nearly every contributor to this conversation has emphasized the need for humility and patience. In particular, Caleb Skogen’s warning not to rush into formal leadership reminded me of a sermon by Bernard of Clairvoux on the Song of Songs. Bernard urges his brothers not to extend themselves in service to others until the Lord had filled their own well to overflowing. If we cannot, from love, do the “mere participation” service of singing loudly and joyfully in the midst of the congregation, we do not yet have enough love to overflow into a role that requires more love for its greater responsibility. In the words of Paul, we will be no more than a ringing gong or clanging cymbal. 

Jonathan Ottaway also did well to point out the quasi-pastoral duties of the lead musician, who is, himself, no more than the chief lay musician. As such, we can, to varying degrees, extend his three principles to every lay musician. In summary: 1) Cultivate a knowledge of and love for your congregation; 2) Allow the music that you sing together to dwell in you richly; so that you can 3) make music with expression that is alive to the sense of the song in its entirety. As mentioned above, every exercise of your gifts for the sake of your congregation should come from the love God has poured out on you. The more you understand those around you — from their level of musical skill to what has been going on in their lives lately — the more you will be able to love them well in the course of your musical life together. And the better you know the repertoire of your congregation, the more ready you can be to sing “He Will Hold Me Fast” as if to the nearby parishioner whose father recently died; or to belt Psalm 128 with unbridled joy at the wedding of one who has suffered in her singleness.

As David Erb noted, this duty of music–making for God and others is so important that we would do well to re-order our entire culture around musical pedagogy. We ought to be training up able foot soldiers to be marshaled under vocational music leaders in order that we might, together, more worthily magnify the name of our Almighty God. When appropriate music is selected such that the sense of the text is carried along by its music, then able musicians and vocalists can perform it in such a way that even the musical dotard must understand and delight in it.

But in every violin lesson, every Kodaly training camp, or magnificent choral composition, we must remember the principle, the source of our labors, must be the love of God in our hearts. Pride is never more ready to take the lead than when we dream of something so lofty as being the builders of a musical renaissance in the church. Aim closer: at inspiring your nearest neighbors with a desire to sing and develop their own musical skill. Sing at home, at the bonfire, while you pull weeds at your church workday. Arrange ad hoc choirs with interested parishioners, find a way to teach the kids in your congregation how to read music, — perhaps even the adults! Further your own training and, most of all, pray that God would bless your efforts to the increased skill of his people and the more beauteous praise of His name.

Brittany Hurd brings a little musical theatre flair to Psalm chant at Canticlear. She lives in Michigan, where she is making her husband a better Thomist.

[1] Taken from the post-communion prayer in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (/international Edition).

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