Thoughts on worship, congregational song
and the life of the church.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Postcards from Worship

An anecdotal look at congregational song in three churches

Reposted from Sine Nomine (Spring 2011), publication of the Southern Ontario Chapter of the Hymn Society (George Bell, editor).

As my husband and I have progressed through the first few years of our marriage, we have had the opportunity to call three cities home: Dallas, Toronto and London.  As a result of this somewhat nomadic existence, I have been lucky to worship in a variety of congregations in these culturally distinct locales.  While a cross-section of my experiences in these churches is anecdotal at best, I think the state of congregational song in these churches is indicative of the journey of many churches in our wider context.  Being a part of the worshipping body of the three churches which I will describe, I have sensed a desire in all of them to find the Church’s voice for worship in the 21st-Century context.

First Presbyterian Church of Dallas
408 Park Avenue, Dallas, Texas, USA
From August 2008 to May 2010 I was privileged to serve as Music Intern at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas.  First Pres’s well-earned slogan (which can occasionally be seen on one of the many billboards that line US Highway 75 through Dallas) is “A heart for the city.”  In the 1950s and ‘60s, as happens in many cities, Dallasites fled the city core in favour of the burgeoning suburbs.  Responding to this urban exodus, many downtown congregations of the time picked up and rebuilt in the suburbs, following the flight of their congregations.  First Presbyterian made the prayerful decision to remain in the (now nearly deserted) downtown core, and be a ministry to the homeless population of Dallas.  After years of development, the nearby Stewpot serves over 1500 meals per day, seven days per week and provides safe haven and resources for homeless and at-risk individuals in Dallas. 

The congregation of First Pres, which numbers about 2000, reflects the diversity one might expect of a congregation which drives in specifically to attend the church.  There is a range of economic diversity in the congregation and, to a somewhat lesser extent, racial diversity.  The musical life of the congregation is also diverse.  To quote senior pastor Joseph J. Clifford, “on any given Sunday, you will hear a wide variety of offerings, from Bach, to the great hymns of the church, to African American spirituals to the Celtic rhythms of the Iona Community’s songs.”  Add to this Latin American, French Roman Catholic, and Christian Contemporary congregational song, and you will begin to get a sense of the love of variety in sacred song perpetuated by Director of Worship and Music Ken Cooper and his wife Mary-Jane, over a thirty-year career at First Pres.  Their ministries included an adult Chancel Choir of fifty voices, Children’s and Youth ensembles (the latter of which was my responsibility while I was there), a Handbell ensemble, and occasional pick-up orchestra and brass participation in worship. First Pres is an interesting specimen of a Dallas church.  It maintains the feel of a local congregation (in contrast to the “big box” churches which are legion in the area) while having the resources to maintain a lush, high-calibre standard of music.  It is the kind of church that delights equally in a full-set, full-orchestra production of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, and in reflective Taizé-style worship in their attached Sudie George Chapel.

Congregational song at First Pres to date remains alive and well.    Like any congregation, attendance fluctuates throughout the year and affects the robustness of the singing.  I found their singing to be somewhat challenged by the church’s architecture: the almost in-the-round shape of the sanctuary is a nice feature, but an orchestra-and-balcony layout separates the singers from each other; the domed ceiling, which draws the sound upwards, can have an isolating effect on individual singers.  Congregants, after thirty years of the Coopers’ enthusiastic leadership, are relaxed in the face of a wide variety of worship music.  However, the congregation’s reliance on the choir for guidance can be heard during the annual Palm Sunday Parade, when many congregants, separated from the choir, seem reticent to sing.  Like any congregation, First Pres sings most fulsomely when presented with its heart song, which for this congregation means settings of spirituals in The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) such as “Guide my feet while I run this race” and “Were you there when they crucified my lord?”, and favourite hymns in the Western stanzaed tradition such as “Jesus Christ is risen today,” a staple on Easter Sunday.  My prayer for this lovely congregation – as they search for a new Music Director for the first time in thirty years – is that they find a new leader with a firm background in singing and a passion for enlivening congregational song, who can enable the singing of Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs in a new generation of worshippers at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas.

Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Humber Heights
1579 Royal York Road, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
This is an unassuming church in the northern part of Etobicoke, just off of highway 401.  From June to December 2010, I served there as a worship consultant, teaching global song to the congregation in collaboration with Music Director Frank Iacino.  The most striking feature of the building is the sanctuary’s vintage architecture, a relic of the Postwar-Modernist era.  Light streams into the theatre-in-the-round-style sanctuary and bathes the honey-coloured pews in light during worship.  The young minister, Paul Kang, has foregone preaching from the elevated pulpit.  Instead, he stands at a mod clear-plastic lectern at the edge of the immense circular terazzo communion table, a hulking focal point of the room.  A wooden cross hanging above the unused pulpit is now covered semi-permanently by a projection screen, onto which the liturgy and hymn texts are projected for Sunday services.  The circular shape and high ceiling of the sanctuary are uplifting features, but make it next to impossible for volunteers to access the small glass windows near the roof, some of which are now cracked.  As a result, worship services are occasionally visited by small birds.

Saint Andrew’s is a congregation in transition. Congregants whom I met there told me on multiple occasions of times now past when the 300-seat sanctuary would be packed full at each of two services on Sunday mornings.  Now, sixty to a hundred people attend worship at 10:30am on Sundays.  The choir also has dwindled to a handful of stalwart members, dedicated but aging, and their equally dedicated music director continues to draw almost exclusively from the repertoire of anthems the choir sang in its heyday.  Iacino leads much of the service from the organ, but a drum kit also makes frequent additions to worship, and Iacino also uses his piano chops to lead hymns such as “I’m gonna live so God can use me” from The Book of Praise (1997).  As the demographic of the surrounding neighbourhood has changed, young families have moved into the community at St. Andrew’s.  Their ethnic backgrounds include Ghanaian, Trinidadian, Korean, Somali, and many more.  This shift in congregational makeup is not lost on Rev. Kang, who longs to infuse worship with a musical and liturgical style which reflects the diversity of his people.  A veteran of only five years of parish ministry, Kang knows he is not equipped to bring about this change solo.  To date, the PCC worship hotline The Vine (1-800-619-7301 x275), the denomination’s worship resource hub, has been unable to effect much change in his congregation.

At the same time as Kang hopes to reshape the worship life of his congregation, he is also looking to form ties with another Presbyterian community for the benefit of both.  North Park Presbyterian Church is another congregation in transition – it is the only Hispanic Presbyterian congregation in Canada, and it has recently been told the denomination can no longer support it in its building.  The congregation understandably hopes to preserve its community and the cultural enrichment it provides to its members.  St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, Humber Heights is prayerfully considering how it might be part of the future of this community.  During my time there, St. Andrew’s hosted a joint worship service with the congregation of North Park, in which we prayed, sang and even took in sermons in both English and Spanish.  The contemporary praise band of North Park played some introit music, we sang worship songs such as “Dios de la esperanza da nos gozo y paz,” and we prayed in ways that transcend language by clapping and “la la la”-ing together.  It was a glimpse of Pentecost.

St. Andrew’s is a resilient church with the spirit to revive its congregational song.  The people who worship there know they want to sing better, and are on their way to understanding that this will require changes in their community.  However, there are a number of bridges to be crossed.  One is habitual - the expansive worship space, with its energetic round structure, has the potential to support congregational singing.  However, the current numbers at Sunday worship allow for yawning gaps between groups of people, which the congregation instinctively take full advantage of.  If I were a bit less the Canadian and more the Scot (or, if my position there were a little more permanent) I would have taken a page from John Bell’s The Singing Thing and roped off whole swaths of pews in order to ‘encourage’ people to sit within earshot of one another.  Another issue is architectural – the immense and immobile communion table, while a sturdy symbol of the feast of God, is a formidable feature of the room.  As a result, the choir seems to be miles from the nearest members of the congregation, and any singing support they might provide is lost in the no-man’s-land in between.  If the choir is brought forward to the front of the table, their forced position creates multiple sight-line and eye contact pitfalls with much of the congregation.  Another issue is pedagogical – while the projection screen was brought in as a tool for worship, it has the effect that any t.v.-like screen has of drawing attention like a magnet.  Attempts by a worship enlivener to introduce new music or encourage robust singing in the congregation are somewhat thwarted by the coma-inducing power of the screen, a power that is especially magnified if any technical difficulties occur (such as the wrong stanza being projected, or the technician flipping screens to find the right one).  However, this is a congregation in which an aging, largely Anglo-Canadian population has lovingly integrated with an ethnically diverse family-age population within the last thirty years.  I find immense inspiration in this, and pray that this congregation finds its song in the thirty years to come, and beyond.

All Hallows by the Tower
Byward Street, London EC3R 5BJ, United Kingdom

Founded in 675 A.D. by the Saxon Abbey of Barking, All Hallows by the Tower is nestled amid the towering glass complexes, venerable office buildings and fast-food restaurants of downtown London, in the shadow of its namesake, the infamous Tower of London.  Its website notes that “Following their execution on Tower Hill, numerous beheaded bodies were brought into the church including those of Thomas More, Bishop John Fisher and Archbishop Laud.  William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, was baptised in the church and educated in the schoolroom.”  The church crypt houses a museum which holds Roman and Saxon artefacts, and the church regularly welcomes tourists drawn in by its connection to the nearby Tower.  Though these visitors do not come on the scale of visitors to St. Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey, the worship leaders of All Hallows must juggle this aspect of the church’s life with its worship life.  The church runs a busy schedule of weekday Office services, Sunday Eucharist at 11am (shaped by The Book of Common Prayer), and a monthly Alt Hallows service in the spirit of the Iona Community Holy City programme.  Vicar Bertrand Olivier and his Pastoral Assistant, Martin Carr, both participated in the 2012 London Marathon, the course of which runs right past the church, culminating their run with a Thanksgiving Service for the runners and their families.

Worship at All Hallows is an intimate experience.  The small, cross-shaped church seats only about a hundred people.  I have had the pleasure of taking in two very different aspects of the worship life there: the brief weekly Taizé service led by Olivier and his assistants, and the rollicking bi-monthly Iona Community Wee Sing hosted there by Alison Adam.

The Taizé services, which take place on Wednesday evenings at 6pm, are intended to minister to working Londoners who come straight from their jobs in nearby office buildings.  Candles and fragrant incense set the mood for a quiet contemplation.  Attendance is small, with men and women in suits entering at various intervals as they are able to get away from the office (myself included).  Occasionally the omnipresent noise of teeming London makes its presence known within the tranquil worship space as busses and cabs rush past. 

Between eight and twenty worshippers participate in these services, and though the singing is somewhat timid, it is clear the service is an oasis in the working week for those who have discovered it.  Like First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, All Hallows by the Tower serves a commuter congregation that assembles from disparate parts of the city specifically to worship there.  I noticed during the Wee Sings that more men were present than might have come to a similar event in Canada, enthusiastically contributing to the part singing, aided by Olivier on the piano.  It seems to me that England is at a different crossroads in congregational singing than Canada.  Here, the heritage of social part-singing still exerts some influence, along with the robust tradition of boys’ choir schools.  But, as in Canada, the notion of singing for pleasure (other than along to the radio) is waning.  These effects are felt on the congregational singing, at All Hallows and elsewhere.  Olivier and his assistants, who seem comfortable with both the long-reaching history and current situation of their unique parish, exude a “Keep calm and carry on” approach to ministry and congregational song in the 21st century.  It has been my pleasure to worship in this community, and I wish them many years of tranquil downtown ministry in the future.

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