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Monday, August 19, 2013

Unpacking "New Shoots and Buds" (Part 2 of 2)


This post is an exploration of the planning process of “New Shoots and Buds: New Directions in Congregational Song,” the closing hymn festival of the 2013 annual conference of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (full programme here). Tony Alonso and I presented these thoughts at a sectional workshop during the course of the conference. Tony has kindly shared his notes from the day with me, which I’ve incorporated into this post.

Every good workshop begins with singing – we began with Pascal Jordan’s Psalm paraphrase "All peoples clap your hands."


All good conferences, for their part, begin with a cogent theme, and Tony and I had been tasked with a singular purpose for this closing hymn festival. As part of the week-long conference exploring developments in congregational song in the now fifty years since the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), we had been asked to present a festival to celebrate and indicate where congregational song is now – and where it might be going. You may have noticed how many times the word “new” appears in the festival title, and it was not lost on either of us that Tony and I, both Generation Y graduate students, have been selected for our capacity to represent the next generation of church music, not only though our musical styles and specializations, but through who we are. So, a brief word about Tony and myself, for those who might not be aware:

Tony is a Cuban-Minnesotan musician, prolific composer, and liturgist, and a PhD student in Theology at Emory University. Merging scholarship and practical and globally-minded liturgical theology, he has rightly been called “one of the most prominent voices in contemporary liturgical music.” Among his many publications, he has recently completed work, along with Marty Haugen, on The Lyric Psalter, a resource of settings of the complete three-year lectionary cycle of songs. I am a musician and writer based in Toronto, Canada, an alumna of the Master of Sacred Music programme at Perkins School of Theology and a graduate student in Musicology at the University of Toronto. I have contributed articles to The Hymn, The Chorister, and Choral Journal, and am currently developing a practical web-based resource for enlivening congregational song called Break into Song.

The two of us both come by our devotion to church leadership honestly: Tony cantored his first liturgy on Holy Thursday Mass when he was in the fourth grade; I served as a pre-pubescent ukulele-playing shepherd in the Christmas pageant of the church where I was baptised. 

After we had all sung together, Tony and I each asked each other one hard-hitting interview question:
“How do you see the reforms of Vatican II playing out in your ministry?”

Tony began by explaining that for him, trying to formulate an answer to this question was a bit like asking a fish to describe water. Having grown up in the post-conciliar church, its liturgy and the songs that have grown up around it are his heart songs. It wasn’t until high school, and especially college, that he learned about the controversy and debates surrounding the meaning of Vatican II, even to the point of challenging its legitimacy – debates that became particularly pertinent to him when he began serving in Roman Catholic parishes.

“In particular, when I worked in parishes in Chicago and Los Angeles,” Tony explained, “I was confronted with profound diversity. 'Binary' arguments about whether to employ traditional hymns, or the music of David Haas, Marty Haugen, the St. Louis Jesuits, and J. Michael Joncas, quickly dissipated in favor of larger questions of the need to serve an increasingly diverse Catholic church in the USA. I became more interested in issues of power and authority, many of which Vatican II does not, in my opinion, adequately address.”

With that said, this negative aspect of Vatican II’s legacy is offset for Tony by its “significant ecumenical gift: the interchange of music across denominational lines.” He has been nourished by the (assez subversive) “preaching” by Protestant women in Roman Catholic parishes, in the forms of the texts of Mary Louise Bringle or Ruth Duck, as well as by the work of C. Michael Hawn and John Bell, who through their leadership and writings have “begun to confront us with our own tendency to neglect the majority of the world in favor of our immediate needs.”


This increased ecumenical dialogue has been, I think, a two-way street: in my own response, I acknowledged the debt the Protestant church owes to the increased engagement and awareness of liturgy in the last fifty years, and how that has influenced and enriched our own worship. In my ministry, I have been particularly grateful for the guiding words of the 1993 Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture, which I think owes an ideological debt to the reforms of Vatican II. The statement asserts that “the reality that Christian worship is always celebrated in a given local cultural setting draws our attention to the dynamics between worship and the world's many local cultures.” This being the case, as the statement explains, worship and culture are dynamically linked in at least four central ways:
“First, it is transcultural, the same substance for everyone everywhere, beyond culture. Second, it is contextual, varying according to the local situation (both nature and culture). Third, it is counter-cultural, challenging what is contrary to the Gospel in a given culture. Fourth, it is cross-cultural, making possible sharing between different local cultures. In all four dynamics, there are helpful principles which can be identified.”
These principles have shaped my understanding of the task of music ministry, leading me to an understanding that even though I plan worship and, for lack of a better term, “curate” the musical selections to a degree, as a pastoral musician I need to have the humility to understand that it isn’t always my own understanding of God that will resonate with worshippers. By accepting first and always that I don’t have the whole picture of our boundless Creator, I try to develop a liturgical philosophy of hospitality and of welcome to diverse musical expressions, in that they represent – and enable us to embody – diverse witnesses to the goodness of God. This holds true – in my humble Canadian opinion – even when those witnesses call us to push at the boundaries of what we understand worship – and who we understand God – to be.


Tony then described some of the guiding principles we used when planning “New Shoots and Buds,” so I now draw from his words to tell you about them.

  • We wanted to avoid clichés about "The Future," and about “what young people want.” This latter concept is a minefield of its own, and often defined by the dominant culture: what does the new Mexican-American immigrant want? (Is it our place, those of us who are affluent white US/Canadian citizens, to supply “the” answer to that question?)
  • Also, we wanted to avoid painting a clear, coherent picture, since we really have no idea ("we walk by faith and not by sight"); as a reflection of this, the festival selections are decidedly eclectic. Similarly, we wanted to avoid a narrowly US/Canada perspective which ignored the global realities of the church, especially since we are confronted with great diversity in our own churches (with congregants from Mexico and Latin America, Asia, Africa).
  • We wanted to avoid saying and do more showing (that is, singing!)
  • We wanted to avoid making a clean break from the past, and to acknowledge our roots. The song with which we opened the festival, for example, is a modern contrapuntal setting of the plainchant Veni, Creator Spiritus. In addition to being an ancient song of the church re-imagined by a contemporary composer, the chant’s words were used by Pope John to open the council in St. Peter’s, fifty years ago.
  • We didn’t want to be cynical, but we wanted to be honest (extended Skype conversations about our hopes for the future of the church were a central portion of our planning). Finally, in recognition of the prophetic facet of congregational song, we wanted the festival to carry a certain eschatological edge. “Lowly eyes shall be lifted while the tyrants taste their fear / for that sound is both a gospel and a warning,” as the text by Rory Cooney jauntily intones.



During the question period with which we concluded our workshop, a participant asked us both what our favourite hymns are. Knowing I could stand there for an hour, boring people to tears while I hopelessly tried to arrive at a favourite, I decided to share the songs that we sang at my wedding: Patrick Matsikenyiri’s gentle gathering song “Jesu tawa pano” (“Jesus, we are gathered”), an up-beat, ceilidh-style rendition of Joachim Neander’s “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” (to Catherine Winkworth’s translation, altered, from the Presbyterian Church in Canada’s 1997 Book of Praise), Richard Gillard’s “Brother, sister, let me serve you,” and the going-out song with which we concluded the hymn festival, Donaldson and Donaldson’s “We will go out with joy.” Tony, wise soul that he is, pled the fifth.

Tony and I both appreciate working collaboratively, and it was a reflection of both of our leadership styles that during the festival we had a small army of friends at the front with us, sharing their immense gifts as musical leaders. For me personally, uniting together in music and professing our faith in communal song is a glimpse of the promised world to come. It is my pleasure and privilege to share in ministry with friends and colleagues such as these, and to work toward a ministry of music that describes a Church where all are welcome at the Table. To borrow from Ricky Manalo’s “Many and great are bearers of the Word”:

...take now and spread the Word to every land,
the Word of goodness and hope.

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