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

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Top 5 Quotes from the Hymn Society Annual Conference

Each year at the annual conference of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, I am amazed by how many “aha!” moments that I have. Some of these can’t be boiled down to a sound bite, but many of them become handy phrases that reform and reshape my music ministry for the coming year. What’s also amazing is how they crop up in all different corners of the conference, from plenary addresses and sectionals, to rushed rehearsals for the Next Big Event, to casual chats over lunch or at the pub when the day is done.

Last year, the theme of the annual conference was one that resonated strongly with me, “Beyond the Page: The Power of Teaching to Strengthen Congregational Song.” I came home with many of the ideas, conversations, and “aha!” moments circling around my head à la Looney Tunes; so in anticipation of this year’s summer conference in New Orleans, Louisiana, here are my top 5 quotes from last year’s conference:

5. “We are not bureaucrats who carry out some fill-in-the-blank exercise of plug-and-play worship.”

-- Marcia McFee

Worship consultant (and self-professed metaforager) Dr. Marcia McFee gave an amazing plenary presentation which blended congregational song, spoken word, rich visual imagery, rhythm, and silence. Her consultancy, Worship Design Studio, is a forum to explore and inspire engaging worship which marries the journey of faith with love for the arts. Marcia’s words remind us that, as church musicians, we are called to do more than what I would call an insert-song-here approach to worship leadership. While there is something to be said for familiarity, Marcia urges that there is delight to be found beyond the margins of our habitual experience. “Worship leadership,” Marcia told us, “is a kind of spiritual direction, one which we enact by placing signposts along the way, not by saying what kind of experience someone should be having in a given moment.” Rooted in an understanding of liturgy as “the work of the people,” Marcia urged that Christian ritual happens when individuals enact and embody a spiritual practice, and that an awesome task such as this cries out to be accomplished with and through art.

Note to self: Get “metaforager” added to my job description.

4. “We who are of the hegemony shouldn’t sing of God’s power too freely.” 

--Richard Leach

During lunch one day I was chatting with hymn writer Richard Leach. The Hymn Society is often an opportunity to discover hymnody that you would never encounter at your home church, and we were talking about some of what we had been singing over the previous day. Richard, referring to one of the selections, pointed out his uneasiness with some hymns written from within the culturally powerful North American context, how some hymns speak very freely of God’s great power, with the implicit assumption that God will wield this power in the service of the singers. Historically there are many examples of this, such as the steadfast hymns of German Protestantism (“Praise to the Lord! the Almighty, the King of creation!”; “A mighty fortress is our God... the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth.”) Or, take Cecil Frances Alexander’s “All things bright and beautiful,” which tells us that God ordained the social states of wealth and poverty (“The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate; God made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate.”) “Hegemons shouldn’t sing about God’s power,” as Richard put it.

Now, these examples are hymns that I love, and I think Richard would agree with me that with proper context they still have a place in the worship life of the church. My point is, that as members of powerful mainline denominations, we have a responsibility to embrace hymnody which broadens our spiritual vocabulary and helps give voice to the voiceless. We should be just as ready to accept a framework for God and God’s church which wields no power at all, in the spirit of the one who came riding on a donkey, or of Pope Francis’s entreaty “oh, how I would like a poor church, and for the poor.” Richard’s own hymns explore images such as the dancing Trinity (“Come, join the dance of Trinity”), the paradox of the cross (“God has Chosen what is Foolish”), and the revolutionary quality of the Jesus event (“Waiting for Messiah”). Further, I think we also need to ask what is the context of some of these “power and might” texts: for example, many of the Psalms extol the greatness and might of God, but were written by a powerless people wandering in the wilderness. That is, it can be a life-giving thing for a disenfranchised people to claim a powerful God through song. My chat with Richard reminded me that we have to continually ask questions of the hymnody we sing, and be mindful of what claims we are making on divine power.

I ask you: at what other conference can you chat with amazing hymn writers about the prophetic quality of congregational song over catfish and hushpuppies in the cafeteria? The Hymn Society is the best.

3. “Church music should be subversive.”

-- Carl P. Daw, Jr.

One of the highlights for me of the breakout sectionals at last year’s conference was a presentation by Stephanie Budwey and Susan Blain called “Queer Hymnody.” This presentation grew in part out of Stephanie’s ongoing research into how the church sings a transgressive and nonconforming God, and what more needs to be done before our song fully reflects everyone on the prism’s colourful bands (to steal from paraphrase Mary Louise Bringle). This sectional voiced vital questions that we should be asking of congregational song in a time when LGBTQ youth are committing suicide in record numbers, among any number of other abuses and indignities about which the church should be enraged. The takeaway quote above comes from a prolific hymnwriter and former Executive Director of the Hymn Society, Carl Daw, whose own hymns voice the struggle of the marginalized and who has inspired students such as Stephanie Budwey, Adam Tice, and others to engage a fuller rainbow of congregational song. In calling for the subversiveness of church music, I think Carl is not saying that it should alienate singers who aren’t used to this imagery, but that church music has a responsibility to reflect the one who overturned tables in the temple in the name of justice. Stephanie discussed new contributions to this genre that have emerged from the Hymn Society, such as Edward Moran’s “God of Queer Transgressive Spaces,” as well as exploring queer readings of more familiar texts, in dialogue with queer theology. I was reminded of early Canadian contributions to this movement, such as Gordon Light’s popular “Draw the Circle Wide,” which was ahead of its time in voicing a hope that the love of Christ can open every door: 

Draw the circle wide 
Draw it wider still 
Let this be our song 
no one stands alone...

I left the sectional energized by the discussion, and hopeful that we are continuing to take steps toward a church which is a house of prayer for all people.

2. “The task of the church musician is to drill down deep into the reality that the divine manifests itself in the human in ways that fall outside of language.”

-- Christopher Anderson

Another highlight of last year’s conference was Dr. Christopher Anderson’s plenary address “What do you think you’re doing?: The Musician and Teacher Beyond the Page.” (His talk has since been published in the Autumn 2014 edition of The Hymn, and seriously, drop what you’re doing and read it now; like, I would get a tattoo of this entire article if it were feasible). Anderson’s forays into the whys and wherefores of our profession resist reduction into pithy quotes; but he asks the church musician what it is, exactly, that we think we’re doing when we put words to music and lead them in worship (whether from the organ bench, conductor’s stand, djembe, guitar, praise band, whatever). He argues that “it” is about more than what is printed on the page; music partners with words toward a shared end that is more than either of them accomplish alone. In this way, the role of the church musician is to educate, if we take the Latin sense of the word educare, that is, to lead someone from one state into another. For him, music, like gospel, is an embodied act, an impulse that moves in the created order. It is the nature of this musically embodied act that it is never the same twice, and through it we are changed.

Another quotable quote from this speaker (who, it should be said, has inspired in many a love of scholarship and academic pursuit): “Reality never went to the academy.” As a graduate of a university music programme now working in congregational ministry, I say “amen!”

1. “Attending the Hymn Society conference has been like if I had only ever seen rivers, or lakes, and then seeing the ocean for the first time.”

-- Eric Sarwar 

A huge bonus of each year’s Hymn Society conference is that I always make a few new friends for the journey. Eric Sarwar is a composer and a research fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.  It was his first time attending a Hymn Society conference, and on the last day, after we had participated in the closing hymn festival with Jorge Lockward and Amanda Powell, this was his response. I couldn’t agree more, in part because the Hymn Society is a place where church musicians can meet and trade ideas / experiences / challenges from the day-to-day of worship leadership, and explore music, prayer practices, and possibilities that you might not have been able to imagine in your own context. I couldn’t imagine tackling this vocation without the friends and colleagues I have made at the Hymn Society, and I know my ministry is both the richer and the humbler for it.

In anticipation of another amazing Hymn Society conference this year, I say godspeed to everyone planning, preparing, and attending New Orleans, and blessings for another year of adventures in music ministry.

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