Thursday, March 14, 2013

In Defense of the Parish Band

There seems to be a tendency (especially here in the US) to confuse "traditional or classical Anglicanism" with 1950's Episcopalianism. Now, the Episcopal Church in the 50's was a slightly more orthodox place, yet it was not a bastion of classical Anglicanism, in any sense. This line of thought essentially presents Bicknell's, liberal catholic, commentary on the Articles of Religion as normative for Anglicanism. While his interpretation is a possible (yet very bad) interpretation of the Articles, it is hardly normative or "classical". However, the point of this brief article is not to criticize 1950's Episcopalianism nor Bicknell's interpretation of the Articles but to address a point. It seems that "Anglicanism" is often associated with the organ, perhaps given this association with the first half of the 20th century, this association makes a bit more sense. This was the zenith of the Anglo-Catholic takeover of the Protestant Episcopal Church. This often leads the average churchman to associate the organ with "classical Anglicanism". Although it is a beautiful instrument and has a unique advantage in leading congregational song, it is still a rather new expression of music in Anglican parishes.

The point of this is to really distance classical Anglicanism from 1950's Episcopaliansim. A brief glance back into the history of Anglican music should confirm this, especially if we consider the music of the 17th and 18th centuries. The main form of song in those days was not the hymn but the metrical psalm (which will not be discussed in detail here) -- essentially a "translation" of the Psalms to meter, or popular song. These were sung to popular (and secular) tunes. Notable Queens hated them, styling them "Geneva jigs". However, despite royal distaste, the metrical psalm was the Anglican way to sing in church (and outside of church too). Now, obviously musical custom was not identical in every place and there was considerable variation, even organ usage in cathedrals and collegiate chapels. However, the most common form of music offered in parish churches was the parish band, which consisted of unpaid parishioners. The form that became the most popular is often called "west gallery music" today, before that time it appears that most music was unaccompanied (a cappella). The "west gallery" refers to a space added in the 17th century for musicians above the nave in "prayer book parishes".

The most common instrument played was the fiddle, which was cheaper and available in most villages. Some parish bands had the bass, cellos and flutes. The downfall of the west gallery style of music is attributed to the Oxford Movement, which ultimately desired to "restore" the Church of England to the medieval standards, thus making this style of music irrelevant and also introducing Anglicanism to the organ as the staple for parish music ever since.

Now, I'm usually not one to agree with the neo-Anglicans but I can't seem to find a reason for classical Anglicans to be opposed to modern forms of music, if we accept hymnody and organ music. These two things were vehemently opposed by Anglicans in ages past (especially the singing of hymns -- most notably by High Churchmen). It's ironic that the reasoning why many "traditional" churchmen oppose contemporary music is also the same reasoning that traditional Anglicans opposed singing hymns!

That being said, I think that west gallery style music offers a good balance between two extremes and can show us some guidance on how to incorporate contemporary music into our services. Lastly, I am not condemning organ music, I love it, but I think that there is no "case" against contemporary music, from an Anglican perspective, and it can be helpful in reaching our younger friends with the Gospel of Christ.

The first principle is that the musician(s) should not be converted into "stars". The west gallery musicians played behind the congregation. Modern "church growth experts" tell us that putting our musicians behind us will kill congregational singing. While I cannot comment on the veracity of their findings, I tend not to doubt their expertise. However, there are other ways of diminishing the musicians' role by placing them off to the side. I think so long as they are not "center stage' and not blocking the pulpit or table, they should be fine. The second principle is that the parish band should incorporate a variety of instruments and talents. A modern equivalent of the fiddle is the guitar. Other musical instruments can be incorporated, keyboards, (certain) drums, flutes, violins, various percussion, etc. I think drum sets should be avoided but bongo drums can add a nice sound to a service. The third point is that the parish band should be something to be proud of, it demonstrates the commitment of the parish and can be something to aspire to as a parishioner. The parish band can edify the people of God if approached correctly and should not be avoided for artificial "Anglican" reasons.

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