Lent Talk 10 March 2009

Midwives of Faith’: Music, Society and the Sacred

by Rev. Dr Jonathan Arnold, Chaplain of Worcester College, Oxford

In music, there seems to be an umbilical link with the sacred. Through the centuries, musicians have proved themselves to be the midwives of faith, bringing their gifts to the historic challenge of inspiring the faithful in worship’ (James Macmillan, Sandford Lecture, 2008)


Music and singing has long been associated with religion, and no more so than in the Judeo, Christian tradition. If we consider the bible, it is full of musical references and songs: In the O.T. we have of course, the psalms, song of songs, trumpets, hymns, words of praise and emotion that speak of humanity’s relationship with God, and the story of theirs and our journey on life’s pilgrimage.


In the New Testament we have images of angels singing endless praises to God in the book of Revelation and the simple liturgical use of a hymn sung at the Last supper with Jesus and his disciples.


Tonight, I want to suggest that music is and always has been an intrinsic expression of faith. That through our belief in God the creator, and as created human beings, we have a natural drive to praise that creator and to express ourselves, both highs and lows, through music, which can express more powerfully than mere words, what it means to pray and praise, and can help us to come closer to an inexpressible God. 


It’s going to be something of a historical journey, from ancient to modern, and I will be playing short clips of music to demonstrate my points as I go along. My main argument goes to the heart of doctrinal theology: Christianity is not merely a set of dogmatic facts to be adhered to, but is a life-force. It’s not just about the head, but is also about the heart. It is, to use a long word: existential, we have to live it.


Music is the natural expression of life in all its fullness, both great occasions and dreadful ones. One of the oldest forms of song, the psalms, offer us great insight into what it is to be human and there have been many musical settings of psalms that try to capture their full sense of life’s rich experience. Before my talk we heard a little of the plainchant style. Here’s the familiar Anglican chant that let’s the words speak for themselves. Other composers seek to express the real drama of the psalms.


Whatever the setting is like, it is hard for us to join together in music in the context of worship and treat that music objectively. When we think of music liturgically, we become involved, and all music becomes subjective. To give an extreme example, if we are at a funeral and singing a hymn, or listening to a piece, it cannot be objective for the listener, because the context tells us that this death points to our own human frailty and weakness. Likewise for the performer, there can be no objectivity in worship music. Mark Kilfoyle puts it like this: ‘When sacred music is performed, who is listening?'


Depending on your perspective, the answer can range from an accidental few – those passing along the street, perhaps, as a church choir rehearses for an evening service, lending their ears briefly, pleasurably, to fragments of song – to a paying audience in a concert hall, to the mightiest listener of all, the very One to whom so much sacred music is addressed. God is certainly, at the very least, the imagined listener of so many of these moving petitions and prayers in music.’


(Mark Kilfoyle, taken from programme notes for The Sixteen Choral Pilgrimage, 2009)




In liturgy, in worship, music has the purpose of offering our creator our time and gifts, minds, bodies and souls, seeking to be closer to him, and to commune with the divine. Just as great churches and cathedrals were designed to symbolise this act, so music expresses the same desire to be attentive to God. The performer can be disciplined and practised or informal and spontaneous, as long as sincerity exists, it is facilitate worship. As listeners, music can aid our wordless search for God and mediate, transport our feeble prayers and ourselves closer to God. Thus, the performer and listener’s relationship reflects that of creator and created.




If I am considering western music, then the plainchant we heard at the beginning is about as simple and as early as we get. But when this single strand of music was combined with another tune and another one, dating from the 12th and 13th centuries in Europe, then we have polyphony, literally, many sounds. Moreover, in the middle ages, theology was often imbedded in the music itself, for example, if a piece was in triple time, ¾ as we now call it, or three beats in a bar, this was indicted with a circle at the start of the manuscript, because the holy trinity is also 3, and as the trinity is perfect in union, so is a circle perfectly joined with no beginning or end. Likewise many composers chose to include number games in their music to indicate some theological concept, known as numerology.


Throughout history, composers have devoted their art to God. Bach used to write Deo Gratias, thanks be to God, at the end of his pieces, to show where the gift of music had originally come from. I like the circle metaphor in terms of musical response to our Christian faith. We start with the gift of music or a musical talent, which leads to a potential in a person to respond to the gift, to nuture the gift and to use it. Once used it leads to the experience of the music itself, as performer, listener and participant. Combined with the worship context, this becomes a faith experience and a creative response to God the creator. Thus the circle of music and faith is completed by the acknowledgement that the creative musical instinct is a gift, to which others can respond.


Many composer’s sacred music has been shaped by the challenging religious and cultural times in which they have lived. For instance in this country, we have the medieval, which we have heard, to the Reformation, a country rising out of a puritan Commonwealth in the 1660s, rebuilidng culture, art, music and sacramental religion, to an unsteady and uncertain eighteenth century with its many monarchs with varying degrees of denominational alleigences. From huge Church growth in the nineteenth century to what is popularly believed to be a slow decline in twentieth, we now live in a new era of a so-called ‘secular society’ where ‘much debate about religion in recent times has become polarised and fractious’ (Macmillan, Sandford St. Martins Lecture, 2008).


For instance, when Henry Purcell was born, the Commonwealth was coming to an end. Since 1649 and the execution of Charles I, the Puritans had sought to bring strong government, social justice and pure religion. The reality however, for a country where virtually everyone had a Christian faith, was a time of religious and liturgical famine. The episcopacy had been abolished, as had the Book of Common Prayer, the use of organs in Church and the Eucharist were banned; the Lord’s Prayer had been abandoned by the Puritans as potentially popish. Even Christmas was cancelled! The diarist John Evelyn could find nowhere to celebrate Christmas in 1652, 1652 or 1654. In 1655 he managed to find a service with a sermon and, in 1656 and 1657, risked imprisonment when he attended a service of the Eucharist and received the sacrament.

However, 1662 Act of Uniformity under the restored King Charles II gave the Prayer Book have a new lease of life, and it would have been the main form of service familiar to Henry Purcell as he grew up, all other forms of service being suppressed. Purcell used well the eloquence of the Prayer Book words to great effect in pieces such as his Funeral Sentences (with words adapted from Job 14,1) that reflect the poignancy of the liturgical moment at which they were to be sung in the funeral:


When they come to the Grave, while the Corpse is made ready to be laid into the earth, the Priest shall say, or the Priest and Clerks shall sing: Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live …


The power of the words would surely not be lost on Purcell, who lived through the great plague of 1665/6, the great fire of London, and who had six children, only two of which survived him.





At least one person would argue that you can perform sacred music in a secular setting, but you cannot take the sacred out of the music.


The Scottish composer, James MacMillan has said that music gives us ‘a glimpse of something beyond the horizons of our materialism or our contemporary values’. Whether we imagine such music reaching the divine ear or not, we can take MacMillan’s point that all music is already religious, not necessarily for its literal content, as for the way we listen to it. A Christian faith, has been the starting point for much of James’ Macmillan’s music, especially for choir:


Religion … is often discussed as an extra-musical starting point for my work. Religion causes one to take positions and can be a confrontational issue at the best of times, even within the supposedly theologically neutral space of the concert hall. (“Raising Sparks”, Tempo, 1997)


The centrality of Macmillan’s faith, however, need not make the music exclusive to the non-believer, but the listener should recognise the conceptual origins of the compositional art:


So for those people who initially do not want to engage with theology, they should not need to. But to ignore where it’s come from is to ignore something of the substance and essence of the music.


Just as Purcell made the most of the artistic benefits of living in a post-puritanical age, and Handel capitalised on the days of Hanovarian grandeur, Macmillan eschews the ‘Puritanism’ of the modernist rejection of Western music’s tradition. His music embraces ‘the technical gains of the post-war modernists while relinquishing that set’s purist avoidance of Western music’s tradition.’ (Daniel Jaffé). This too is linked with the notion of faith:


Macmillan readily accepts that his love of that tradition reflects his own world-view as a Roman Catholic: ‘There wouldn’t even be Catholicism if there had been an attempt to try and dam up the past in the same, puritanical way. Catholicism needs to have its past as well as its potential future; and therefore I suppose that conditions the way I look at the past.’(Interview with Daniel Jaffé, 1999)


Macmillan is very much part of that potential future warning that a liberal elite with an ‘ignorance-fuelled hostility to religion’ are trying to drive out religion from public life and culture.’(Sandford St. Martin Lecture) Thus, Macmillan argues, ‘Embracing spirituality is now one of the most radical and counter-cultural moves a musician can make.’


The main battle is no longer, as in 1659, that between Puritan, Roman Catholic and Anglican religion in Britain, nor, as in 1710 betweeen Whig and Tory, but between religion and aggressive non-believers:


A smug ignorance, a gross oversimplification and caricature that serves as an analytical understanding of religion, is the common intellectual currency. The bridge has to be built by Christians and others being firm in resisting increasingly aggressive attempts to still their voices.


The language of the battle-field is Macmillan’s own. If this is a fight for religion’s place within society then, he suggests, even though there is a common ‘assumption that a war has been won by the forces of the grand secular project’, nevertheless, the atheists are on the losing side:


The campaigning atheists, as opposed to the live-and-let-live variety, are raising their voices because they recognise that they are losing; the project to establish a narrow secular orthodoxy is failing.


For Macmillan, a bridge needs to be built between the Christian world view and the secular European culture in which they live. This is to be done by ‘speaking truth to power’ and ‘expressing their insights in creativity according to their beliefs.’

Macmillan’s idea finds its inspiration in the words of Pope John Paul II in his Letter to Artists:


Even beyond its typically religious expressions true art has a close affinity with the world of faith so that, even in situations where the culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience (Pope John Paul II, 1992).


This is true particularly with music of all ages, the ‘umbilical link with the sacred’ and the musicians who are the ‘midwives of faith’.


It doesn’t really matter what style you prefer, but the sincerity of engagement with the music in worship, or meditation. Good music will transport you. It’s all about transcendence.


Music has always been an essential expression, not only of what it is to be a religious believer, but what it is to be human. To engage with both religious text and music, is to touch the numinous, the spiritual in all of us. As James Macmillan so eloquently puts it:

I believe it is God's divine spark which kindles the musical imagination now, as it has always done, and reminds us, in an increasingly dehumanised world, of what it means to be human.’

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