A few weeks ago I visited the parish of Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio, Texas. Former Anglican priest, Fr. Christopher Phillips, has made the parish his life’s mission and has created there a remarkable church and school.
One of the first to pioneer “Catholic Anglicanism” (rather than Anglo-Catholicism), Fr. Phillips was ordained as a Catholic priest and with a handful of former Episcopalians built a prospering Catholic parish that keeps alive the Anglican patrimony. With a school of more than over 500 children from pre-school through grade twelve, part of that patrimony is church music. When I attended the daily school Mass I had the thrill to hear all five hundred singing together.
It was sublime and inspiring.
The children at Atonement Academy sing well because they are taught to sing. All the students have music every day. Practically all the students belong to a school choir. In other words, Fr. Phillips and his faculty and parish have invested in music. That means they have hired good music teachers. They have salvaged and rebuilt pipe organs. They have purchased sheet music. They have constructed a custom-designed choir practice room. They have promoted good church music, and, as a result, they have prospered.
In this utilitarian age, why should a school promote music to such an extent? There are several reasons. Firstly, as St. Paul commanded, we should “speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19). The astonishing fact of the matter is that it is only within the Judeo-Christian tradition that devotees are expected to sing. Pagans may chant and howl or mutter incantations, but they do not sing.
The religions of the ancient Middle East were cults devoted to offering sacrifices to terrifying gods and goddesses. Devotees attempted to appease their gods, but they did not praise them. They may have offered enchanting music, but they did not chant the psalms. The psalms of the Hebrews stand out among the dark practices of pagan antiquity as poignant and powerful songs of praise to God. There is nothing like them in ancient religion anywhere.
It is on this foundation of praise that Christian music was built. Chanting the psalms was the mainstay of medieval monastic worship, and from the psalms, Christian hymnody developed. Catholics must admit that for the last five hundred years our Protestant brothers and sisters have been far more proficient and prolific in the production of good hymns. The comparative democratization that accompanied Protestantism meant that the people were expected to sing and so they learned to sing—to sing they needed good hymns and spiritual songs in their own language.
The Scottish metrical psalter, Anglican chant, and the rousing hymns of the German Reformation all stand out as a great move forward in sacred music for the people of God. Through the centuries the Anglican tradition developed not only splendid hymns that melded words and music beautifully, but they also developed the medieval choral tradition to produce some of the finest choral music in the world. Among the great hymnodists, Charles Wesley wrote more than 6,000 hymns to supplement the revivalist Methodist movement. The majority are astounding not only in their heartfelt sentiments and beautiful poetry, but also in their historically and Biblically sound theology.
Why is singing so important? St. Augustine of Hippo said, “He who sings prays twice.” When we sing good hymns and sacred music the heart opens through the music and the mind opens through the lyrics. Very simply, when we sing we worship with both heart and mind, and that is what we are meant to do in church. We are not there simply to fulfill and obligation or to make an oblation. We are also there to offer a sacrifice of praise, and this is most fully done when the congregation sings heartily—and by “heartily” I mean “from the heart.”
Some years ago, Thomas Day wrote a good book called Why Catholics Can’t Sing. He accurately assessed a number of cultural and historical factors that cause the usually abysmal singing in Catholic churches, but I do not believe he addressed one of the most important factors—the fact that when we sing we are somewhat vulnerable. When we sing we open our mouths, but we also open our hearts and minds, and this makes us uncomfortable. We resist the approach of the ineffable for what is eternal threatens our comfortable acceptance of this temporal world. On a more practical note, too often the hymns are unfamiliar and we feel insecure. We do not want to make a mistake and sing badly, so we do not sing at all. All the more reason why we should take the time and effort to invest in music in our schools and parishes.
In this age of ecclesiastical entertainment and praise bands, there is another reason for investing in good sacred music: It is a sign of contradiction. When you go to a Catholic Church and hear a praise band, it indicates that the prevailing culture is steering the liturgy and music choice. On the other hand, when you enter a Catholic Church and hear the pipe organ bellowing and the choir making melodious and mellow music, you realize that you have escaped shallow pop culture and entered something grander and more mysteriously musically wonderful than you had thought possible. This is not being hi falutin’ or highbrow. It is simply singing praise to the holiest in the heights.
I contend that for the church to be thusly counter-cultural is highly evangelical. People will come to the beauty of worship and their lives will be transformed, and if both church and school embrace this program the transformation and evangelization will begin with the children and draw in the whole family.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.