I had a brief conversation with a member of our congregation the other day, Cheryl Magness, wife of our cantor and she helped me to understand that I used a poor choice of words in my post last Saturday about the music at the Harrison installation. (You can read Cheryl’s excellent blogpost on the service and celebration by clicking here.)
I apologize for calling the psalmody the “low point” of the service. That really was a poor choice of words. Those of you who read my posts regularly, know that words are not my strong suit. Ideas and courage don’t seem to be a problem but finding the right words to express those ideas courageously does not always come easily nor eloquently.
It would have been more appropriate to say that “the psalmody presented some liturgical issues that are worth addressing” or some such language. I most likely offended some with my poorly chosen words and so I apologize. No one has expressed any concern of being offended but I do thank Cheryl for helping me to see how the chosen words were not the best way to express my concern.
I would also like to use this opportunity to clarify the point of my criticism of the psalmody. I will say again, the musicians were great. The soloist, the pianist and the choir executed the music wonderfully. I even appreciated the style of music. I am more accepting of a broader range of musical styles in the liturgy than you might think. Basically, I favor all types of folk music and the psalmody was sung in an American Black folk style as best I can tell. (By the way, “contemporary worship” is not folk music. It is pop and entertainment music. It is a style that is not intended for the folks to sing but for performers and that is one of the reasons why worship styles such as the new one being tried out at Concordia Seminary St. Louis, are not beneficial to the Gospel. More on that in future posts.)
I have two concerns about the psalmody at the Harrison installation, one small and one larger and crucial one. The small issue is that the song did not fit well with the rest of the music of the service. It was all Anglo-Saxon music. Had there been some Hispanic, Chinese, African or other folk music from the LSB mixed into the service, I think the Black American folk psalmody would have been more appropriate. But that is a small point.
The crucial point has to do with the vocal improvisation. During the third verse the soloist improvised words over the choir’s “Amens.” I am OK with a descant improvisation or an improvisation on one of the main themes of the text using the words of the text, but singing totally new, totally improvised words is a concern. If anyone is going to do any verbal improvising in the Divine Service, it ought to be the called and ordained one who has been trained how to preach the Word. I improvise every Sunday when I preach because I preach from an outline. I follow the outline closely but there are times when I improvise on the themes of the outline but I have been instructed on how to handle the word and have been called by the congregation to preach it publicly.
This makes me hark back to my contemporary worship days. Believe it or not, years ago I started a contemporary service in one of the most conservative parishes in the synod. One of the things that really got me was the way in which the singers could not help but introduce their songs with what amounted to little mini-homilies (even if they were only 45 seconds long). I talked to the musicians several times about this. Even though they respected me, and I them, they just could not help themselves. I came to learn that this is nearly intrinsic to contemporary worship. It is the nature of the beast. I have been to several other contemporary services where this was also common place.
Vocal improvisations are of the same nature. They are mini-sermons. I do not know how else you would categorize them. Of course our hymns and spiritual songs are also mini-sermons but the pastor knows what is in them and there are no unsupervised words to be spoken when they are sung. I like the sound and energy of American, Black, folk, spiritual music but the improvisation is a concern. What will the improviser sing? Will the words be edifying and in keeping with the pure gospel? What if something is said that is not pure? Will the pastor interrupt the service and address it? That last question illustrates why we ought to do without vocal improvisations. There is no place in the Divine Service for non-ordained folks to be improvising proclaimed words. The liturgy has existed for 2,000 years without such and ought to continue that way. Bring on the Black folk music (with appropriate texts) but sans vocal improvisations.