Girly music in church? We’ve set a hare running here…

One of the things the Charismatic Movement did in the 1970s and ’80s was give expression to worship that engaged the emotions. This probably had more to do with style of music than mere lyrical content. But it opened some parts of the church up to more emotional songs and that was surely no bad thing. There must be a limit to how many times you can robustly tell God who he is in any one service – which is what a lot of traditional hymns involved us in doing. (I suspect we are telling God what he already knows anyway; so for whose benefit are we doing it? To prove our orthodoxy or otherwise? Discuss…)

As music has developed, however, it has been interesting to see what has longevity and what passes by quickly. Unfortunately, some nonsense has as great a shelf life as some good stuff. I am still not sure how Jesus is supposed to respond to our invitation to ‘fill your sheep’ – as one famous worship song has it: what with – sage and onion?

It is also surely too easy to see a vicious circle between the drift of worship music and what people are increasingly referring to as ‘the feminisation of the church’. Although there may be elements of connection and truth here, I suspect this is too easy a correlation. English blokes are not always the best at being fully rounded emotional beings; so, shaping a spirituality around their sometimes stunted emotional articulacy might not be the wisest of moves. To go back to what I said in my last post on this matter, we need in public worship a diet that feeds not only the whole individual, but the individual of different temperaments at different times of life – that takes the individual as part of a community on a journey that will not always feel the right one at that time.

In other words, ‘worship’ (which, we must remember, is primarily directed to and about God) should provide a vocabulary (for body, mind and spirit) that enables a massive variety of people in a particular community at a particular time in a particular social context to express the truth of their experience and their soul to God and each other.

John-BellThis is where I found the music of John Bell and the Iona Community‘s Wild Goose Worship (now ‘Resource’) Group revolutionary. Taking traditional (and, therefore, already known and loved) tunes, they put new words to them and opened up new expressions of worship. This meant starting where people really are and not pretending that worship starts where life is left behind. Rather than collude in the fantasy that has a worship leader announcing: ‘Let’s leave behind all the stuff of the week just gone – all the preoccupations, etc. – and focus our minds on God’, it encourages people precisely to bring to God their individual and communal experiences and NOT to forget or ignore them. That is why the singing of songs from the World Church (in their own languages) is so important: it helps us briefly enter into the experience of others who are not like us and learn to pray for them.

But two further points remain from comments on my last post. The first has to do with the ‘sacred/secular’ divide. The banality of some Christian worship music (both lyrically and musically), when set against the raw honesty and lyrical intelligence of some ‘secular’ music, is embarrassing.

leonard-cohenI contributed to a BBC Radio 2 documentary in November 2008 which was celebrating the 25th anniversary of Leonard Cohen‘s Hallelujah – before it was desecrated by Simon Cowell’s pets – and trying to work out why the song had been covered by so many people. What was the appeal of the song? One of the questions put to me was: ‘Hasn’t Cohen simply stolen the language of religion and applied it to sex and physical experience?’ My response? ‘No, Cohen has understood what many Christians have failed to grasp: that God is interested in the whole of life and not just the ‘spiritual’ bits. When Cohen, reaching deep into the contradictions of sex and love and loss, recalls fallen biblical characters (who are also, and despite this, seen as heroes in the Bible) sings of the ‘broken hallelujah’, he is accepting that we all come to God as messed up people.

But this leads me to the question put to me in an interview with Ludovic Hunter-Tilney of the Financial Times (4/5 April 2009) about the concern of many rock musicians with spirituality. Ludo questioned whether the rock gig now replaces the ‘church’ experience of corporate worship. I think my response can be summarised as: the rock gig might engage with spirituality (seen as the ‘existential reality and experience/questioning’) of the audience, but it is not ‘worship’ insofar as it is not directed towards an object of ultimate value. But it is an experience of corporate questioning, valuing, affirming and questioning – however contradictory.

rock gigMaybe the rock gig has become the closest some people get to ‘common worship’ because the churches have failed to provide the space in which genuine (and often inadequate or contradictory) expression of life, emotion, affirmation and questioning can take place without the leader putting you right before the end of verse 4 of the final song/hymn.

Wesley said that we learn our theology not from what we hear from the pulpit, but from what we sing. Put a good tune to rubbish and it will become popular – and it will soon have us believing rubbish as well as singing it. The ancient/modern debate in relation to worship is now redundant. The question that is pressing has more to do with whether we have clergy and other ‘worship leaders’ who understand what is going on in ‘services’ and are able to create the space in which people can find that the whole of life matters to God – and that, in expressing our individual and common experience, we find that we have been found by the God who is not surprised by what he sees and hears?