Churches sing a new song unto the Lord

Published February 1, 2008

Composer Deanna Witkowski tries to make jazz friendly to church people.

Music and the church have been locked in a passionate embrace for centuries, with the Anglican tradition providing a particularly rich heritage. Canadian Anglicans have a rather conservative image when it comes to music, with many people thinking that the Church of England descendants hew pretty closely to the organ/choir/congregation permutations, leavened perhaps with a contemporary-style praise group and a guitar.

While intending no criticism of the great traditions of organ, guitar, choir or praise group, the Anglican Journal went looking for unusual music in Anglican congregations and found plenty. What constitutes “unusual” music, of course, varies according to context. Throat singers or native drummers would not be unusual in an Inuit or Cree community, but they might be in an urban cathedral.

What follows is just a taste of the many different kinds of music Anglicans are playing, singing, stomping, banging, shouting and improvising as they “sing a new song unto the Lord.”

Toronto jazz

From the nightclub to the sanctuary, jazz has traveled an unpredictable road, but now could be characterized as the most widespread “alternative” Anglican music. “It has emerged as a new classical music,” noted Christopher Dawes, who is music director of St. George the Martyr in Toronto, which describes itself as “Toronto’s oldest venue for new and unusual music.”

Jazz, however, is not often integrated into Sunday morning worship; frequently, it resides in a separate service, such as a Sunday evening “jazz vespers,” like that offered at Toronto’s Christ Church, Deer Park, where Rev. Tim Elliott was the rector. “We developed a format where musicians play what they would like and there are prayers, a short reflection and a hymn. We designed it so it wasn’t Sunday morning. We turned the lights down, there were no instructions and people came in hooded sweatshirts,” he recalled. Now, Mr. Elliott uses such jazz metaphors as improvisation in a consulting business.

Jazz pianist and sacred music composer Deanna Witkowski, who is based in New York City and has served as music director at two Episcopal churches, played with her trio in Toronto in January; she tries to make jazz more friendly to church people. “The word ‘jazz’ scares people. People think it’s really cerebral, or it’s improvisation that doesn’t make sense. My (compositions) are self-explanatory for congregational singing,” she said.

Pasting jazz standards into a liturgical context often doesn’t work, she noted. “Most of the tunes have texts. How does Autumn Leaves go with the lectionary readings?” she said.

Pushing musical boundaries fits within the character of Anglicanism, said Mr. Dawes. “The congregation didn’t sing prior to the Reformation, which also brought the reading of Scripture in the vernacular,” he said, noting that the Book of Common Prayer and church doctrine is intended to unite the Anglican world, but “worship can be conducted in the appropriate local language and in whatever style is appropriate.”

Winnipeg Dinka drummers

Last June, worshippers at the installation service for newly-elected primate Archbishop Fred Hiltz witnessed a little bit of Africa at St. Matthew’s church. The Sudanese congregation at St. Matthew’s, called the Emmanuel Mission, danced, drummed and chanted in the Dinka language – just their ordinary style of worship on an average Sunday afternoon. One of four congregations at St. Matthew, their worship, while joyful, also reflects the pain of the ongoing Sudanese civil war.

“Most of the congregation came in the fall of 2003, from the same refugee camp in Kenya,” said Rev. Cathy Campbell, rector of St. Matthew. The 95-year-old walls of St. Matthew are no stranger to a variety of music – the Advent concert included bluegrass music as well as contemporary anthems and traditional carols; now added is the beat of the African diaspora.

“We love it. It’s full of life and joy, but rooted in reality. It comes out of suffering, out of what it takes to keep a people’s spirit alive. It comes out of civil war, tremendous deprivation, suffering and loss. One woman who was in the refugee camp said, ‘We would dance every day just to stay alive,'” said Ms. Campbell.

British Columbia variety

Henry Williams, who has the title of “music facilitator” at St. George’s in Cadboro Bay, B.C., calls his ministry “unique.” Another word might be “eclectic,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “selecting what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods, or styles.”

St. George’s has an organ and a choir. It also has heard, in recent months, “a contemporary gospel singer, a string quartet, brass fanfares, a folk music trio and two well-known classical singers from Victoria,” wrote Mr. Williams in an e-mail to the Journal.

“I design the music around the liturgy using any medium I require and in any musical idiom that lends itself to a satisfying sense of ‘spirituality’ for the congregation,” he said. Mr. Williams has found that secular society is so demanding of time that getting a large choral group to attend weekly rehearsals or performances is too difficult, so “when I need big choral support, I have a list of co-operative wonderful people who are just too busy to commit to regular rehearsals … we call them St. George’s Festival chorus.” Mr. Williams has also changed the choir practice time into an “open house” where all members of the congregation are welcome to enjoy fellowship and sing. “Enjoy the familiar, learn the new,” he described it.

He is also guiding a teenage quartet “just setting out on a new adventure at St. George’s. Great young people who get to sing their music, their way.” The once-popular idea that attracting young people meant using “any resource possible to please them such as guitar and drum combos, folk instruments, beaters of all kinds” does not work, he believes. “Young people don’t require or want pop songs when they think of God. They want beautiful, well-met spiritual sound,” Mr. Williams said.

Do you know of other “unusual” church music? That is, music that is unusual in the context of the church? Tell us about it in 250 words or less: [email protected] or Anglican Journal, 80 Hayden St., Toronto ON M4Y 3G2.


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