A scholar and composer ponders the role of church music amid a 1,700-year-old culture war
As an educator, composer, curator and practitioner, Robert Busiakiewicz has been working with sacred music for much of his adult career. Busiakiewicz, who holds a master’s of philosophy in music from Cambridge University, has served as music director for St. James Cathedral in Toronto, director of music for University of King’s College, Halifax and consultant on music for the award-winning television show The Handmaid’s Tale, among other roles.
In recent years, he tells the Anglican Journal, he has found himself questioning more and more deeply how music gets selected for church. How important is it that liturgical music be enjoyable as well as devotional?
Busiakiewicz gave a lecture series grappling with this and other questions in May at St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church in Toronto. This summer, he sat down with the Journal at the Toronto Music Garden, a park inspired by the music of Bach, to discuss some of the themes those lectures explored.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you share a brief précis of your lectures?
I’m really trying to isolate a couple of ideas about how we think pleasure relates to church music, what our relationship to pleasure is. Can we enjoy something too much? What does it mean to enjoy this music? Is it supposed to be enjoyed?
In writings from the early church, let’s say 1,600, 1,700 years ago, the way that people talk about church music is almost exactly the same as the way they’re talking about it now. People are really outraged about what they see and hear in church. And if you look around the church music world, people are massively outraged at each other about what kind of music they have. They judge each other.
I find that churches are sort of defining themselves over what kind of music they have in church. And I wanted to zoom in on this and say, “Hang on a minute, wasn’t music supposed to be this sort of binding force? Wasn’t music supposed to draw us together?” I just had a hunch that we were actually being separated in some way by our pleasures in music.
I was the director of music at St. James Cathedral in Toronto for five years, and we did a massive variety of music there. When I was there, it was very pluralistic. I would say yes to everything. I was interested after various services in how upset people would be or how delighted they would be. Some people would say “That 16th century music, that was real church music.” And then we’d do a bluegrass mass or a jazz mass, a gospel thing. And then people would say, “No, that’s real church music.” And I wanted to isolate some of those arguments about what we think music is doing in church. What do we think God might require of us? Does it matter?
A couple of times throughout your lectures, you described this in terms of a culture war.
People have been arguing about church music, for I’d say at least 1,700 years. They’ve been arguing about it in a very, in some cases, aggressive way.
There’s this 11th century account of monks in Glastonbury [England]. There was a point of contention on the style of chant with their abbot, Thurstan. And the monks wanted to keep their old chants instead of those which Thurstan wanted to foist upon them. In a fit of uncontrollable anger, Thurstan set his knights onto the monks and three of them were killed. Many more were injured in their own church, where they tried to take refuge. They were using physical violence against each other.
The Reformation is filled with people tearing down organs and fighting about music. Elizabeth I kind of throws some milk on to say, “Stop.” And then you have what’s called either the Epoch of Neglect or the Great Evangelical Awakening, where cathedral music, at least in England, becomes very, very amateur. It becomes like “Bring whatever instrument you want.” And professional music was really limited to royal chapels and the new cathedrals. And then in the late 19th century, the Oxford Movement comes along and says, “Well, we can have these rituals, we can have robed choirs,” and there’s an element of bringing back this kind of professionalism.
I think we’re still in that period now, with these big divisions around questions like, “Who is making this music?” “How good should it be?” I’ve been around church music since I was a boy. And everywhere you go, there are complaints about it.
I used to sing in the choir at King’s College in Cambridge. They’d sing at a very, very high standard. There were people who had complained that it was idolatry, that it was worshipping music, that it wasn’t really religious—which I disagree with, but nevertheless, that argument was constant. At St. James, people would come up to me after an evensong and they would say, “That was nothing more than a concert.”
I think any church musician would recognize that there is tension around what music is chosen in church. So when I say culture war, I mean people trying to assert legitimacy and authority over one another.
Are your views split between the permissive and the traditionalist?
Yeah. I was trying to criticize both sides of the argument. So let’s just isolate one, a very traditional view of what church music should be: “Sacred choral music by dead white men. God likes that.”
So if you believe that, you have to accept that there were [pieces written for] massive civic occasions that were about the flesh and the body. Things like the Tallis Spem in Alium. This is about a big wow factor, wowing people. It’s supposed to be overwhelming and just totally thrilling for your senses, for your ears. You can’t say that that is noble and worth having and then in the same breath say the Blessing of Abraham, which is this sort of big jazz gospel thing, is not okay because it’s so fleshly and so pleasurable.
I just was thinking there was a double standard about the flesh there or this idea of fleshly pleasures. People like [Reformation theologian John] Calvin would be like, “Okay, we can’t have any of this music because it’s so pleasurable.” St. Augustine as well: “Because I’m enjoying this so much, I’m trespassing grievously,” he says, “and I want to get rid of all the music in the church.” But then when I do that, I can’t take any information in because I want it to be sensual. Music acts on our senses. So on that side, I can see that the traditionists have a problem when it comes to the flesh and the body.
And then conversely, on the permissive side basically God is responsible for all forms of creativity. “If we hit two blocks together and say the same word over and over again, God is just as much responsible for that as he is for Beethoven’s Ninth. Therefore this is just as valid.” So there’s a kind of aesthetic relativism.
My priestly friends have so many diverging theologies about this. One of them would say there is as much honour in putting in the tent peg in the corner of the tabernacle as there is in doing any grand spiritual gesture of altruism—that God sees and cares about every little act.
But then you have someone like [16th- 17th century poet and priest] John Donne who would say, “Don’t give God a lame horse.” And I see that that tension is within each of us—to try to offer something that we think is the best. But our whole philosophy of the best is bound up in the culture we come from. If you read a lot of Marxist or communist books about aesthetics as I have, they could say that it’s these power imbalances that have determined what you like.
Does it matter where we draw a line? Who cares? Are we just clutching pearls here? The most important thing is to be radically welcoming, to embrace all these different cultures and hold them in a creative tension. That’s the mission. But at some point you’re going to have to make a distinction. At some point you’re going to have to say “this and not that.”
There has to be, in other words, some distinction between what is church music and what isn’t, somewhere along the line?
I think there are things that belong in that liturgy and some things that don’t belong.
We’re super-polarized is what I’m saying. I think it’s a problem just because I care a lot about church musicians and I see how they’re pulling their hair out. A lot of people are stressed. They might not show it, but they’re worried about what choices they make. The idea that we’re all part of the same team is being lost.
So is there a pathway toward alleviating that stress?
Well, in one of the lectures, I’m trying to saythat we have to acknowledge this flesh-mindgap. And to what extent you can bridgethat gap effectively or convincingly is howI think you’re going to keep a happy family,keep the family together. If you just assertthat “this is what God wants,” I think you’regoing to get conflict or people just assertingwhatever particular taste they have.
Another question I have for myself is, why does it matter if you do anything well? If God likes everything in this cacophony and you are a sweet singer in the eyes of God, why do we bother having professionals and Grammy-nominated pianists or these choirs who are trying this music? I don’t know.
Is it for the people in the pews that we want the music to be good? So that they want to be there to participate?
Yes. It’s a very interesting principle because some people don’t actually believe that the music is directed towards the people in the pews. A lot of the people on the traditionalist side of the argument say the music is actually directed towards God. So they’re sending what they think of as their best, as a kind of sacrifice directed towards the altar—whereas if you put the choir or the band at the front and sing towards the congregation and say, “This is about you,” it’s about getting bums on seats. It’s about your pleasure, it’s about attendance. Because we are under the siege mentality, with attendance numbers going down. So we have to make it more pleasurable for people. Well, if that’s the goal, then why don’t we just fry hamburgers and give them away for free? Why are we doing singing?
I’m starting to see music as a tool. It’s like a weapon. And like all weapons or tools, you can use it well and you can use it badly. It’s about transforming your lives and good works and being in community with one another and ministering to each other and being radically welcoming to one another.
Is it good to enjoy church music?
Well, this question of good then brings up morality, doesn’t it? And as soon as you’re talking about morality, you’re talking about what it means to live a good life. And so you’ve gone from, “Do I like this music?” to “What does it mean to live a good life?” in two steps—which is absolutely brutal.
I find that so difficult, because you think when you’re talking about music, you’re talking about something really simple.
What is a good life? And what does it mean to live one, to minister to my neighbour? And who is my neighbour? And what role does music play in that?
Music has a million different functions. But I think it has a truth role to play. We use music like [the decorations in] an illu-minated manuscript: to underline what we think is true, or an important thing: “We’re going to sing a special song about this.” We don’t sing songs about toilets or gravel. We sing songs about this resurrection story.
It can also just be a good bit of story-telling. I mean, the thing to bear in mind is that for most of the life of the church, people couldn’t read. The idea that we learn things from a book is quite modern. But learning things through seeing and hearing—we learn about the scriptures through a painting—we’ve been doing that a lot longer.
So music will teach you how to feel. It gives you kind of an emotional literacy. And I don’t think that is necessarily about pleasure. It’s trying to tell you a story. It’s trying to teach you something about your emotions.
So when someone says to me, “I didn’t enjoy that service,” or “I didn’t enjoy that anthem,” I’m like, “That was absolutely not the point of it. The point of that one was to be as painful as possible.” For example, on Good Friday at the veneration of the cross,
[I] programmed a piece that was really very dissonant and horrible. And someone said, “That was awful.” I said, “Yeah, can you imagine the nails going in? How disgusting. How awful.”
I think the sense that I’ve gotten from you is that what makes appropriate church music remains an open question for you.
I’m sort of slightly in despair. I have a lot of friends who are really interested in aesthetics and have strong positions in those fields. And I kind of want to be the person to say, “The emperor’s wearing no clothes. All of you are wrong in each other’s terms.” Not that I’m promoting a kind of relativism, but I’m just trying to break down various arguments.
Is there a hope of answering the question that we have in front of us here? Is there a process that we can set on toward finding a balance?
I would encourage my colleagues—my friends and my priestly colleagues as well—to try to practice a form of radical honesty with themselves, to try to be as honest as they can. Because I think there is some element of hiding [in this debate]. We hide behind our ideas of God, our ideas of church. We couch our aesthetic preferences in theological language.
Be honest and say, “We have this music because we like it,” or “We have this music because we’ve delegated our aesthetic life as a church to this group of experts; we’ll be really honest about it. And we put our faith in that person.”
It’s a challenging balancing act. If you empower your musicians to do lots of things, well then you’re going to see a better balancing act. I don’t know what the [full] solution is. I think we need the humility and honesty together to say, “Well, maybe I still have something to learn about this.”