In recent days David Schütz, has triggered an animated discussion in far flung areas of the Christian community through provocative comments he placed on his Sentire Cum Ecclesia Blog attacking contemporary Christian music and musicians. His comments have been widely circulated in samizdat form by email and various other methods amongst musicians and composers and are generating much heat and discussion. His criticism was directed at contemporary Christian music in general and the As One Voice National Christian Music Conference in particular. This Conference to be held in September has been sponsored by the major publisher of contemporary music in Australia, Willow Publishing, and which we have been promoting the event on Catholica pro bono. For those interested you can read the debate that has ensued on David's own blog HERE. My co-publisher wife, Amanda (Milly) McKenna who is both a musician and liturgical and general composer in her own right, has responded on David's blog but in today's commentary for Catholica she expands on what she has written there. Amanda will be one of the presenters at the Conference and is a member of the working committee of the newly formed Australian Pastoral Musicians' Network. She is employed by the Catholic Education Office in the Diocese of Parramatta as a composer of contemporary Christian and liturgical music and to promote the development of musical standards in schools and parishes, particularly with a view to enthusing young adults through music. Through her publishers, Willow Publishing, she is also a regular presenter of workshops for pastoral musicians throughout Australia in both Catholic and other Christian settings. ...Brian Coyne (Editor)
The comments from David Schütz which have triggered this discussion...
And all the work of the National Liturgical Music Board goes down the gurgler. I'm sorry, but someone has to put a stop to this.
You can read the response Amanda McKenna has already provided on David's blog HERE. What follows on this page is a freshly written and wider defence of Contemporary Christian Music in general.
My View from the Piano Stool Pew...
I am what they call a 'cradle Catholic'; baptised shortly after my birth, raised in a practicing Catholic family who lived the faith on a daily, not just a Sunday, basis, and educated in Catholic schools. In Year 5 I joined the parish choir and have been active in music ministry ever since.
I use the term 'ministry' here quite intentionally as a member of, by virtue of my baptism, "a royal priesthood" — the Body of Christ. I've found that those who get all bent out of shape at the use of the term are usually worried that we 'laity' are a bunch of radical upstarts who want to somehow usurp the role of the priest and run the whole show or something. Well I can't speak for anyone else, but I've seen how hard most of these guys work and you wouldn't get me to do their job for quids! The point is that Vatican II woke up the People of God and there's no getting around it. I take very seriously the call of Vatican II for each and every one of us to grow up in faith and use our gifts to make a difference in the world. It is, after all, why we were given them in the first place.
Although classically trained, my tertiary studies were in jazz while my professional career has encompassed everything from working in the rock and recording industries to being director of music or lead cantor for parish, diocesan, state and national liturgies and events. And throughout it all I have also been the one sitting down the back of the church at the keyboard leading my own parish community in song at liturgy. My 'pew' has been the piano stool for longer than I care to remember.
Like my parents before me I was blessed to be in the right place at the right time when, as a young wife and mother recently moved into a new home, a small local Catholic community was in the birthing process. We found a small group of about 40 people meeting in the local public school hall for Mass each Sunday. Remarkably, there were a number of very talented musicians from such a small number of people and I soon joined their ranks. Upon moving into our first 'church' (it was a 'multi-purpose area' shared with the new parish school) we were blessed again with Franciscan friars, and later diocesan priests, who were prepared to come and join us out in the sticks, together creating a very special Catholic community — the operative word here being 'together'.
This was no everything-has-to-go-through-Father kind of community (if you ever want to see a vibrant community filled with life, then it will inevitably be a community where the priest and people all work together. The old model no longer works and hasn't for a very long time now.) Neither was it an 'everything goes' community. Together the priests and the people found their places quite naturally. People with a wide variety of gifts and talents were welcomed into all areas of parish life: musicians, financiers, teachers, liturgists, business people and a whole host of others. This was a working community.
The ministry rosters were full to bulging and the priests, while maintaining oversight, really got to know the people and learned to trust their judgement and, in turn, the people came to trust them too. This sharing of responsibility freed them up to be pastors in more than just name, allowing them to really pastorally care for the community, walking alongside the people as they struggled with real life and death issues, as well as leading us in meaningful liturgy that was relevant to the current needs and concerns of the community and those of the wider world. A whole host of charitable works was a natural outpouring of our heightened awareness of the needs of others.
Those of us in the music ministry went off to any free workshops and courses offered by the diocese and other places to learn how to better serve the community. These were few and far between, but we went off eager to develop our knowledge and skills, and to deepen our faith and experience of the liturgy. Along the way we also developed life-long friendships that I cherish to this day. We laughed and cried together while raising children and being entirely immersed in parish and school life. At night, my 'day job' was to do live performances or recording sessions.
My move to full-time involvement with Church music...
One night I was playing with a rock band in a packed Sydney pub. The whole room was jumping and everyone was having a great time. It was a Friday night crowd of young executives and city workers letting off a bit of steam at the end of the working week. They were practically all in the process of becoming mildly to extremely drunk and singing at the top of their lungs with every song we played. By all accounts it was a great gig. And while I believe there is great value in providing entertainment for people to enjoy, for me it was all starting to feel very monotonous. Things were going on in my own life that were personally challenging and I found myself wanting to write songs that had deeper meaning.
God-incidentally (I don't believe in co-incidence) and in sharp contrast, the very next evening I played at our regular Saturday evening Vigil Mass. It was an ordinary week in Ordinary Time, and yet one of those evenings when a community gathers together in such harmony that you can really enter deeply into the liturgy — and for me providing the music, it was a very moving experience. I felt entirely at one with this community gathered at Eucharist. I was able to bring all my talents to bear, leading the community through all the musical contrasts of the Mass — from the full and vibrant communal singing of the gathering hymn in praise of God to the quiet and contemplative communion hymn leading into quiet reflection. As I sang with the community on that night I felt as if I was flying on a current of air and really understood for the first time why the apostles spoke of the Holy Spirit as a great wind. For me as a musician it was a wake-up call. For me as a Catholic it was like a baptism of fire: could I really leave behind a lucrative career and focus my gifts on the needs of the assembly? Was I completely mad?
After Mass a parishioner who had recently lost her husband came up to me with tears in her eyes thanking me for a song I had written (commissioned by the Franciscans) and used at the end of Mass, saying that it had really touched her and how much she had needed to hear it at that time. Another parishioner, again with tears in her eyes thanked me. One by one people of all ages would regularly approach me after Mass to thank me for what I brought to the community and to share with me their experiences. It was such a common occurrence that I hadn't fully realised until that night how very important the sharing of my gifts really was in the life of this community. They called upon me to accompany their feasts and sacraments; baptisms, first communions, funerals, allowing me to take part in the most important moments of their lives. What a privilege!
I had a long hard think about my own gifts and how best they could be used. It was becoming abundantly clear to me that it wasn't going to be found in a pub, and wasn't long before I did the unthinkable and left behind my career. My muso mates thought I'd gone troppo but I happily spent the next 10 years on my piano stool pew deeply steeped in the liturgy and growing into a liturgical composer while teaching music to people from the parish and local area. I have moved from that area and no longer belong to that community (though continue to miss them all) but I still haven't stopped learning yet. I doubt I ever will.
More recent experiences...
Since then I have experienced all kinds of communities. I have found some places to be wooden with almost no breath of life in them at all. The music sounds tired and uninspiring and is often in a key out of the reach of the average pew sitter. Few join in the singing and leave it to the musicians to struggle through on their own. By and large I have found that these communities are generally run by an overworked parish priest who tries (and never really succeeds) to do everything, who doesn't trust the people with any positions of responsibility, and who seems to be perpetually angry at the world. Given the workload these priests impose upon themselves, I'm not surprised.
Some parish musicians struggle to do their best with an obvious lack of understanding of the function of music in liturgy. A song they might choose for communion may be beautiful, but completely unrelated to the communal gathering at Eucharist. There has been no attempt at formation and a general malaise about changing the status quo. Over the years I have watched these communities wither up and shrink to the point of what is becoming more and more the inevitable merge with another parish or parishes. The oldies hang in there no matter what, but there often isn't a young person to be seen within cooee of the place.
I've also had the privilege of meeting and working with a great many thriving school and parish communities who invest time and energy into improving their liturgical life. They are communities of people who have made me welcome among them and who are enthusiastic about improving their music in liturgy and other catechetical settings. Often they don't have a lot to work with and can only do their best with what they have. And while they may be huge fans of pieces from our rich musical tradition, they have neither the resources nor the expertise to perform them. By and large they are more interested in improving their repertoire and focussing on pieces that best give voice to their communities and that they can actually play (and hopefully play well!). They know from experience that the parish musician plays a pivotal role in the liturgical life of their community and that how well or badly they minister to the needs of the community (for a whole variety of reasons) affects the whole community's experience of liturgy, so are at pains to stay within their capabilities.
The unfair criticisms often directed at parish musicians...
Parish musicians are often criticised from on high for their lack of expertise or liturgical formation without ever giving credence to the fact that none is usually offered. They are left to sink or swim on their own and I think that is not only a disgrace, but is doing great damage to our Church. Parish communities love all sorts of music but they are particularly drawn to songs that not only emotionally connect them to the liturgy, but actually feel good to sing. They want to be inspired to participate and, whether the purists like it or not, most parish communities respond best to contemporary music. They rather enjoy a touch of Latin at Christmas in songs like 'Adeste Fideles' but have no desire to make Latin a weekly affair. And as anyone who has ever sung Gregorian chant will know, it's not as easy as it looks. It is haunting and beautiful when sung by monks and nuns who sing it daily and are familiar with its intricacies, but can silence a modern-day parish community in a heartbeat. They have no problems with the unaccompanied plain chant responses to the various parts of the mass, but more than that is often beyond them.
Today's parish communities are generally modern people attuned to contemporary and singable music using language that is both poetic and comprehensible to them. I see my role as a contemporary composer to be at the service of these communities using my talents to fulfil their liturgical needs and make absolutely no apologies for that; it is simply what I am called to do. It is no secret that there are some examples of poor contemporary music out there, just as there are some examples of poor 'oldies', but there's also a growing body of really good, theologically sound, material on offer. Contrary to what detractors of contemporary music would have us believe, I and many like me, have a real love of many of the beautiful classical pieces from the long and distinguished musical tradition of the Church. However, I feel that the vast majority of these are performance pieces well beyond the purview of the average Catholic parish community. And while there's often a place for a beautiful choir singing in the balcony or at the cathedral, the people genuinely want to participate as a community in the music of the liturgy and wholeheartedly do, given half a chance.
The standard of our liturgies would improve immeasurably if talented musicians were given decent formation and employed to devote their time and energies to providing consistently high standards of music for liturgy and other catechetical settings in every parish in the country. In my own case it is Catholic Education who has stepped up to the plate, providing me with further education and formation while actively encouraging my growth as a composer. I am grateful for that and for the time spent with knowledgeable people at my diocesan liturgy office who have guided me when seeking approval for compositions of mine specifically written for use in liturgy. I've learned as much from the rejections as from the approvals. My work is very much about building connections between the schools and parishes through a shared repertoire to the benefit of the whole community. Once upon a time the main evangelisation emanated from the local parish to the schools whereas today the position is the reverse. I and others like me put our hearts and souls into our work and care very deeply about what we do. My work as a singer-songwriter is a ministry to me every bit as important as a priest's ministry and, like them, is not so much about what I do as who I am and feel called to be.
Sending out lists of approved songs might be helpful up to a point, but it doesn't go nearly far enough towards addressing the needs of our parish communities whose opinions were never even sought in the first place. The people in the pews today are far more educated than ever before and have some sound and knowledgeable opinions about what would benefit the liturgical life of their own communities, but are never consulted. More often than not I hear of legitimate concerns being ignored while a single letter of complaint about some rubric or other gets immediate attention with warnings of further disciplinary action.
I can't count the times people have expressed to me the feeling that it seems that any sign of creativity is immediately stamped upon, and yet how these are the very things which have nourished the people and given expression to their unique community. And I'm not talking here about dancing clowns on the altar, but authentic expressions of the rich diversity that is Catholicism. Sharing a common repertoire of Mass settings is a wonderful sign of unity while a rich and diverse repertoire gives each unique community a 'musical soul'. I feel left out if I'm visiting a parish where I don't know and therefore can't join in with the various parts of the Mass, and yet am completely drawn in by a community who lifts the rafters with a song completely unknown to me (and better still if it's a song where I can join in when the chorus returns) but obviously well-known and loved by them. The people by their actions are calling for less uniformity and more unity in diversity.
"Sing a new song to the Lord" scripture urges us and I and others like me have taken up the call. So as far as I'm concerned, unless one is prepared to actually listen and respond to the needs of the Body of Christ, and put time, money and resources into the formation of our parish musicians, then it would be best to keep their opinions to themselves and let those of us who are actually in there trying to do something about the situation get back to work.
Amanda (Milly) McKenna
What are your thoughts on this commentary?