The Church Music Society

Registered Charity No. 290309




Faith, Intellect and the Numinous

by Dr Donald Webster (York)
Church Music Society Newsletter, February 1998

It is commonly believed that because of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 there has been a progressive decline in religious observance. What began as a trickle from the Senior Common Rooms has become a national torrent, following on from the carnage of World War I, the holocaust, and nuclear, scientific and astronomic discovery.

This reduction in church attendance is clearly the product of a widespread lack of faith and cannot merely be attributed to the secular pressures of modern living or to the availability of diversionary activities. The last point is not a flippant one. Famous preachers down the centuries have enjoyed popular support often as much for their entertainment value as for the soundness of their doctrine. Nor should we forget Pope’s Essay on Man:

And some to Church repair,
Not for the doctrine, but the music there.

Does this act as a warning to our church musicians?

Much has been made of the evangelising potential of bad music - so often perhaps that we hesitate to accept that good music might be equally efficacious, if given the chance.

In fact, today’s scientists - particularly the physicists - are much less cock-sure than were T H Huxley’s contemporaries in the 1880s. Sadly, most people are unaware of this. They see that the intellectual defence of Christianity has been generally muted, and assume that this is because nothing more convincing can be assembled. Yet writers as diverse as C S Lewis, Cyril Joad and Alan Richardson, as well as more recent Christian apologists, have shown that this is not so.

Souls for Christ are not won simply by the force of intellectual argument, but faith, (and faith in anything) has to rest on a secure and credible bedrock. The practice of our religion has to be seen as a serious business, requiring us to give its content more than cursory attention. Trivial music certainly debases it. In too many places the mentality of children and adults alike is insulted by what is put before them as the materials of worship at the present time.

If congregations could be increased, even to pre-1939 levels, there would be much cause for rejoicing. The exercise of the memory, and an examination of what was sung in Day and Sunday School and in adult worship then (whatever might be levelled against it in other ways) pre-supposed a higher level of understanding than that which prevails generally today.

In my childhood, the 5-7s sang Hear the pennies dropping and Jesus bids us shine - both on a par with much of today’s all-age worship material; but by the time children had reached Primary School, their diet was definitely adult. Indeed, most eight-year-olds looked down on Carey Bonner’s ditties. Nor was Away in a manger without its childish critics. All this is confirmed in an examination of Nonconformist Sunday School hymnals published between the mid 1920s and the 1950s and Hymns for Church and School (the successor to the Public School Hymnal) of 1964. All the hymns sung by rote at my Primary School are to be found within the pages of the last-named compilation - there were then no cries of elitism in the schools of the industrial areas of the North of England.

Much of what was sung was not understood initially, but by the time a seven-year-old had sung “the darkness falls at Thy behest” for a few weeks at a closing assembly on a Friday afternoon he or she didn’t need to be told what it meant. There was certainly no need for the bowdlerisation of

The day you gave us, Lord, is ended,
The sun is sinking in the West

as found in Hymns for Today’s Church (No 280).

Likewise, contemporary young choristers realise that when they see, placed one above the other, Jesu, Word of God incarnate and Ave, verum corpus, that one is a translation of the other - no-one has to tell them. As for “incarnate”, its meaning could have been explained simply, without our having to wait until the appropriate Confirmation Class on the Creed.

After the fall of France, morale in Britain was sustained only by the superb oratory of Winston Churchill. At the end of one of his 1940 speeches he quoted Arthur Hugh Clough’s “Say not the struggle nought availeth”. If its diction had been above the heads of ordinary folk, its impact would have been nil. Yet we are now told by so many trendies that such (noble) language - language of a kind frequently encountered in Victorian hymnody - is a barrier between man and God. What nonsense!

In the preceding paragraphs, I’ve tried to show how faith and reason should be partners in our spiritual pilgrimage. The under-estimation of peoples’ taste and intelligence is equally apparent in music. For most of my life I’ve been associated with Leeds Parish Church as chorister, Sub-Organist and worshipper. Its great musical traditions have always been sustained by choristers drawn from a wide social and cultural spectrum. In addition to performing annually around 70 different evening canticle settings, around 30 morning services and over 200 anthems in a rapidly changing repertoire, the choir has always been at the forefront in the promotion of contemporary music - much of it avant garde by the standards of its time. This choir gave some of the earliest performances of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, his Missa Brevis and the War Requiem in prestigious choral festivals - and this by singers at least half of whose senior echelon attended Secondary Modern Schools. The complexity of this music they took in their stride, singing it with great enthusiasm. It would have been so easy for the choirmasters to paraphrase the Psalmist’s words and say:

such knowledge is too wonderful and excellent for them,
they cannot attain unto it....

Where else but in such a Church Choir could a lad from a humble home have his life enhanced spiritually and aesthetically by making the acquaintance of Creation, Messiah, St Matthew Passion, Elijah, St Paul, Lobgesang, Blest pair of sirens, Holst’s Two Psalms and Mendelssohn’s Mitten wir? The significance of all this, dimly perceived at first, became gradually an enriching process continued throughout earthly life.

Contrast all that with the policy of Planned Obsolescence, denounced in the pulpit, and condoned or even encouraged in what remains of the choir and choir stalls.

Though we may use our intellect to assert and defend our Christian position, we soon realise that a substantial part of our religious existence resides in a region that is outside the realm of earthly thought. We do well to ponder the words of Percy Scholes; unlike the other arts,

Music is able to fly, unburdened into regions beyond their utmost reach. When ......it takes upon itself the pious duty of carrying with it thought and such emotion as can be expressed in words, thought and emotion are the gainers - something having been added to them. The flame of emotion that is carried by the thought of holiness is caught up and carried aloft into the regions of the sublime in the Sanctus of Missa Papae Marcelli or of Bach’s Mass in B minor. And the attainment of the realisation of an escape from the world (that is, of sublimity) is one of the supreme objects of religious exercise.

(P A Scholes, Oxford Companion to Music (London, 1938), p. 165)

Thus we see that the attainment of the numinous is essentially the task and province of Music. Regardless of our denominational affiliation we recognise it in classics such as Bairstow’s Let all mortal flesh keep silence, Palestrina’s Tu es Petrus, the Miserere of Allegri and Howells’ Collegium Regale service.

It is in the company of such music that heart and mind, body and soul find their refuge, as they bring their prayers and praise in humility before the throne of the heavenly grace.


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