Ancient and Modern : When is church music 'Good'?

"Is that something by 'Snow Patrol'?" asked my partner Jeremy. It was a reasonable enough question. He knows that I like 'Snow Patrol' and the song to which I was listening on 'You Tube' did indeed sound as if it could be one of their songs. It was in fact something by 'Hillsong Worship'!

It wasn't the first time Jeremy had been caught out like this. Months earlier he'd walked into the room when I was playing Matt Redman's '10,000 Reasons' and he'd said how much he liked it and asked what band it was. "Gosh, you mean it's religious music?" was the response when I enlightened him.

My taste in music nowadays is quite catholic, but Jeremy's knowledge and love of contemporary music is far more exhaustive than mine. Like most people, he knows what he likes, and whilst he doesn't have the benefit of my musical training, he can quickly distinguish a good song from 'pop trash' and we can usually agree on which songs have been written on the back of a cigarette packet or on several sheets of A4 manuscript.

Jeremy has always enjoyed all kinds of music. I on the other hand, am a recovering musical snob.
Having learnt the piano from the age of five and organ from the age of eleven, for many years I was only ever interested in classical music; nothing else existed.  So, not surprisingly, when I became involved with the church, only the very best traditional music was acceptable.  A good Choral Evensong was my idea of Heaven, and anything sung by a 'Worship Band' was automatically anathema.

Growing up in the nineteen sixties and seventies didn't really help, and the liturgical muzak turned out by the likes of Patrick Appleford did nothing to challenge my prejudices, for this was surely the liturgical  pop-trash of its day. (Remember that ghastly Skiffle-type Mass setting and the dismal hymn 'Living Lord'?)

Whilst my secular musical horizons began to broaden in my twenties and thirties, I remained firmly opposed to anything remotely 'contemporary' in the context of worship. The rather cruel (but very  funny) 'Spitting Image' parody of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, singing "Kumbaya" and waving a tambourine seemed to me to sum up pretty accurately what I saw as the the church's feeble attempts to become more 'hip' and relevant.

One of the in-phrases of that period was, "Why should the devil have all the best tunes?", but it seemed to me that the devil did indeed have all the best tunes, and the Church's attempt to match them produced some pretty dire results.

At some point., however, when I wasn't looking, this all changed. Certainly by the new millenium contemporary Christian music had become professionalised and started to bear much more resemblance to the best secular music of the age. I was still pretty indifferent and sniffy about it, but the odd 'Songs of Praise' soundbite or the occasional visit to a church of a more evangelical persuasion started to challenge my bigotry. I could no longer dismiss as drivel the works of Redman, Tomlin, and Townend. If truth be told, I actually liked some of their stuff, but I remained singularly unenthusiastic about using it in my own church context.

Things really changed when I first encountered 'The On Fire Mission' - a mainly Anglican network that  seeks to combine the riches of Catholic Spirituality with Charismatic renewal. Here I was confronted head-on with some brilliant contemporary music that was well performed. The music was well written and the lyrics were (mostly) far removed from the theological banalities of the seventies and eighties.

Today I hope I take a much more balanced and objective approach to church music. Yes, some modern worship songs are awful, but then so are some Victorian hymns. Whatever style of music is being used and whatever era it comes from, there's a need for discernment in terms of both the quality of the musical writing and the theological 'soundness' of the lyrics.

I still adore Choral Evensong. An anthem well sung by a Cathedral choir can still send shivers down my spine; but I can equally appreciate a Charismatic Mass at which uplifting contemporary music, carefully selected, is used.   There is, I believe, a place for both.

Traditionalist clergy and church musicians often point (quite rightly) to the dangers of the so-called 'Worship Leader' and his or her band becoming the focus of worship rather than God himself. Of course this is a danger, but it's no more a danger than that of  a fine choir becoming the object of worship, and I've certainly seen that happen in some churches.

Whether Church music is traditional or contemporary, what matters is that it should lift the soul and point beyond itself to God. When it does so, I believe it can be defined as 'Good Music'. 




  1. I met Patrick Appleford many years ago at the church I attended St Dunstan Edge Hill Liverpool...he had been a contemporary of our Vicar at King's College. He introduced his music for the Eucharist and it was a breath of fresh air when compared with the staid settings our small working class choir struggled with...He preached on the Wedding Feast of Cana...starting with : 'Jesus was at a wedding and they had run out of booze!'
    The Vicar then organised an Appleford Mass with a skiffle band ...little practice with our traditional organist..the consequence neither choir nor congregation could sing anything in the mass because the beat drowned the melody!
    However Appleford music has helped congregational singing in my experience of many years.
    I recall a year ago attending a very well supported packed Evangelical Anglican church in the Midlands . I wrote to the Vicar that the group played well but almost nobody could sing the hymns... it was a performance....and difficult to sing to...reminded me of attending Choral Evensong in a well to do Liverpool Parish years ago...large congregation and good choir...nobody sung the psalm Mag and Nunc. ..a I am all composition for congregational participation and somewhat prejudiced against Choral Evensong with Anglican Chant particularly when all the congregation has is the BCP to try to sing with......


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