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The Stewardship of Church Music Session 3 - Broken to the Sacraments

"This is a point at which the musician faces one of the church's most acute temptations, namely, to think the prayer or the sacrifice -- in this case the musical sacrifice -- has merit and can gain favor with God. . . But no matter what we bring or how well or poorly we bring it . . . our goodness or lack of goodness cannot get us into God's presence.  God chooses to come to us.  We are so curved in on ourselves that we cannot even choose God, let alone do anything worthy of God's presence no matter how good we think it is.  And just here is yet another amazing thing.  God turns everything around and graces us.  We speak and sing poor human words, but God turns them around and gives us the Word.  We bring our bread and wine, but God turns them around and gives us Christ's body and blood.  It appears that worship is our giving.  God freely turns it into our receiving."

The Stewardship of Church Music

By Paul Westermeyer

Session 3 - Broken to the Sacraments

The reason music is so closely related to the Word is because the Word requires words, and both words and music take time.  Music is temporal, so the musician's vocation has at its center not only the stewarding of time in the sense that everybody manages time for the tasks that need to be done, but in the sense of the central substance of the musical vocation.  

The musician stewards time by articulating it with organized sounds called music.  What Luther found even more amazing is that words about the Word can be sung, which means an astonishing thing: the Word of God can be sung.  "How blessed are those," says one Bach cantata, "who carry God in their voices."  

The church musician is not only dealing with sound in time, therefore, but is making sounds with words by which the very Word of God is proclaimed.  That is, God addresses us in time.  Part of the musician's call is to steward well this proclamatory task.  

But God not only addresses us in time.  This becomes apparent when you consider that the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, took up space.  God obviously also addresses us in space.  Since Jesus no longer walks the earth as we do, however, we do not eat with Jesus the way we eat with our brothers and sisters.  We eat with him in the space of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper where bread and wine are made new by the Word, and where in, with, and under them we receive Christ himself.    

Musicians never get away from their fundamental relation to time because they deal with sound, and sound always takes time.  But, in connection with the sacraments, where space and its physical things and actions are the fundamental communal reality, musicians need to steward their resources in a different way from what they do in connection with the Word.  Here, though music still carries words as we sing them, its fundamental frame of reference moves beyond words and accompanies actions in space.  That is, music is "broken" to sacraments, to actions with physical things, and relates more closely to prayer.

Actions, Sacrifice, and Prayer
One can view the whole service as actions: we gather, greet, sing, read, proclaim, and pray.  These actions are often referred to as sacrificial, and indeed they are.  We sacrifice our time and talents in an overarching sacrifice of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.  

These sacrificial actions are most obviously symbolized when we bring offerings.  We bring an offering of money for the care of those in need and we bring bread and wine.  These two offerings are often brought together to the table at the beginning of the Eucharistic part of the service.  During this time the choir might sing an anthem or musicians might play a "voluntary" which as part of the offering is seen as prayer, an address to God.  This is a point at which the musician faces one of the church's most acute temptations, namely, to think the prayer or the sacrifice -- in this case the musical sacrifice -- has merit and can gain favor with God.

The sacrificial nature of what we are doing, the stance toward God that prayer takes, cannot and should not be denied.  That's why bringing bread and wine forward to the table is more honest than having it simply appear there as if by magic.  Musicians should offer to God their best on behalf of those who are gathered, by preparing music well and performing it well.  But there is no merit or credit in any of this.  Of course we bring our offerings.  Of course we do our best, especially before God.  But no matter what we bring or how well or poorly we bring it or how well or poorly we pray, our goodness or lack of goodness cannot get us into God's presence.  God chooses to come to us.  We are so curved in on ourselves that we cannot even choose God, let alone do anything worthy of God's presence no matter how good we think it is.  And just here is yet another amazing thing.  God turns everything around and graces us.  We speak and sing poor human words, but God turns them around and gives us the Word.  We bring our bread and wine, but God turns them around and gives us Christ's body and blood.  It appears that worship is our giving.  God freely turns it into our receiving.  

The musician stewards this remarkable paradox by preparing an anthem as well as possible, but without assuming it gets us anything.  For the musician, as for all of us, this releases uncanny freedom and unbounded creativity.  

Music in the Service of the Eucharist

The Great Thanksgiving and Sanctus
The Great Thanksgiving with its dialogical introduction initiates the Eucharist itself.  Here the church lifts up its heart.  With words from Isaiah 6 and with all the creatures of heaven and earth, the church sings Sanctus: "Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might: Heaven and earth are full of your glory," to which is added, "Hosanna in the highest.  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."  There is strong verbal content here, parallel in some ways to the Psalm and Hymn of the Day in the Word service, still with proclamatory character; but now it is mixed with prayer and awe, like Moses before the burning bush and like Isaiah in the temple.  With it comes a sense of transcendence which goes beyond anything words can mean.  All verbal or other meaning begins to break down and trembles with the shaking door posts at the presence of the living God.

At this point musicians are confronted with an energizing yet precarious dilemma of how to steward their musical responsibility.  They legitimately want to respond to this "over-the-top" encounter.  To reflect it they are tempted to a decibel level which threatens to shatter our hearing.  Dangers are close at hand.  The music can easily get pompous and overdone.  That not only makes music dissipate into a sentimental mush, but it easily proceeds from the notion that our human music is capable of matching the song of the universe before God.  Worse yet is the presumption that we humans can engender some transcendent feeling with our human music.  All of this is to engage yet again in the temptation to think our work is meritorious and to play with idolatry.  The musician's task here is to figure out how to help the community respond honestly in song to the holiness of God, but to do so with creaturely modesty and humility.

The Lord's Prayer
The Lord's Prayer normally takes communal spoken form among us, but it is also often sung by some communities, usually on a single pitch or in a chant-like form.  Like the Prayer of the Day and especially like the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, there are fine choral settings of it for the choir which can be very helpful on some occasions.  The same care needs to be exercised here as with anything that a choir sings on behalf of the people.  Especially for this universally communal Christian prayer, the people need to be able to pray it by making its physical sounds themselves most of the time.  

Agnus Dei, Hymns, and Music at Communion  
The "Lamb of God," or Agnus Dei, accompanies the breaking of the bread.  It is quieter than the Sanctus.  Like the Kyrie at the beginning of the service, it is a repetitious cry, this time addressed to "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."  The last petition pleads for peace, suggesting the shalom of the meal that is to be shared.  The progression here points more and more toward action -- now action around the table and later the action in the world for justice and peace to which the table impels us.  The musician deals with the first of these movements, while the community is still assembled, before it scatters into the world.      

The words of the "Lamb of God" and the words of other hymns that may be sung during communion all involve cognitive import, but at communion that cognitive import recedes to a more subconscious level.  These hymns are not the Hymn of the Day where words and their meaning are of signal importance.  Here the meal is central.  Its character is beyond words and multi-dimensional, moving from quiet contemplation to celebrative fiesta.  The music reflects this wide range.  It may be a meditative Taize ostinato, a festive Spanish dance, or a black spiritual with deep lamentation or jubilant praise.  It may be a melody with a strophic hymn, now contextualized by the meal, with prayerful content below the level of focused concentration.  It may be a motet by the choir or a purely instrumental piece (avoiding, one hopes, the droning on of meaningless meandering).   And the fullness of silence may be there as well.  One or the other of these motifs may be emphasized on a given day, or they may be used together in various combinations.  The musician has to steward all of this as responsibly as possible on behalf of the assembly.

A post-communion canticle, final hymn, and Postlude reverse the gathering rite and serve as a sending bridge.  Like the entry rite, but in reverse order, the importance of music decreases the closer you get to the end of the service.  The musician still needs to prepare the end carefully, but also needs to remember to spend more time on what precedes it in the central sacramental portion of the service.

Music in the Service of Baptism

Hymn or Psalm
A hymn or psalm may accompany movement to and from the font at Baptism.  Here again music accompanies an action, so the musician chooses and leads with the knowledge that the cognitive import of the hymn or psalm recedes to a less focused consciousness than the Hymn of the Day requires.

The Creeds  
The Apostles' Creed is a central component of the Baptismal service.  It summarizes the faith of the church, the faith the baptized now assumes and confesses with the community, or, is confessed by the community on behalf of infants.  It can take musical form, though it usually does not.  Most congregations are more than able to keep common expressions of the church like this together in communal speech with no need for help, but, for those who cannot, the musician via a choir can provide support.  This is true for speaking or singing.  

The same considerations are at work for the Nicene Creed (Credo) in the Word service of the Eucharist, though for it more choral settings are available.  A choir can sing these on behalf of the people with benefit and various meaningful insights which different settings propel, but discretion has to be exercised so that the congregation on most occasions gets the opportunity to speak or sing the Creed themselves.  Like the Apostles' Creed, it too can take congregational music shape, not only choral shape.  

The Thanksgiving
The Thanksgiving at Baptism has no Sanctus associated with it as in the Eucharist, but it could easily break into a sung form by the presider after the opening dialogue with the people, which is always inherently musical, even when spoken.  The musician can help with all of this, but he or she comes into play more obviously after the baptism itself.

An alleluia or an acclamation sung right after a baptism relates to the essence of baptism's explosive import.  Dying and rising with Christ as the Word is joined to the waters of baptism, being washed clean, receiving new life, setting out to live faithfully among God's people, and to work in the world for justice and peace all impel the community's response of "Alleluia" around the font with the newly baptized.  The response partakes of the usual character of Alleluia where cognitive import is pushed not below, but above consciousness to jubilant praise.  

The word "Alleluia" means "praise God," and that meaning is not absent.  But potent archaic words like this continue to have powerful import among us because of far more than their verbal or mental signification.  The syllables of the word (just like those of Hosanna and Amen) are vocal delight, construed in God and in what God does.

Broken to the Sacraments
In such ways as these, music is set next to the Sacraments, gathers around them, and accompanies their actions.  In so doing it is "broken" to them, the musician's stewardly task is disciplined, and the community gives voice to its sacramental receiving and being.  

Because the relation of music to the Sacraments has been so fecund for the Christian church, a huge supply of music has been composed and is still being composed for the Eucharistic portion of the service.  It includes the music for the "Ordinary" parts (Sanctus and Agnus Dei), tunes for Eucharistic hymns, motets, and anthems.  This whole supply, with Palestrina perhaps serving as a representative apex, is part of the church musician's responsibility to manage well.  To do this, of course, the church has to support it and provide the resources for its preparation.    

In Community
As I have been writing this, the necessity of the church's support for the musician has struck me more keenly than ever.  Or, more precisely, I have become even more aware of how closely the musician's task as steward is related to the whole community's task as steward.  That realization is perhaps the appropriate place to conclude this brief study.

The church musician -- I would prefer to call this person a Cantor for reasons I have outlined in The Church Musician -- and the church she or he serves have stewarding responsibilities which can only be carried out together.  Together they have to figure out what their responsibility is in their particular time and place in relation to their heritage and resources.  In the Lutheran heritage, for example, where the organ has played such an important role and has a repertoire associated with the church that far exceeds any other instrument, does a church buy an organ?  If so, what does stewardship mean -- buying a fine pipe organ that will serve the community with the best sounds, last a long time, and save the church money over the long haul, or getting an inexpensive instrument which will serve the community with inferior sounds and which will cost more to keep replacing and fixing?

What about the responsibility of the whole church for training church musicians?  This has to do partly with schools and programs of study, so it goes well beyond what a local church alone can do; but local churches have strong influences, not only in support of such programs.  Do they welcome children to the church's music or not?  Are children turned away from locked instruments or permitted to see, play, and hear them?  Are their musical interests and abilities encouraged or discouraged?  Is fine music or poor music chosen, and are musicians treated well or badly -- so that young musicians are turned on or turned off?

Then there are worship materials, hymnals, printed music, instruments other than an organ, rehearsal and storage space, upkeep, and the space for worship itself to steward.  This includes how the space for worship is configured, along with its acoustics.  If, for example, an organ, a piano, an instrumental group, a choir, and a congregation are placed where sound does not travel well between them and individuals or groups cannot hear one another, sound at worship becomes a problematic obstacle rather than an aid.  Carpeting or other acoustical measures which deaden a room destroy congregational singing.  The speaking voice also has to be considered.  Taken together this means the room has to support congregational, choral, and individual sung, spoken, and instrumental sound coming from both localized sources and from the whole room.  As Luther said, a worship space needs to be a Mundhaus, a "mouth house" -- which means the Word of God has to be able to resound in all sorts of ways, naturally, without artificiality or amplification.  

No church musician or other individual alone controls these matters.  They are large communal concerns which require the deliberative decisions of a whole body of the baptized.  They are critical because they have a huge impact on music, most particularly on how or even whether a congregation can sing well.  And then there's the simple matter of paying musicians.  

Let's suppose a church musician has four choirs to rehearse each week and two services to play each Sunday.  If each rehearsal is an hour to an hour and a half in length, you have to allow at least two hours for each one to have enough time to get ready before, clean up afterward, and talk to people.  That's eight hours.  If you prepare well for those rehearsals, you need at least an equal amount of time for the necessary preparation.  That's eight more hours.  The services on Sunday require at least two hour blocks of time for each one.  That's four hours.  I estimate it takes about ten hours for a musician to prepare a service well (the same as for the clergy).  If you assume the two services are duplicates of one another (and they seldom are), we're now up to thirty hours.  To that you have to add time for long range planning and practice which supports the weekly duties, composing, fellowship with the congregation, teaching, meetings, writing for newsletters and other parish activities, reading, score study, helping worship leaders sing and read well, administration, and attending conferences and possibly conducting, playing, and speaking at them.  In some cases preparing larger musical works either for appropriate use during services or at concerts is part of the musician's job description.  

A position like this clearly requires at least 40 hours a week.  Even three choirs and two services can require that much time.  If a church defines such a position as half-time or only pays a half-time salary for it, the musician is forced to find other employment to put food on the table.  That means the musician has to subtract hours from the church's needs and requirements.  Stewardship is then skewed into doing things on the run -- or not doing them at all.

The point here is not that all church music positions should be full-time, only that they should be defined appropriately and supported adequately.  A very small set of responsibilities is just as possible as a very large one.  Small churches are as important as large ones, and tiny cantorial posts as valuable as huge ones.  As for clergy and all other leaders in the church, little or no pay is appropriate for some positions, and large salaries are appropriate for other ones.  Church music can have equally as much integrity where thirty people gather at worship with a choir of three as where three hundred people gather at worship with a choir of thirty.  There is no reason a choir has to sing anything by itself, nor is there any reason to exclude the most complex choral music.  Congregations who sing with no accompaniment whatsoever are equally as authentic as congregations who sing with organs, bands, and orchestras.  Rural, urban, suburban, exurban congregations and those defined in other ways are all welcome to the party.  So are all sorts and conditions of humanity.  Stewarding church music is not about numbers or amounts of money or place or class, nor is it about pre-conceived details forced on churches.  It is about figuring out in community what makes the most musical sense in this time and place with a specific group of the baptized and then responsibly allotting an adequate and stewardly proportion of their resources to carry that out.  

To steward the music of the church with care and concern requires the best collaborative efforts of the musician and the community she or he serves.  Where such collaborative stewardship is practiced, remarkable things can happen.  

1 - What is your experience of music in relation to the Lord's Supper?  Has it been the same as in relation to the Word, or different?  If different, what are the differences?  Would you say that in your experience music has been "broken" to the sacraments?  Do you think it should be?  What do you take that to mean?

2 - If you were to distinguish the difference between music in relation to proclamation and music in relation to prayer, what would you say?  How would you expect your church musician to handle these differences, if you think there are differences?  

3 - Has the church as a people helped or hindered church musicians in their stewarding responsibilities?  What about your own local church?  If helped, how?  If hindered, how?  Do you have any suggestions for what the church as a whole might do in this regard?  What about your local church?

4 - In what ways do churches and musicians form a positive or a negative partnership?  What about clergy and musicians?  Can they help or hinder one another?  How?  

5 - Do you have any suggestions for your musician(s) and clergy in their stewarding responsibilities and relationships?  How can the people of a congregation relate positively to these relationships?  Can they?

6 - What are your questions?  

A joint project by Center for Lifelong Learning and Stewardship in the 21st Century, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

To access the other sessions on The Stewardship of Church Music, click on the following:

b>The Stewardship of Music
Session 1. General Considerations

The Stewardship of Church Music:
Session 2 - Broken to the Word





Paul Westermeyer is a Professor of Church Music at Luther Seminary.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa ( via Flickr. Used by permission.

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