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One of the elements which made the Church of England unlike other reformed or reforming churches at the Reformation was the retention and encouragement of the choral tradition in its cathedrals and chapels royal. While the parish churches of the land swiftly adopted a cerebral, non-visual form of worship, in ceremonial or lack thereof little different from, shall we say, Scottish Presbyterianism, except in the retention of set prayers, the cathedrals retained and developed a choral tradition accompanied by organs, robed choirs, and led by vested clergy. It is true of course that in cathedrals and parish churches the retention of ancient buildings, containing memories of a richer past, also distinguished Anglicanism. Shorn of statues, flickering lights (except those necessary to see books), much stained class and all but the plainest of vestments, ancient buildings were still haunted by the ghosts of a “Catholic” past.

It is true that the Prayer Book was another factor diluting the force of Protestant rigor. Indeed the Coverdale psalms, the canticles, versicles and responses, settings to some parts of the Eucharist contributed the texts for choral singing in use in cathedrals and a few major parish churches, although in most parishes the only sung forms were the metrical psalms, alike used by Calvinists, doggerel verse accompanied by flute, woodwind and a grumping serpent.

By and large, for two hundred years or so, the cathedrals alone magnified the Cranmerian liturgy with its lofty cadences, by a growing repertoire of music, unique to Anglicanism in that style and form.

In the 19th Century, partly inspired by the “Catholic Movement” and partly by the popularity of Romanticism and a love for all things Medieval, the choral tradition was adopted by parishes, even small ones, as organs became more affordable and sheet music available. While Anglo-Catholicism transformed the ceremonial of all but the most intransigent evangelical parishes ( and they were not immune to the lure of Gothic architecture) the cathedral tradition altered the manner in which the liturgy was presented and sung.

These developments hastened a trend already begun during evangelical revivalism, the supplementing of metrical psalms by hymns, verse revived form earlier days, or especially composed to be sung, and tunes which have become familiar in almost all Western Christian churches.

It is perhaps ironic that this musical tradition is now thought suspect in some quarters, inaccessible and too “highbrow” for congregations to tackle. The choral tradition and hymnody itself is now rivaled by sacred songs, whose words and tunes are often rather bad attempts to baptize the cadences and beat of ‘pop’ concerts, often rendered ridiculous by the stolid frozen body stances of staid Episcopalians and Anglicans. In some places organs are now replaced by the instruments associated with the traveling minstrels of pop culture. The irony is that this form of ‘progress’ is in fact a return to the pre-choral tradition.

Oddly enough, at least in England and in places in some larger American cities, it is the cathedrals and large parish churches, those which retain the choral tradition, which draw consistently large congregations. Occasionally, as in the ceremonial, liturgy and music of great state occasions in England, a wider audience is exposed to the richness of this element of Anglicanism, and harassed clergy and local organist are pestered by brides and grooms to “do us like Wills and Kate were done”.

And thus on this hot American day, (after listening to cds of the choir of the parish of St. Michael and St. George, St Louis) I sing the praises of our Choral Tradition and pray that it will  survive. I do so not merely as a form of nostalgia, but to make a deeper point. The choral tradition inspires humans to magnify the Lord together, rather than indulge in sentimental and self-centered reflection. In that it so does, it points to the chief end of Liturgy,   the giving of glory to God in self-sacrifice. In short, it puts us in our place.

2 Responses

  1. Nice job, Tony.

  2. […] Read it all here. […]

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