Sunday, 25 November 2012

In Praise of Tuneful Dissent

"To speak the glories of God in a religious song, or to breath out the joys of our own spirits to God with the melody of our voice is an exalted part of Divine Worship. But so many are the imperfections in the practice of this duty that the greatest part of Christians find but little edification or comfort in it. There are some churches that utterly disallow singing, and I'm persuaded that the poor performance of it in the best societies, with the mistaken rules to which it is confined, is one great reason of their entire neglect. For we are left at a loss (say they) what is the matter and manner of this duty, and therefore they utterly refuse. Whereas if this glorious piece of worship were but seen in its original beauty, and one that believes not this ordinance, or is unlearned in this part of Christianity should come into such an assembly, he would be convinced of all, he would be judged of all, he would fall down on his face, and report that God was in the midst of it of a truth."
From a short Essay towards the improvement of psalmody, Isaac Watts.

Isaac Watts (1674 - 1748) is celebrated today by the Anglican Church (on the anniversary of his death). This is quite a reversal for the son of a Dissenter who was one of those exiled from the Church of England in the 'Great Ejection'. Isaac was at home in the dissenting tradition of his parents and was ordained as a non-conformist minister in 1703 (the year of John Wesley's birth). 

He is also known as the 'father of hymnody', able to write and speak in verse from a very early age his parents encouraged him to use the skill in relation to holy scripture.

I went today (somewhat unwillingly...) to Westminster Abbey for evening worship, where Watts was remembered. Three of his hymns formed the structure of the service, which was low church in its liturgical simplicity. Sadly, with no choir and most of the congregation being tourists who clearly never sing in church, the singing did no justice at all to his remarkable poetry nor to the great tunes Nativity, St Anne and the tremendous Truro.

It was strange being in the Abbey, just a few days after Synod and its institutional and systematic stumbling over its own feet. To hear the officiant talk about the 'Great Ejection' a few hundred yards from the site of this week's great rejection of women as bishops in the Church of England. Strange because of all the British cathedrals this feels the most over-stuffed with objects, like a Victorian parlour - busts to the great, the good, the deadly, the poetic - statues of dead men everywhere, accompanied by little naked cherubs in various states of joy, boredom or despair. How odd that Watt's memorial is there in a place that represents so much that the dissenters resented and wished to be free from.

Earlier in the week I attended Evensong at St Paul's Cathedral - in fact it was on Tuesday night, two hours before Synod heard the result of its debate and vote. Whilst some of the glories of that building leave me bewildered, it has a grace and beauty that stand as a tribute to Wren's genius to this day. It, in contrast to the Abbey, has a wonderful sense of airiness and space and the sight-lines are considerably better. The worship was gracious and the choir more than competent - I found myself lost in the Magnificat, holding all those women who bear Christ to the world today, in prayer. It was as if I (and others) were holding our breath during that service, waiting for a new birth, a fulfilling of a God inspired possibility and yet... no, the gestation is going to be longer and the labour more painful than is desirable or necessary.

Just in case you think that I've spent all week with my Covenant partners, I've done a lot of Methodist mingling too. More meetings than you can shake a stick at but also a visit to the ArtServe Conference where I spoke about my love of glass and my playing at being a glass-fusing artist.

ArtServe is formed in some ways by those who dissent and those who historically have held the tradition of hymnody precious within the life of the church. It is formed of the remnants of Creative Arts in Methodism and the Methodist Church Music Society. Artists, pushing the edges of articulating truth and beauty; musicians, contemporary and traditional - moving to the rhythms of God's creative Spirit and rich inheritors of the gifts of Watts, Wesley, Farrell, Bell, Pratt-Green....

Perhaps the wider church and, in this moment, the Church of England, might learn from such as Artserve, where those who move to very different tunes have stopped saying 'but we don't do it like that' and have begun to embrace and celebrate diversity as a gift and an imperative from the God who created us (male, female and in God's image).

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