St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church


St. Bart's Blog

On Liturgy and Music

Posted by Nathan Costa on

Thank you all for being here, for praying together at Evensong, for bringing out weekend to a quiet close and in company with one another. Thanks also for sticking around for this gathering as well. When I spoke with Fr. Mark and Fr. Chris about this event last week, I knew what they didn’t (but maybe still intimated), that this liturgy in some way would speak for itself. And, of course, the last thing a musician wants to do at the end of a day of doing music and liturgy is to talk about music and liturgy …

I’m just kidding … this is a great opportunity for us to share and to put words to what we do, to look under the hood, as it were, to give a sense of where we’ve come in my year here, where we could be going, and, not least, to give thanks to all of you for being willing to both lead and come along for the ride. I like to use an expression a colleague used at my own church: we were together once and someone approached him, saying “So you’re the youth minister here?” “No, actually, I’m not the youth minister; I’m just the coordinator – we’re all youth ministers.” So, too, we’re all ministers of music. Most of my job is to get people to be at the right place at the right time doing the right thing.

I thought I’d offer a few central tenets about what we do in liturgy and music, whether we’ve identified them this way or not, and how they have played out or can play out in our ministry here at St. Bart’s.

Good liturgy can inspire and grow faith – and, its corollary, bad liturgy weakens and deadens faith.

Good or bad liturgy is not just about how well we follow the rubrics (although guidance from the past is never to be lightly ignored). It’s more about life and spirit of celebration and communal prayer, authenticity of worship, being grounded in who we are; it involves a genuine spirit of welcome, challenging lectionary-based preaching, a commitment to “creating beauty” – as musicians, a colleague of mine likes to say, we are in the business of creating beauty with the gifts we have and skills we’ve acquired. It means being strong enough to meet people where they are in life and faith, and being willing to know and experience the breadth of “humanity at full stretch” (as one of my teachers used to say of the psalms) –from the depths of despair to the heights of elation.

Good liturgy is formational.

Over time, liturgy should change us into something new, a new creation, as we live into the fullness of our baptismal call.

  1. “We practice our faith.” I love the phrase “we practice our faith”: both in liturgy and outside of it, our faith is something we do, try to make tangible to one another, as Fr. Mark is fond of saying, something we do and do again, never quite getting it right, but hopefully getting it better, growing into our faith – which we generally say more than we fully understand– becoming more whole, participating more fully each time.
  2. “Each liturgy is in preparation for the next”: we practice and so try to live more fully into our faith and worship the next time. What I love about teaching, I also love about liturgy: there’s always the next day, the next time: we keep practicing until, of course, we reach our final liturgy, the heavenly banquet with saints and angels.

Liturgy as formation and practice is the basis for what we do in the Choristers / Choral Scholars program. We aim to create the full choral liturgical musicians – by teaching kids how to read (musical literacy is a life skill), sight-singing, ear training, basic piano skills and vocal technique. We do that through both group and individualized instruction and also by just doing it, as we do twice a month – throwing kids into leading worship, with preparation of course, but also allowing them to figure out what we do by just doing it, by practicing, practicing our faith. This is easier to do with a full and established program, in which new singers assimilate and follow the older ones in this “practice” (another meaning of the term). Right now we have a concentration of 2nd-3rd graders, a group of 4th-5th grade boys, and a cluster of older girls. We’ll divide into three groups attending to their different skills.

My general practice with children is to give them something they can do and do well (notwithstanding that everything is practice), and in which they can be successful in creating wonder and beauty. (Did you see the face of Waymond Liggins at the bells rang their last chord today?) A feeling of success and wonder builds on itself, they’ll want to come.

This is the area of greatest opportunity for the program here. An Academy of Music with a lot of adjunct teachers is a good start and a good resource for a community, but there’s no place I know of doing this sort of formational instruction, north of the city and Point Loma, and some of those churches are now also looking to us for collaboration and numbers. We have opportunity to collaborate with All Souls’ in Point Loma in Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, which is basically a community opera for people, especially children, of all ages and abilities.

A Choristers program is different from a “children’s choir”: it’s based on targets toward which kids learn and which help them keep track of their growth. Different colored ribbons of the medals they wear demonstrate their levels of growth and understanding and experience. In the future, adjunct teachers or assistant directors could serve as voice teachers, assist with sections; we could offer small stipends for fellows in music ministry for young people (singers and organists in training) as consideration for their now pre-professional growth. The local schools with strong music programs are areas for potential growth; North County SD Children’s Chorus, but there’s no one doing this kind of formation – musical, liturgical and spiritual.

Liturgy and Music that is practice and formation is also ministry.

  • It’s an offering, it’s not performance, it doesn’t matter how many are present – that can be important, but that’s our job outside of liturgy, that’s not a liturgical matter.
  • We “offer Evensong the first Sunday of the month”; we hope people come “share in that offering,” but the great thing about prayer is that we offer it for our church and world regardless of who is actually able to be present. Regular Evensong and other liturgies outside the Sunday morning was the first bullet point of the Strategic Plan for Worship and Music – it was what drew me to this position, as it showed a place that was willing to push itself beyond Sunday morning and be involved in a cycle of prayer.
  • Musicians know that their time and commitment are their offerings, but it’s easy to get caught up in the externalities of performance and attendance. But if music is truly ministry, then our job is to help people pray in song. Cantors are the latest manifestation of that, seven- or eight-strong adult cantors now, soon Chorister and Choral Scholar. They are ministers of the Word and of music.

Good liturgy resists categorization

• We do not have a “family Mass.”

• We’ve resisted “traditional” vs. “contemporary” labels: they aren’t really helpful, they divide the Body of Christ by what people think is their comfortable musical preference, and they’re often incorrect, e.g. at Evensong, we use “traditional” 17th century language for our words of prayer because we think they are a heritage of people of the BCP that is worthy and worth preserving, but our anthem in October was written this century by a “contemporary,” living composer. Moreover, there are other ways and genres of praying evening prayer, and we can experiment with those this year.

• We want to feed people, rather, we want to offer people a good diet of music, language, liturgical offerings, etc. There is no perfect four-course meal, caloric intake, and everyone’s palate is slightly different. But as one Body, our communal offering is bigger than any of our individual preferences.

• We need to be authentic to who we are, but we need also to be open to the different ways the Spirit moves.

We use three criteria in determining music for liturgy:

  • Musical – Is it “good music”?
  • Pastoral – Is this (music or text) what my congregation wants or needs to hear? (That’s both a challenging and humbling question to answer …)
  • Liturgical – Does it have a strong text? Is it Scriptural? Does the text fit the liturgical moment? For example, At Communion we don’t just sing quiet songs or play quiet music so people can meditate; we sing about we’re doing, coming forward as a people united as the Body of Christ.

Our music builds in “progressive solemnity” – we are most festive and sign the most in the Easter and Christmas seasons, celebrate richly at our feast days of St. Bart’s and All Saints Days and others; we quite ourselves and make do with less (instrumentation, florid music) in Lent.

A good diet is not a smorgasbord, nor is it often a buffet where each person just gets to pick what they want, but a balanced, communal meal, each one in preparation for the next.

As with liturgy, our instrumental ensembles resist categorization. I’ve been trying to get them to think of themselves less as players (playing one line or one note) and more as accompanists, serving the needs of the music, liturgy and season, rather than just play background music. Our handbell players, however many there are, accompany psalms, hymns, and anthems, Our strings ensemble accompany major works. Our other instrumentalists play both as melodic and accompanying players.

So we have these five principles:

  1. Good liturgy builds up faith; bad liturgy weakens and deadens faith.
  2. Liturgy is formational
  3. Liturgy is practice.
  4. Liturgy is ministry.
  5. Liturgy resists pigeon-holing or classification.

Liturgy is not the only end or only goal, and it’s not always the beginning of faith for many, too. But, I’d argue, it’s the most important thing we do, both as formation and as practice for all the work we do beyond it – it’s the point of life and refreshment for a Eucharistic people. If we can gather at prayer and at table, maybe we have a shot at building that communion beyond us.

Music is just a part of that, the handmaid that serves the liturgy.

My prayer is that we continue to be formed in this common, shared ministry – we’re all liturgists and musicians. The person in my position is privileged to see our collective and individual offerings and efforts, most of which actually goes unknown (e.g. How many of us knew that Tim McLellan basically drove all morning in the dark to join us here today?) – all gifts for the growth and formation of us all.