Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Promise and Perils of Hymnology

Snow has come to central Minnesota, dusting the ground and providing flakes which need dodging as one walks faced into the cruel northern wind. Darkness has now descended upon both Morning and Evening Prayer, the candles burning beside the altar taking on a much more prominent role. Monks shuffle into the chancel, sometimes straining to hit the opening note of the hymn.

In yesterday's discussion of the Benedictine Rule, Fr. Allen pointed out that during the great Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, there was a certain conservative streak which permeated much of monastic practice and limited non-biblical materials from the liturgy. The concern was that heterodox views might somehow sneak into worship so only biblical pieces were allowed (though the New Testament canon was not entirely closed during the early part of this discussion).

As a result, hymnology didn't really play a leading role in some churches until after the early creedal period. And, when hymns began to be incorporated into the Office, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, was oftentimes seen as the prime example (in fact, in the Benedictine Rule, the Latin simply suggests that "now comes the Ambrose"--referring to the singing of a hymn).

I found this particularly intriguing because of the battles that went on over music in the Reformation and that continue to rage in the church. In the sixteenth century, many Reformers complained about the complexity of the music and reverted to the simple singing of Psalms (as did many of the monks in the early church). Other kinds of singing might be seen as, at best, "superfluous adornment." The desire was for simplicity rooted in biblical principles, if not literal words.

In the current "Worship Wars," much of the debate that rages is over style, completely ignoring the earlier historical lesson. As Marva Dawn and others have suggested, there is oftentimes even a tendency for the musical style to submerge the words and their message. The danger here, as the historians suggest, is that non-orthodox ideas can creep in. One of the major problems is the solipsism at work in much of contemporary music: it is, quite simply, self-referential with God used only as a prop. Young people come looking for a subjective experience--not necessarily to be confronted with their own sinfulness in the face of a Holy God.

Negotiating these treacherous waters is never easy, but the study of the history of the church can be helpful here. Understannding that music can be dangerous is essential (even Plato knew this!). But Ambrose provides a positive example, as well. He inherited a bishopric which had been tainted with heresy so he sought to compose hymns which would affirm orthodox belief. Others are at work on this exact issue today and new hymns and musical forms provide a wonderful opportunity for both celebrating and teaching the faith. The first thing, though, is to see the role of music within the liturgy (it is primarily a tool, after all) as providing both peril and promise.