Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Brrring, Brrring, Ego Te Absolvo

I have just absolved somebody of their sins over the telephone.

This person is decidedly disturbed or I wouldn't have done so, but having had a conversation in which I refused to re-baptise him to cleanse him of his sins, and said that, well, all things being equal, it was really a matter between him and God and that he could just say he was really sorry for whatever it was and that would be fine, it was the quickest way of resolving the matter, especially when he phoned back to say he couldn't go to sleep until he was absolved. So it was, 'OurLordJesusChristwhohasleftpowertohisChurchtoabsolveallwhotrulyrepent blah blah blah, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. Right, go to bed now, Trevor.' It doesn't help when this person has precisely the voice of E.L. Wisty, only flatter and with slightly less animation; to hear that saying 'I have blasphemed against the Holy Spirit' is really quite surreal (that wasn't, of course, the matter of his confession or I couldn't tell you).

I'm sure this breaks every rule of Canon Law possible, but it seemed to make him happy, and it made me very happy too, because I could go to bed as well.

Become a Roman Catholic? When I'm this far into Father Ted territory already, why bother?

Monday, 25 January 2010

Steam and Noise

I'm a Steampunk sceptic, I admit. My attire has become gradually more Victorian over the last ten years, and I never encountered the S-word until about 18 months ago. I have been known to voice a certain degree of irritation with the cartoonish antics of Steampunk devotees (all those goggles and fake fobs), when we all know that Goths are supremely sensible.

Nevertheless I was persuaded to set out for King's Cross on Saturday last to what was described as a Steampunk Spectacular, emboldened in the knowledge that at least a couple of chums from the London Goth Meetup would also be there to leaven the brown-clad loaf. I discovered myself, willy-nilly, to be rather charmed.

Firstly there was the music. I warmed to Saville Row, performing what was described as a reunion concert after a gap of ten years; by my calculation that meant they hadn't been playing together since the sixth form at the latest. Then came the lovely Rachel Hayward, Rachel Raygun as she calls herself, married (apparently happily, I'm afraid) to Steampunk fantasy author Robert Rankin: at this point I want you to picture a Goth girl in a latex tutu and little neoVictorian hat playing 'California Dreaming' on steel-pan drum. Having some trouble? No, it wasn't a concept that came naturally to me, either. She was followed by The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, 'putting', as they say, 'the punk back into Steampunk', and fronted by a large red-whiskered man in a pith helmet singing songs about Charles Darwin (rather shamelessly lifted from the old Jacobite favourite 'Charlie is ma' Darlin'', I think), drainage, and Victorian engineers. Headliners Ghostfire came across as quite pedestrian noise-merchants compared to all that, so I didn't feel guilty leaving two songs into their set.

Then the outfits. A while ago I went to a London Vampire Meetup Group outing and found it all a bit samey: all the girls in Victorian garb, all the chaps in leather trousers and pirate shirts. The Goths, I smugly concluded, are more varied. Well, variety was hardly the word on Saturday. There were remarkably few goggles; what there was was a very entertaining eclecticism and creativity, treating the whole of the past as a colossal dressing-up box.

All in all, it was worryingly fun. It was almost as though somebody had been going through the darkest recesses of my head late at night. I'd sometimes mused that were I ever called on to play a set of music at a LGMG event it would include 'Doomsday' from the soundtrack of Dr Who; and what was almost last on the jukebox before I left the pub on Saturday? 'Rose Tyler, I ...'

What I like about Steampunk is precisely this creativity and breadth of range - although Goth at its best goes even further, as I've seen in some places, and Steampunk can't coherently stretch back any further than George Stephenson's top hat - its sense of history, and humour. All that is colossally appealing, and I can see easily why more mature Goths who want a bit of a laugh find themselves drawn Steamwards. But, but, but ... Something in me yearns for a bit more than humour too. I want something deep and dark to resonate with, the aesthetic of ruin and romanticism. And only Gothic has that.

In the end, as the last strains of the final dance die down and the destitute gamblers unpeel sadly from the table, I am on the side of the flying buttresses and weeping angels rather than the cogs and goggles. I find myself Black, not Brown, though I tip my hat to the boys and girls with the mechanical rayguns.

The hat was a Homburg, since you ask.

Music in the Mass 2

The nature of the music, too, has become a relativistic matter. I like pop; you like Classical music. They are both equally valid musical forms and can be used equally well to worship God. If you object to liturgical music in the pop idiom, that’s just an arbitrary choice based on the sort of music you happen to like.

The decisions of the Church across the centuries, again, should lead us to question this assumption. The history of liturgical music, at least in the West, is marked by repeated departures from and returns to a norm. In the late Middle Ages, polyphonic singing developed and elaborated until the text became inaudible amid the decoration; both Protestant and post-Reformation Roman Catholic Churches aimed to cut this elaboration back and return to the text. In the 18th- and 19th-century Roman Catholic Church orchestral settings of the Mass and operatic music became popular; Pope Pius X in the 1900s demanded a return to plainchant. This wasn’t because he disliked opera per se, but because he concluded it wasn’t an appropriate form for church music; it was a rational decision, not an arbitrary one based on taste. Of course very few people outside liturgical musicians know about it.
Why should chant, whether in Eastern or Western forms, have been across the centuries the standard of liturgical music to which the Church continually returns? What can this tell us about liturgical music generally?

Chant has little or no rhythmic property. It lacks that essential constituent of most musical forms, beat. Just as the natural model of instrumental music is the human voice, so the natural model of beat is the human heart. Music based on rhythm ties us to our nature, and to time; to our ephemeral state, to the heartbeat marking out our little time on earth. Slow beats are sonorous and stately, fast beats excite us. But only music freed from rhythm connects us to eternity and to spirit. I go so far as to suggest that beatless music stands a greater chance of allowing God to talk to us than more natural forms. This isn’t to say that plainchant is the only form of music suitable for the liturgy; but it does suggest that there may be forms which are actually unsuitable. I like many sorts of music, but wouldn’t argue strongly for the output of Siouxsie and the Banshees or the Dresden Dolls to find much of a place in church services.

This insight illuminates the use of instruments in church. Organs cause problems when organists become ostentatious, as with any musical specialists, and when they actively compete with the human voice, the primary instrument of worship. But the instinct that the organ is the model instrument for Christian worship is, I suggest, not arbitrary: it is based in the fact that staccato percussive rhythm is impossible to manage with an organ. At the other extreme, instruments that can produce nothing but staccato percussion, such as drums, should at the very least be carefully controlled and balanced with other instruments in church. I would suggest they come close to being completely unsuitable for worship.

But what of, say, medieval hymns and carols which are strongly rhythmic and yet seem (to me) unobjectionable in church use? I suspect a musicologist would be able to cast some light on the technical nature of the tunes which might distance them from contemporary rhythmic music; and perhaps that very temporal distance is part of the point. Venerability is incapable of being manufactured, and it’s worth remembering that of the vast quantity of music written at any time and in any form for Christian worship, only a tiny fraction of it is still used.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Music in the Mass 1

Recently I attended an ecumenical service which was an unsettling experience in all sorts of ways. It's good to be unsettled, it makes you think. One of the sources of unsettlement was the music. It prompted me to consider the issue of church music, especially as I've had some kind compliments from people at Swanvale Halt since I took on selecting hymns for our services, so as usual I ended up collecting my thoughts by writing them down. Here's the first bit: it'll be no more than obvious to some, but we were never taught it at vicar school (like a lot of other things).

The music of church services has become subject to the underlying relativistic assumptions of our modern mindset, that it is a matter of arbitrary choice and anything is as good as anything else. But this ignores the way Christian music, especially for the Eucharist, has developed over the centuries.

In the old Mass in the Western tradition – by which I mean the Latin mass before the changes of the 1960s – an elaborate system of music had developed to accompany the offering of the Eucharist. As well as the unchanging parts of the service, the ‘Ordinary’ of the Mass, there was the ‘Proper’, sung parts which varied according to the day or season. These were usually an Introit, sung at the start of the service; a Gradual, sung before the Gospel reading, Offertory, and Communion Anthem. There were also ‘Sequences’, hymns specific to days and occasions. Each of these were composed of Scriptural phrases, interlinked by theme and season to provide, for those who understood them, a sort of commentary or meditation on the Mass itself and the readings of the day. The Eastern traditions developed a parallel system of musical commentary on the Eucharist, with a rather freer use of non-Biblical poetic or devotional texts. In the East, in fact, the whole service was sung: the concept ‘said mass’ made no sense.

The Anglican Church dispensed with this whole system at the Reformation, yet very quickly began developing its own repertoire of devotional hymns which, imperceptibly, came to perform exactly the same function as the Proper of the Mass. When they were introduced back into the Communion service in the 19th century, hymns appeared in the same places as the texts of the Proper, and based on expansions and meditations of Biblical texts and phrases as they were, did, or at least had the potential to do, exactly the same thing as the old chants, gradually affecting people's thinking through their poetry and melody. One sign of the inner Catholicism of the Anglican Church is that this happened without anyone deliberately planning it, or even realising it was happening. The ancient structure re-emerged through its own internal dynamic. How many contemporary clergy, even, have any idea that the pre-Gospel hymn is termed the Gradual because it occupies the place of the chant sung from the gradus, the chancel step?

It’s also why it can be maddening to attend Eucharistic services where those responsible for choosing the music seem not to know what it’s there for. This is because they’re working on the Songs of Praise model in which hymns are devotional acts in their own right, rather than fitting into something bigger. This is fine in itself, but unbalances the Eucharist.

Hymns are not just light relief between the wordy bits of a service, nor occasions for the congregation to enjoy themselves singing, even when that means worshipping God. They have a precise function, to comment and meditate on the offering of the holy sacrifice. Hymns are the Anglican Proper of the Mass.

Monday, 11 January 2010

More Effects of the Snow

The parish remains frozen, which has the good effect that meetings are continually cancelled, events postponed, and people can't get to see me after all. I've even had time to sit and think about Lent.

The night the snow came down was Epiphany. We'd planned a Sung Mass in the evening and my first thought was, gloomily, that we'd have to cancel. 'I don't see why everything has to stop', said our church secretary. 'It'll be fun coming to church in the snow.' Of course she wasn't coming anywhere near the place herself, but my resolve was stiffened and we went ahead. It was fun. It reminded me of the first time I attended St Mary de Castro in Leicester, stumping through the snow on the night of St Lucy's Day, 1991: the altar party outnumbered the congregation then, too.

This Sunday at the 8am I had a congregation of one. A very devout, deep-thinking lady, but one. 10am saw just over 50 turn up, but this was in contrast rather interesting. Because the older members of the church are less sure of themselves in icy conditions they stayed at home, while in return we got a couple of younger folk who normally attend other churches but didn't want to go further afield. As a result the age profile was hugely lower. It felt like a completely different place.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

A Casualty

Isn't this sad. The snow looks lovely lying round the parish of Swanvale Halt, but it lay rather too heavily on the beautiful tulip tree in my front garden. The trunk is split right through and there will be no saving it. I suppose I should be grateful it didn't come a few inches closer to the sitting room window. I will replace it but it won't be the same, and the house will look so bare until then.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

More Effort Than It Looks

Melpomene's gloomth-laden corner of the garden now has an addition - a small pond. A very small pond, but pretty much as I envisaged it though in my usual fashion not quite as neat and tidy. It would have been far easier had Melpomene's corner not, as I discovered to my cost, been composed largely of rubbish as soon as you got beneath the surface - half-bricks, slate, tiles, pipe, and even an iron bucket-handle. At least it doesn't seem to leak much.

Now all she needs is a seat of some sort for melancholy contemplation.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Dreaming of a Black and White Christmas

The Christmas card that brought the biggest smile at Swanvale Halt Rectory was this from Dr Spooner of Lancaster who has gone out of her way to source a beautifully Decadent angel by Sidney Sime, printed by the V&A: