UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

New church music fills a niche, but its staying power is less certain

By David Wilson

On a sultry night last summer, after a bountiful dinner and amid much gaiety, three women, former members of the junior choir at Trinity United Church in Peterborough, Ont., gathered around a piano and sang together for the first time in 30 years.

They were rusty, to be sure. But prodded by one of the women who remains active in choral music, they eventually found their voice and settled into their parts. Glorious harmonies rose into the night, as if released from years of captivity. Kids who had never heard their mother sing, let alone sing complex pieces like Lift Thine Eyes and O Lovely Peace, wandered by to listen, eyes wide and sparkling.

It was clear this trio had been taught classically, and taught very well. You can't fake harmonies like those. In the gaps between phrases, you could hear echoes of the choir director urging, "Let's do it again." You could hear the crunch of snow underfoot on cold practice nights, giggles rippling through the alto section, and the magical, holy moments when it all came together. Junior choir had been about more than singing; it had been a musical education.

I was thinking about this as I watched the 39th General Council unfold in Thunder Bay, Ont., last summer (Report, page 18). As always, music played a big part in the proceedings. It was played and sung with skill and passion. It re-energized commissioners. It helped to bring 800 people packed into an oversized sardine can on the Lakehead University campus closer to their God.

And it was thoroughly contemporary, a showcase for the United Church's new hymnbook supplement, More Voices. You could have counted on one hand the selections that might qualify as "classical" church music.

The music offered at General Council reflects a drift away from traditional church music that began a couple of decades ago. The difference between church music today and a generation ago is the difference between hymns and songs. The melodies today are catchier, the rhythms snappier and the language plainer. The songs are easy to learn and geared to the musical tools of the moment: guitars, electronic keyboards, flutes and conga drums.

You might say it's more democratic. It's certainly more outward-looking: repertoires now routinely contain songs with African, Latin American and Aboriginal origins.

And yet.

It's entirely possible that current and future generations of church musicians will grow up without ever sinking their teeth into Handel or Mendelssohn or Bach. Imagine a generation of readers growing up without ever having been exposed to Dickens or Austen or Melville. Popularizing church music clearly means more people will sing more songs, but is something precious being lost in the bargain?

It's fruitless to pine for yesterday. But in its zeal for contemporary music, I wonder if the church is in danger of turning its back on a part of itself. The three women who gathered around our piano last summer each have a different relationship with the church today. The one thing they have in common is a deep and enduring love for the music they learned in church when they were young.

In 30 years from now, will people who are young today feel the same about the music they learned?

Time will tell.


Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!

Interviews

Courtesy of Pixabay

Why this woman is leaving the Catholic Church in her 60s

by Angela Mombourquette

After a lifetime devoted to Catholicism, a Nova Scotia teacher is settling in with the United Church of Canada. Here, she explains why.

Promotional Image

Editorials

Jocelyn Bell%

Observations: It’s a long road toward full equality for women

by Jocelyn Bell

'It’s a wonder that we continue to see male ministers as normative and attach shame to female ministers’ biology and sexuality.'

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: Playing by Heart

by Observer Staff

United Church music director Kara Shaw was born prematurely, became almost totally blind and was later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Today, the 28-year-old showcases her unique musical ability, performing piano on local and national stages.

Promotional Image

Faith

May 2018

Toronto church builds interfaith friendship

by Vivien Fellegi

Faith

May 2018

This parent found no support for her autistic daughter — and decided to change that

by Kieran Delamont

Suzanne Allen talks about raising a daughter on the autism spectrum and bringing all autistic girls together

Faith

May 2018

Church retreat helps first responders with PTSD

by Joe Martelle

Interviews

May 2018

Why this woman is leaving the Catholic Church in her 60s

by Angela Mombourquette

After a lifetime devoted to Catholicism, a Nova Scotia teacher is settling in with the United Church of Canada. Here, she explains why.

Ethics

May 2018

Pregnant in the pulpit

by Trisha Elliott

Ministers who take a maternity leave still face discrimination in their own congregations

Interviews

May 2018

The two words Rev. Cheri DiNovo wants to hear from the United Church

by Alex Mlynek

The Toronto minister talks about her disappointment over the church’s silence when she officiated the country’s first legalized same-sex marriage 17 years ago – and why she wants an apology.

Promotional Image