First time visitors to the Abbey Church, regardless of religious background, will probably be surprised by at least one of the songs we sing on any given Sunday…and we like it that way! Rather than confining ourselves to a singular musical tradition, we like to draw from a breadth of Christian traditions—and beyond—when choosing music for our service. Not only does this reflect the many religious and spiritual backgrounds that form our community, but it opens us to diverse encounters with the Holy Spirit through different musical experiences.
When I first came on board as Music Coordinator, I brought with me lots of musical experience in a very particular realm. I have been active in the Episcopal (a.k.a. Anglican, south of the border) Church since I was a child, and have sung in church choirs since I was 15 years old. For me, a church service consists of hymns, a chanted psalm, a choral anthem, more hymns, some more hymns, and, of course, an organ voluntary or two. While I admit that this is still my idea of a great service, in my two years as Music Coordinator at the Abbey Church, I’ve learned a whoooole lotta songs and have come to understand the value of musical eclecticism in worship.
The people that worship at the Abbey church come from a broad range of religious traditions. Many of us, of course, come from the Anglican and the United Church traditions (of which the Abbey Church is a shared ministry). Indeed, these traditions are reflected strongly in the songs we sing. Most Sundays, we sing one or two classic mainline Protestant hymns. Also in our midst are former Baptists, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Catholics, and people from many other faith backgrounds with their own musical traditions. We consider a breadth of religious traditions when planning music, keeping our hearts open for musical pieces from any tradition that speak to the themes and ideas of the week.
Music we grew up singing can do powerful things in our bodies and our spirits. For those of us lucky to grow up with positive experiences of church and worship, the sound of a familiar song can inspire amazing feelings of closeness with God and community. Others of us grew up in traumatizing spiritual environments—and the music we sang and heard during those experiences can cause our bodies and spirits to tighten up or shut down. This is one reason that balance is really important when choosing music: a song can mean so many different things to so many different people. Choosing music from a broad scope of genres can invite more people into divine encounters over the course of a service. (Now that’s what I call evangelism!)
In previous posts, Rob and Meagan spoke about the tension we hold in our community between “casual” and “reverent” approaches to worship. Indeed, Rob highlighted that these ways of worship don’t conflict, but rather interweave, “com[ing together to reveal the sacred meeting the regular in some mysterious ways.” Central to our identity as a worshipping community is holding this tension, actively resisting the idea that a church can and should only uplift or present certain types of art, music, and cultural practices considered to be “high culture”—and recognizing that our perceptions of “high” and “low” culture are totally culturally conditioned. So while you will hear us chanting Latin plainsong from time to time, you will also hear a lot of Americana, folk tunes, banjo, spirituals, and vernacular music of anonymous authorship not typically held up and celebrated in (white, middle-to-upper class) Protestant spaces. With that, we also love to incorporate popular music from outside of overtly religious contexts all together. So-called “secular music” can speak to us in profound ways about God and orient us toward God’s presence in our lives and relationships. Who says [Joni Mitchell's] “A Case of You” isn’t about Jesus?!
As human beings, and as spiritual beings, we are capable of a full spectrum of emotion, attitude, posture, perception, and experience of the Holy. To draw on a range of musical traditions within the scope of our Sunday Eucharist honors this spectrum and gives us the opportunity to encounter God wherever They are ready to meet us that day!!!