This year we have been taking one Sunday of each month to explore the music we sing together. So far it’s been an extremely condensed historical survey, considering the Hebrew psalms, ancient Christian canticles, and the birth of hymnody as we know it during the Protestant Reformation. In the years that followed the Reformation, more and more folks embraced its musical impetus. Congregations around the world sang in their native languages, with music that fit their cultures, and that was easy to sing all together. We could spend a lot of time exploring all this music. But today, I invite you to jump another 500 years or so, to the mid-20th century, to another era of great religious, political, and musical change.
As nations faced the consequences of first one, and then two world wars, Christians of many denominations and nationalities became impatient with the divisions among them. There was a desire for unity and common mission in a broken world. At the same time, many Christians began to feel dissatisfied with their modes of worship. Much of Catholic worship was, for some, too antiquated and formalized, disconnected from modern people and from everyday life. Much of Protestant worship was, for some, too prosaic and intellectual, disconnected from the senses, from ritual, from a sense of holy mystery. The division of the Western Church in the Reformation had led both Catholic and Protestant branches to dismiss those forms of worship that they characterized as belonging to the other. But now, after a break of about 500 years, they were curious about each other’s gifts, and about the gifts of even more ancient Christian worship, their common ancestor.
In the midst of all of this came the second Vatican council, or Vatican II. This international conference of the Catholic church, held in several sessions during the years 1962-1965, marked a major shift in Catholic practice. For the first time, the mass could be held in the vernacular, not only in Latin. There was greater openness to lay leadership and ecumenical partnership. A few women were invited to attend the conference – a small gesture, but a significant one. Most relevant for our discussion today, this Council called on church musicians to adapt Latin hymns into vernacular languages, compose new texts and melodies, and create church music with contemporary musical styles. This call generated the folk music still used in many Catholic settings, some of which has crossed over into Protestant use as well.
The opening of Catholic tradition to Protestant collaboration led to extraordinary developments. A shared lectionary was designed, with readings for each Sunday of the church year, for use in Catholic settings as well as many Protestant ones. New conversations revealed that we don’t disagree as much about the sacraments as we thought we did. Denominations began to recognize each other’s processes of ordination and baptism. Christians across denomination began to explore the importance of worship space, sacred seasons, and the order of worship.
These innovations happened in local congregations, and at seminaries, and in denominational bodies. There were particular storms of creativity in special Christian communities around the world that don’t fit into any of these categories. Today we’re sampling musical gifts from three of those special communities: the Iona Community in Scotland, the Taize Community in France, and Holden Village, a retreat center in Washington State. All three have cultivated the development of innovative forms of music and prayer which reflect a fascinating mix of denominational, historical, and geographical influences.
We started worship today with a hymn from Iona (Who Would Thank That What Was Needed). This community was founded in 1938 by a pastor in the Scottish Reform tradition. The Iona Community is famous for its retreat center on Iona Island, but also for its publishing house, Wild Goose Publications, as well as one of its most prominent musicians, John Bell. Through the generosity of Helen Sayles, we were able to host John Bell here several years ago. We sing music from this community throughout the year, such as: Halle, Halle, Halle; Cloth for the Cradle; and The Summons. Iona has become a center for musical renewal in the church. Its music includes unexpectedly modern language set to traditional tunes from Scotland and the British Isles, as well as short worship songs gathered from around the world.
The Taize community in France was founded just two years later than Iona, in 1940, by a Catholic man who became known as Brother Roger. This community welcomed refugees during World War II and offered hospitality to orphans after it was over. Taize has become an interdenominational Christian monastic community of men which has a particular calling to nurture spiritual growth in youth and young adults, who often make pilgrimage there. Their worship style includes periods of silence and simple, evocative prayers, as well as repetitive chants, set to music. Much of Taize music was written by one brother, Jacques Berthier. Both the brothers of Taize, and their worship style, have travelled around the world and blessed many other communities. Let’s sing together a chant from Taize, In the Lord I’ll be Ever Thankful. (Here’s a video for those who weren’t there to experience this!)
The third community I mentioned, Holden Village, is by far the most recent, and least well known of the three. It was founded in the 1960s, and is rooted in the Lutheran tradition. I mention it not only because I went there last summer, but because it has developed music and worship that is similar, yet distinct, from the other two communities; right here in the United States. The most well-known of its musicians is Marty Haugen, a Lutheran who grew up to join the UCC and who also composes for Catholic congregations. Marty Haugen writes hymns, call-and-response litanies, and full mass settings, as well as the evening prayer setting that we are using pieces of throughout our worship in Advent. We’ll sing another one of his pieces together, in a moment.
But first, I want to take a moment to reflect on the significance of the shifts in sacred musical development that these three communities and their artists represent. I find in this music, and the theology of worship that undergirds it, a weaving together of head and heart, of ancient and new, of high and low liturgical styles, with a profound emphasis on accessibility and participation. This is music whose DNA and whose goal is a unification of Christians with one another, with our common history, with our common faith, and with God herself. I give thanks for this music, and all those who have made and shared it with us, and to the God who inspired it.
Let’s sing, then, a piece from Marty Haugen. This is a version of the O Antiphons, the calling of many names of Jesus, to come among us, in this season of Advent.