The question I was asked to answer was: “How is it that a liberal such as you has become interested in chant and traditional liturgy?”
Implicit in that question is something like: How do you reconcile traditionalism with progressive theology?
And further, for clarification: How traditionalist are you? How progressive? What do those words even mean to you?
To answer all of that requires a bit of backstory, and before that, some quick cataloging of my various progressive and traditionalist leanings.
I call myself a progressive/liberal (and sometimes a “heretic”) because:
- I believe (very strongly) in women’s ordination. This is not a matter of fairness or power, but one of theology – specifically, Christology. I believe that the exclusion of half our race from “in Persona Christi” is a grave error, and a deep wound in Christ’s body.
- I believe that the all three Persons of the Trinity can and should be referred to using feminine language in addition to the traditional masculine forms.
- I believe in open Communion.
- I believe that legitimate and healthy liturgical praxis can take a number of forms, and that Mass and other rites can and should look different depending on cultural and community context and local needs.
- I like the music of Haugen, Haas, the St. Louis Jesuits, the Dameans, Hurd, Bolduc, Maher, Taize, Iona, and all the rest of the folk/pop/contemporary people, and regularly program it, alongside more traditional forms at my parish. (I work at an Episcopal parish, but I would probably program a very similar lineup at a Catholic parish as well).
I call myself a (semi-)traditionalist because:
- With the exception of my above-mentioned heresies (or… differences of opinion), I am deeply orthodox in my theology, and find myself ever more so each passing year. (I have coined the term “Otherwise Orthodox“ to describe this position.)
- I believe that “what earlier generations held as sacred remains sacred.” While I have no particular affinity for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, I’m glad that those who desire it have access to it, and I support NLM’s “Summorum Pontificum in Letter & In Spirit“ campaign.
- I believe that the Latin text of the Missal and other ritual books should be the standard for liturgical practice, and that the vernacular translations should be as faithful as possible. With a small handful of exceptions, I like the new translation.
- I strongly believe that all Catholics should be able to chant the congregational parts of the Ordinary in Latin. I also believe that all Catholics should know traditional Gregorian hymns.
- I believe that the Propers represent the best, first choice for the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion.
- I believe that those involved in preparing and celebrating liturgy should “Say the Black” and “Do the Red” as accurately as possible.
- I love Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony. I think that all Catholic musicians should be trained in chant, and that it should form the basis for any parish music program.
- I do not support most attempts at “creative” liturgy.
So…. How did THAT happen? How can I be both?
I grew up in a progressive Catholic parish. I didn’t know until much later just how progressive it was, compared to anywhere else, and especially compared to official Church teaching. Contemporary Catholic folk music (guitars, pianos, and drums) was pretty much the ONLY music. We had liturgical dancers. We had lay preaching. We had female altar servers before it was allowed. We had a booklet of alternate “Professions of Faith” for use instead of the Creed. My parish hosted the monthly Mass for the Catholic Gay and Lesbian ministry of the Diocese. I was the music director for those monthly liturgies when I was in high school.
We were a vibrant, and rapidly growing, parish. We were firmly “Spirit of Vatican II.” I loved it.
Is all of that why I’m a progressive (or a heretic, if you prefer) today? Am I just a product of my upbringing, and a perfect example of why devout Catholics should shun those practices?
No. You can blame that on Eucharistic adoration.
I certainly started my theological life as an ultra-progressive – that’s all I knew – but I have found myself growing ever more orthodox each passing year: Yes to the Real Presence. Yes to the Virgin Birth. Yes to moral teaching. Yes to the Trinity. Yes, yes, yes. Goodness gracious, I even believe in Purgatory these days.
Sitting in contemplation and prayer with the Blessed Sacrament over a number of years, and discussing shared prayer experiences with my wife, going back to long before we were married, I have come to a series of beliefs about women’s ordination, the gender of God, the nature of Eucharist, the cause of salvation which I can only describe as heretical (by which I mean, against Church teaching), but which I have no choice but to accept as true.
I came into the most subversive aspects of my personal faith within the center of Catholic teaching: the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Because of that, I started to think that maybe, just maybe, if more people were devout, and praying whole-heartedly for right faith, for truth, for the Kingdom of God to be made manifest on earth as it is heaven, that maybe more people would come to the conclusions I did. And in any case, we all would come to better conclusions than we would otherwise.
But what makes a folk-Mass progressive become so enamored and won over by chant and traditional liturgy?
Well, for one thing, there are the Episcopalians.
In Boston, my wife and I started experimenting with Episcopalianism– it’s like a gateway drug. We attended Mass for a time at Trinity Church on Copley Square. Female rector, and two female priests on staff (along with two males). One of the priests was pregnant, so I had the mind-expanding experience of seeing an expectant mother celebrate Mass. The preaching, the teaching, the very nature of what was going on in that parish was progressive. On the other hand, I have never been to a more traditional liturgy in my life. Organ and choral music and old, old hymns. Not much chant and polyphony, but still very traditional compared to anything I had seen in any Catholic parish. I learned more about Epsicopalianism and discovered that this blue-state urban parish was not unique: the Episcopal church is steeped in its liturgical tradition (to the point of suffocation, sometimes) in a way that American Catholicism simply isn’t. And yet, not only do they have female priests, they have a female Presiding Bishop who referred to Christ as “Mother” in the sermon at her elevation Mass. It’s like the 20th century rationed out an allowance of progress-points and the Catholics blew them all on silly songs and dancing, while the Episcopalians actually got something done. Made me wonder what might have happened if the reforms had gone differently. Made me wonder what would happen in the next 40 years if we stopped wasting our energy on “fixing” the best thing about Catholicism: the liturgy.
Additionally, during my time in Boston (parallel to my experiences at Trinity Episcopal and then with a liberal Catholic parish) my wife and I became closely involved with a small non-denominational house church. The core group of this community had grown up in the South in the Church of Christ – a denomination famous for its unaccompanied singing. While the ideology banning instruments was nowhere to be found with this group, the love of unaccompanied singing stayed with them. I had grown up with and still love pianos, guitars, drums, and woodwinds as part of liturgical music. But sitting in a living room with ten other people, worshiping with nothing but the human voice, gave me a real understanding of how our music can be “on earth as it is in heaven.” I started to realize how much more prayerful, how much more natural, this approach to music was than the over-produced concert music of contemporary Catholicism. And the only thing I could find in my own tradition which approached this kind of noble simplicity was unaccompanied plainchant.
Then came the Church Music Association of Ameria. Or more specifically, Jeffrey Tucker.
Basically, I wanted to be more involved with Catholic liturgy again. The Catholic parish we ended up at after some time at Trinity Episcopal had very little need for my musical ability – Boston has a glut of talent – or my liturgical input – they thought physically moving the altar during Mass in order to make room for dancers was a good idea. So, I started blogging. And I started following some major blogs (PrayTell, NLM, GSGP) and participating at the Musica Sacra forums. I didn’t really have any idea at first how (generally) conservative and traditionalist the Musica Sacra forums were – I just thought it was great that I had found Catholic musicians talking about Catholic music online. And I started reading Jeffrey’s blog posts, first at New Liturgical Movement, later at Chant Cafe.
Even though I didn’t want to, I kept finding myself agreeing with him. There were, and continue to be, real differences of opinion between us, but I couldn’t help but notice how often what he was saying made complete sense. And you can’t help but be drawn to someone so ridiculously friendly and genuinely excited about everything. He answered my emails before he knew who I was. I’m pretty sure he read my blog early on. He never acted like I was bothering him, and then all of the sudden he started asking for my opinion on things. Here’s one of the most recognizable names in the Catholic blogosphere, and he’s just about as approachable as can be. I ended up going to a weekend chant workshop in Houston, as much to meet Jeffrey as to learn more about chant. I have to say: if you’re interested in promoting your agenda, or winning advocates to your way of thinking, Jeffrey Tucker is a pretty good model for winning friends and influencing people.
I had a passing knowledge of Gregorian chant – the folks in the Catholic Gay and Lesbian Ministry were into it, so I programmed chant hymns whenever I could – , but I didn’t know much else about legislation on music, or the propers. Through JT and CMAA, I learned how to chant. I learned about the propers of the Mass, and the difference between “singing the Mass and singing at Mass” (a distinction which immediately made sense to me). When I started to read through the texts of the propers, and then even more so the various hymns and chants in the Parish Book of Chant, I couldn’t help but realize how impoverished was the theology of the music I grew up with. There are a lot of contemporary songs and hymns that I think are wonderful and rich, but I had never, ever been at a Mass and sung any sentiment as evocative as “Blood of Christ, inebriate me,” nor sung any melody quite as sweet as “Ave Verum Corpus.” There are untold riches here, and the contemporary liturgical movement has pretty much just forgotten about them.
I started to wonder: If my progressive ideas are true, and I arrived at them through engagement with the Blessed Sacrament and deep prayer – how much more might that truth spread and be understood if there was greater engagement with the deep spirituality of traditional liturgical forms?
I have come to believe that these texts – the propers, the traditional Latin hymns and prayers – are as important to our communal liturgy and spiritual journey as any portion of the Ordinary (which most of us would hardly think of omitting), and in fact am increasingly baffled by the widespread ignorance of them. As is common practice with the congregational acclamations in the Ordinary, I would like to see contemporary and diversely-styled settings of these chants, hymns, and prayers. I understand the CMAA’s preference for chant-style, but I think calypso propers would be a vast improvement over what happens in many parishes.
And aside from the text, there is something about traditionally sacred musical styles. As a musician, I cannot deny the incredible beauty of well-performed Gregorian chant. I’ve always been curious about it (I bought a Graduale Romanum when I was in high school… didn’t know what to do with it). I am still a little bitter at my various music teachers and training programs for not introducing me properly to the music which forms the foundation of every other style of Western music. As I became more experienced in chant, I started to notice that my musical abilities – even with regards to contemporary and pop styles – improved. And even moderate amounts of polyphony (singing, studying, and directing) has had noticeable impacts on my homophonic choral part-writing. The simple fact is: traditional sacred music makes you a better musician. Once I realized that, I was hungry for more. And, as someone who cares about the future quality of musicianship in the Church, it made me want everyone to be exposed to these genres.
But it’s not just about liturgical music as conservatory for culture, although that is an important side issue. The beauty of chant teaches us something about the beauty of God. The quietness of chant gives us a peace which passes all other forms or styles, a peace which music of the world simply cannot provide.
Do I think chant should be the only form of music used at Mass? Of course not, nor does the official Church (as far as I can tell). But it seems to me that part of “pride of place” (or “first place,” if you like) is not just about quantity, but about inspiration and motivation.
So that’s something like what got me to this point. Where am I now? I work and worship at an Episcopal parish in a liturgical context which is (due to my influence, and with the blessing of the liberal Anglo-Catholic rector) increasingly diverse and increasingly Catholic. We do chant regularly (in Latin and English), alongside unaccompanied music from the American Protestant tradition, typically-Episcopalian organ hymns, and contemporary Catholic folk/pop music.
In my blog, and my other online activity, I try to champion the use of traditional sacred music, and (even more important to me) high quality music in any style which is faithful to the texts of the Mass and the spirit of the Liturgy. I like to think of myself as bridge builder between the traditionalists and the progressives, while knowing full well that neither one of those sides really gets where I’m coming from.
As a composer, I’m interested in how the Chant tradition interacts with contemporary American religiosity, and to that end have been working on an unaccompanied Mass setting based on Shaker melodies. I’ve also started to work on Praise and Worship styled settings of the propers (I’ve got about one-and-a-half Introits… it’s a start).
I’m hoping to be around for the next wave – the Reform of the Reform of the Reform. I’d like to see genuinely contemporary worship which has actually grown out of (rather than replaced) the traditional forms. I’d like to see liberals and progressives (and heretics!) championing Gregorian chant and the Mass propers, because they understand that their beliefs, while perhaps differing from the official party-line, have been drawn from the same deep well of Catholic spirituality and practice which nourishes the ultraconservatives.
Most of all, I hope that my “work” (if that’s what you can call reading blogs and writing opinions) encourages church musicians of every persuasion to heed Christ’s second commandment with ever more faithfulness. I find over and over in discussions online that the traditionalists and the progressives, the liberals and the conservatives, barely know how to talk to each other. Sometimes I think they must be speaking different languages or living on different planets. If I can help translate a little, or act as a mutual friend, or even a mutual enemy, maybe we can have more actual communication, more healthy dialogue. And if we can all talk to each other, maybe that will make us a little better at loving each other.
I’d like to end by telling everyone why I care about liturgy and music. Sometimes I worry that we all get a bit too wrapped up in these issues – issues which seem, from what I can read, to have been fairly unimportant to the Teacher from Nazareth. He cared about feeding the poor, clothing the naked, caring for orphans – not about translations or modes or altar placement or any of the rest of the things that liturgists and musicians are into. How can we, in good conscience, spend our time obsessing over these external elements?
I think a certain amount of obsession, by those who are called to it, is actually quite worthwhile. It is in the public liturgy of the Church that we come to understand the love of Christ which we are called to emulate. It is in the sacrifice of the Mass, dwelling in the sacrifice of Jesus, that we hear our calling to sacrifice ourselves. Recognizing Christ in the Eucharist, recognizing Christ in the assembled family of believers, gives us the eyes to recognize Christ in His “disturbing disguises” out in the world. We know how to clothe the naked because our God has clothed us in the garment of Baptism; we know how to feed the hungry because our God has fed us with his very body; we know how to comfort the dying because Our Lord has died in our midst; we know how to visit the imprisoned because God has visited us in the prison of our sin; we know how to care for orphans because our God has given us a spirit of adoption.
Adam Wood is a liturgical musician and composer, and he blogs at Music for Sunday.