Agnostic Liturgical Ministers?

[This one really hit me because I studied organ with the author – Peter Planyavsky, formerly of St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna. Liturgically speaking, he is one of the good guys. He pushed hard for congregational singing and the presence of a cantor, even and especially at Latin High Mass. He composed “orchestral responsorial psalms” for congregation and choir so that the Liturgy of the Word would not be dwarfed by a Mozart Sanctus and Agnus. He labored mightily for the development of vernacular repertoire for the reformed liturgy. He once told me that the first time he heard a Eucharistic prayer in German, tears rolled down his face at the fulfillment of a long-held wish. Now, after his departure from the cathedral under less than pleasant conditions, his memoirs appear. The book is at once humorous, clever, insightful, poignant, and tragic. The shock is that the author considers himself an agnostic, in the sense of not affirming the Christian faith. I wonder, how common is this? How many people in the ministry are in a similar personal situation? I don’t suppose they can very well talk about it too openly. I have the greatest respect for the author’s honesty and conscientious integrity. Of this I am convinced: the God I believe in worked through the gifted creativity of Peter Planyavsky. – awr]

But can one who is agnostic be a church musician? The standard answer always comes quickly and with emphasis: “Of course not!” Because, it is argued, anyone who does not believe in a Son of God who became human will not be able to conduct “correctly” an “Et incarnatus est.” Or, in the sharper version: “correctly” indeed, but “not very devoutly.” My complex answer begins with devious simplicity: You don’t have to believe in the existence of witches to perform Humperdinck’s opera “Hansel and Gretel” validly; but you do have to know what a fairy tale is, what a witch is, and what is supposed to be conveyed by the story. Above all, you must recognize what Humperdinck had in mind as he set the text in this and not in that way. This may even mean that it “gives one the creeps” – but it need not necessarily mean belief in the existence of witches. My discussion partners then generally retort, “But that’s totally different!” Until now, no one has been able to illustrate to me what is so different without recourse to easily recognized circular reasoning.

A triad can be correct or false, but it can’t be devout or irreligious. The tempo of an Agnus Dei cannot be faithful or unfaithful, but only good or inadequate, musically speaking. Here there are criteria intrinsic to the composition which have nothing to do with the content of the text (and which so many devout conductors have not yet noticed) – such as the stretching out of a phrase, or the highly prosaic question of whether a soprano soloist can make it without constant gasping for air (if not, then the tempo is too slow – for this reason, and not because the conductor is particularly devout). Furthermore, there are musical symbols which one can comprehend or ignore (e.g., if in the place “and became man,” a motive from the following “Et resurrexit” is already quoted). Here it is a matter of information from the musical score and also, it goes without saying, of approaches to the score which are known from knowledge of the cultural and spiritual context. Haydn created Kyries fundamentally different than, e.g. Bruckner.  But those who investigate this do not have to be themselves devout, but rather must only understand and recognize the devoutness of Haydn, and how this differs from that of Bruckner. And those who conduct the humble, restless Kyrie of Bruckner should not be humble and restless in this moment, but rather, with their musical craftsmanship and all their concentrated intellect, do everything they can to convey to the listener the affect “humble and restless.”

An actor is not given the assignment of being surprised when he is suddenly ambushed and stabbed in the 4th act. The assignment is to make credible to the viewer that he is surprised – even on this 19th evening after the premier. How telling that by coincidence the word credible appears here…

And just so have I always defined myself: as one who assists others to strengthen or experience their faith, to grasp more clearly a message, to sing along more easily on a hymn, to join in celebrating a liturgy more joyfully.

The other side of the coin is that I have developed a manner of Sunday-antipathy and feastday-antipathy, an all-encompassing “solemn-mood-neurosis,” which only now, after the end of my work for the cathedral, I am able slowly to break down. This sort of thing is clearest at Christmas, for which I have long since lost any joy. This is connected not only with the heavy workload between December 24th and 26th, but especially with the four-week bombardment in all greetings, homilies, and conclusions of liturgies with, oh! what bell ringing and angel-singing ecstasy which was to materialize “soon” or “shortly” or “in a few hours.” Furthermore, you wouldn’t believe how many thoughtless fellow humans, who knew exactly what occupation I had, have wished me “happy vacation” on December 24th. A similar case was the cathedral preacher Zimmermann, who every Friday at 5:00 pm wished me a great weekend. This occurred with the best intentions and was fundamentally praiseworthy. For indeed, a clergyman had appropriated a convention from outside, from the real world of normal people, and acknowledged that Sunday is not exclusively for devout piety, but also for free time. But to shoot the formula of repeatedly great weekends at none other than the cathedral organist, who for sure would not be spending his weekend lolling around or at a countryside party – I found this to be most thoughtless. It was rather like wishing a bank teller a happy “International Savings Day” before being barraged with customers. Beneath all this was a fatal error in unconsciously watered down form – and for this there are plenty of examples elsewhere – that a church musician is above all a devout Christian (if possible, particularly devout) who had to go to church anyway on Sunday. Because of his unique gifts, he not only sang the congregational hymns, but also played along – indeed, drawing on his inner enthusiasm, he did so for all seven Sunday liturgies.

I have always loved my occupation. But I define it differently than so many truly devout people expect.

——–Peter Planyavsky, Gerettet vom Stephansdom [“Rescued from St. Stephen’s Cathedral”] (Vienna/Klosterneuburg: Verlag Va Bene, 2007), 166-169, tr. Anthony Ruff, OSB.


  1. Greetings,

    Musicans are there to worship God. The Music is part of the worship. If there is NO prayer, no belief, then theoretically you could just put in a CD. One the reasons against canned music is that a recorder does not praise God. When the musician does not believe in God, then there is something wrong. At one time choirs were restricted to men because it was a ministry– I am NOT saying this was good, but to show that it was Part of a ministry and to do MINISTERY begins in belief. If there is no belief in the minister, then it is not real ministry.


  2. SC 29: “Servers, lectors commentators, and members of the choir also exercise a genuine liturgical function. They ought, therefore, to discharge their office with the sincere piety and decorum demanded by so exalted a ministry and rightly expected of them by God’s people.”

    It strikes me that something less than “sincere piety” is going on in the situation you describe. In linguistics we talk about “speech acts”, utterances that carry the weight of actions–oaths in court, vows at weddings. Surely singing the creed as part of mass in church is wholly different from singing it in a concert hall, as the singing rises to the level of devotional action and is no longer simply a musical performance. To sing or say such words and not mean them is lying in church and therefore scandalous.

    At my Newman center in college I was friends with one of the student extraordinary ministers of holy communion. During one less guarded moment, she let slip that she didn’t believe in the True Presence. I was aghast and never went to her communion line again. Why did this woman volunteer for such a position, and how was she allowed to performs such a function? If a communicant doesn’t say, “Amen,” does she still distribute?

    I also sang in a choir with a new choir director. I guess our old choir wasn’t good enough for Triduum, so he brought in some singers from the local music school who were real professionals. One day I went downstairs to the bathroom before or after rehearsal and heard one of these singers on his cell phone ridiculing the Catholic mass. I assume we were paying him for the honor too!

  3. Gelineau’s position on this was that an unbeliever was in some way undermining the authenticity of what was happening. He talked about people who lend their expertise to what is going on but, not being committed to the common enterprise that is worship, were in fact no more than technicians. This view later appeared in the first Universa Laus Document (1980), section II – Beliefs held in common, 15:

    “The action of an assembly of believers can be rendered false by musicians who provide only a technical service without also associating themselves with the celebration.”

    The question, then, is what “associating oneself” with the celebration means. Putting it bluntly, is it possible fully to lend your technical expertise to a celebration, while not believing in the principles that underlie it? Would you not always to some extent be “detached” from what is going on? Extending this, one might ask if it’s possible for someone who doesn’t believe nevertheless to respect the sincerity and commitment of those who are worshipping to a point where you could say that the technician does in fact have some kind of commitment to what is going on, and is thus “joined to the celebration” in some way.

    I should add that I have seen unbelievers in a choir converted to belief by exposure to a community’s worship, and more particularly not just the community’s approach to worship but to Christian living generally. But I have also seen unbelievers in a choir for whom performing difficult music incredibly well was a sort of game, providing intense aesthetic satisfaction and sense of achievement but with no discernible spiritual dimension or fulfilment.

  4. Paul and all,
    I very much want to agree with Gelineau and of course SC 29, tending to favor Christian faith myself (!). But pastorally, I don’t think it’s always so clear-cut, given the complexities of Christianity in the West since the Enlightenment. Planyavsky clearly supports the aims and purposes of Vatican II worship, and he wants the assembly to be engaged by the mysteries celebrated. It isn’t just aesthetic for him (like it is, I know, for plenty of other church musicians). Perhaps he wishes he could bring himself to affirm the Christian faith (I can’t speak for him), but he just can’t, even though he finds the faith appealing.
    An EMHC not believing in Real Presence is a huge problem for sure! But what about all the EMHCs who think they believe in it, but in the sense of a physical and localized presence, two errors in a row according to Thomas and the magisterium? What about the EMHC who ‘gets it’ in terms of being drawn in to Christ’s sacrificial self-offering and her call to offer herself to others, especially the poor…but whose affirmation of substantial presence is a dime short of orthodoxy? The latter seems closer in important ways to the Church’s understanding of Eucharist than the former. [Yes, I affirm substantial Real Presence, and No, I’m not advocating her view.] After Bultmann, how sharply can we draw the lines for what it means to believe in the Resurrection? [Yes, I affirm the bodily Resurrection, and. No, I’m not advocating Bultmanian reductionist views of the Resurrection.]
    Given the choice between a devout organist with a bad sense of rhythm who impedes congregational participation and a sort-of-not-really-believing organist who really knows how to engage the assembly, I’m pretty sure which I’d prefer.

    1. I can understand having an EMHC who, through bad catechesis, doesn’t understand Church teaching completely. But someone who knows what Church teaching is and rejects it?!

      “Given the choice between a devout organist with a bad sense of rhythm who impedes congregational participation and a sort-of-not-really-believing organist who really knows how to engage the assembly, I’m pretty sure which I’d prefer.”
      I’d prefer no music until someone appropriate could be hired. I know plenty of starving musicians. There have to be some that are practicing Catholics. Moreover, we all have segements of our lives as Christians where there is doubt and when God makes his presence less apparent. I’m not saying that someone who is seeking God and having trouble finding him should lose his or her job. Music may eventually be the thing that again reveals God. But someone who says that knowledge of God is unattainable…as a minister of the Church…in a cathedral?!

      Beside the scandal, think about the legal ramifications. If the Church says that non-Christians may be employed to serve in such musical functions, it will no longer be able to favor Christians to fill such positions. It becomes a clear-cut civil rights issue and the Chruch will always lose.

  5. There are degrees to all this. I certainly abhor the participation of hirelings for whom the hymn or organ piece is a mere performance. I have always sought church members for my paraliturgical concerts. From Father Ruff’s description, Planyavsky knew the spirit of the liturgy better than anyone in his choirs or in attendance in the cathedral. By his abilities and his artistic integrity, he may have helped far more people to grow in their faith than to leave it. He was no more a deceiver than the rest of us who come to church grounded in our secular suppositions and with our conflicting loyalties. Many of us use devices borrowed from the secular world around us to assist our celebration of God’s wonderful acts and our response. To cite a few common examples in wide use even in our sectarian times: offertory collections, applause in the sanctuary, Sunday night liturgies, Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy. Our assemblies might seem strange to ourselves and others without such non-mandated adaptations.

    Though Planyavsky’s co-workers and listeners grew in appreciation of their faith, through his knowledge and abilities, I’m sure they did not base that faith on the beauty of his performances. A really sinister pretense that can indeed demoralize others would resemble that of Miguel de Unamuno’s literary character Don Manuel Bueno, who went on preaching after he lost his own faith so that his unlettered congregation might preserve their simple beliefs. Not to mention those in authority who claim to lead morally unreproachable lives while acting in opposite ways. Music ministers do not (yet) have to attest to their doctrinal orthodoxy, though we expect from them a disposition to keep their agnosticism to themselves while they share their expertise and dedication with us.

  6. From one of the comments: It isn’t just aesthetic for him (like it is, I know, for plenty of other church musicians).

    Here we go again. Is it not possible for liturgy to be discussed without liberals make cheap shots at the motives and integrity of conservatives and vice versa? The better informed have a particular duty to set an example.

    Those of us who would like to see reasonable discussion of liturgy have reason to be dissapointed by the tone of this site, which it appears is being set by its Editor-in-Chief.

    1. No, Ian. “Plenty” doesn’t mean “many” or “most” and it isn’t a cheap shot. I was trying to acknowledge a point made by my interlocuter – yes, it’s just aesthetics for some – while defending Planyavsky from this charge. Planyavsky did loads of traditional music in a quite traditional reformed liturgy, all of which I support. So I’m a liberal?!

      1. Yes, Dom Anthony. Negative generalisation about the spiritual element of an unspecified number of other church musicians, in the context of an article about how faithful someone was to the spirit of Vatican II, is not only sloppy argument and uncharitable; it smells of holier-than-thou. Whatever the nature of your self-proclaimed liberality, comments like this (and the others I have previously noted) are unworthy of this blog’s lofty aims. I urge you reflect on this issue, which threatens to make this place just another bully-pit.

      2. Unfortunately, the internet is full of actual testimony from church musicians of traditionalist leaning sensibilities (and non-trad bent, too) who demonstrate ill behavior. Our blogger didn’t name names, and he said something which, though incomfortable and perhaps inconvenient, is very easy to confirm.

  7. Vaughan Williams considered himself an agnostic. A probably apocryphal story goes that when asked if he were a pillar of the church, he replied he was more like a flying buttress, supporting it from the outside! Does this diminish the spiritual value of his music? Alec Wyton once declared about another agnostic composer “God is not fussy about channels of his grace.”
    While I do not want to equate music with sacraments, we might consider the idea that any “grace” bestowed by music is not dependent on the worthiness of author, composer, or performer.

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