Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Clap hands everybody

Catholic Herald 19/1/07

In his book “What is the point of Being a Christian?” Fr Timothy Radcliffe tells of how the “terrifying and irascible” Archbishop of Birmingham of the late 1960s, George Patrick O’Dwyer, brought Eucharist to a standstill in a parish he was visiting. The parish team had worked hard to prepare a feast of guitar harmonies and modern folk hymns, which, unfortunately, the Archbishop did not like at all.

Halfway through one hymn, the Archbishop slammed his hymnbook shut and shouted, “Enough of these trivial ditties. Let’s sing something decent.” He then directed the dismayed congregation to turn to a more traditional number in their books. The poor guitar group were left feeling utterly wretched.

At the end of the Mass, the parish priest thanked the parish team and then, to the renewed horror of an already slightly traumatised congregation, added, “I would like to apologise to the parish team for the extreme rudeness of the Archbishop.”

There was a ghastly silence, at the end of which the Archbishop said: “Now I have something to say. At least there is one courageous priest in this diocese.”

It is not particularly brave to ridicule other people for their musical taste. It is not clever to hurt people’s feelings when they have worked hard to prepare something for your pleasure.

So when I hear the Holy Father voicing his dislike for rock music, or when I hear that the brilliant Vatican composer Monsignor Marco Frisina is planning to characterise Hell in his forthcoming opera based on Dante’s Inferno by using punk, rock and trance type music (I’m not sure how much experience Mgr Frisina has in writing in these genres), I feel uncomfortable, because I can see that a lot of people in the church are misreading these messages as a hostility to popular taste and popular music in general.

I worry about how forward-looking it is to close the Church’s ears to the tastes of an entire generation – and I am not talking about the younger generation, but the older generation as well. Anyone under 70 has grown up with rock music. Rock music is not a bad choice for the music of Hell, for all that, because it is so much about regret, and sadness, and memories of youth. Old rock “anthems” (see how the very language of the rock critic, though pompous beyond belief, continually turns churchwards) are our Proustian madeleines.

If I turn the car radio up when I hear Boston playing “More than a Feeling” or Martha and the Muffins’ “Echo Beach” for the umpteenth time, I am certainly not indicating any feeble attempt at solidarity with young people, for whom these songs mean nothing. I am celebrating my membership of the over-45s brigade – the generation most likely to be involved in organised worship. If our musical leaders forswear the musical memories of anyone under 70, then church music will become a very antique business indeed.

I am sure that nobody in the Vatican wants to close doors to any field from which talent might enter to enrich the church’s life. People who really love music generally enjoy the best of all genres. Some months ago, our Sunday Eucharist was electrified by the harmonising of a visiting group of African ladies; we felt cleansed by the purity of their voices.

Opening my “Celebration for Everyone” hymnbook I find, nestling together on the same page, one very traditional Catholic hymn, “Immaculate Mary”; the mystical “Immortal, invisible” which I remember from my Anglican youth; a popular modern hymn by Kevin Nichols, whose tune I have become fond of over the years, and whose lines bring a tear to the eye: “Take all that daily toil plants in our heart’s poor soil, take all we start and spoil, each hopeful dream, the chances we have missed, the graces we resist, Lord in thy Eucharist, take and redeem.”

And bundled in among this lot is the song my children used to sing when they were little: “If I were a fuzzy wuzzy bear, I’d thank you Lord, for my fuzzy wuzzy hair.”

I see no harm in having such a mixed bag. A Catholic friend of mine who is a part time jazz pianist, and hosts Sunday lunchtime gospel sessions in a Chelsea nightclub, believes that church music has to reach out to different forms if it is to develop at all.

There may be times when I do not particularly want to clap my hands and sway a bit while singing “Walk, walk in the light” but there are also plenty of times when I do, and it does the soul nothing but good. Let us have the courage to allow the music of the Catholic Church to be – well, catholic.

1 comment:

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