Apples and Oranges – Part 1

Church music has always been controversial.
Church music is still controversial.
It’s just more of the same. Right?

Well, maybe. And maybe not. There is no doubt that church music has been controversial throughout the ages. Looking back, many of the conflicts now seem trivial or even silly to us. We tend to assume such conflicts seem ridiculous to us because we are more advanced in our thinking about music. We seldom assume it is because previous ages of the church were more serious about worship than we are.

Steve Miller, in The Contemporary Christian Music Debate, makes the case that we are slow to learn from church history, and do not realise that our ‘worship wars’ are just the next phase of the church reacting against novelty, being slow to accommodate itself to popular musical idioms, and treasuring tradition as an end in itself.

 On the surface, the argument seems compelling. Consider some of the previous conflicts:

*The early church wrestled with the problem of using musical instruments in church. Many felt they had no place. The Council of Laodicea outlawed them in A.D. 367.
*The Moravians, as dissenters, published their own hymnbook in 1504, drawing great condemnation from the Roman Catholic Church.
*Martin Luther set about writing songs and hymns in the simple and common language of the people. Luther drew on popular folk tunes and ballads, and set sacred words to them. His hymns were seen as a sacrilege as great as his German translation of the Bible. The Bohemian Brethren also used ‘secular’ (as Miller uses the term) tunes.
*Bach’s use of the organ, as well as his use of counterpoint was considered by many to be worldly and irreverent.
*John Calvin opposed anything reminiscent of the Roman Church, so he outlawed all non-Scriptural songs, and taught that musical instruments were for the immature Old Testament believers. Calvin’s churches sang only the psalms, set to metrical tunes, and did so without instruments. To this day, many Reformed churches practise exclusive psalmody.
*Isaac Watts fought against the Anglican use of exclusive psalmody, and insisted that hymns should be written in the modern language of contemporary Christians. When he eventually published his first book of hymns, he was vilified as profane, and even arrogant, thinking himself ‘a new King David’. The pressure nearly destroyed him.
*John Bunyan’s attempt to introduce hymns into his church nearly split it.
*Charles Wesley followed Watts, to the same reaction. He used popular English folk tunes, borrowed from Handel, and filled his lyrics with the warmth of Christian experience. Wesley’s hymns were likewise attacked and hated.
*Horatius Bonar’s hymns were banned by the elders of his own parish.

From all this evidence, it seems as simple as connecting the dots to see the parallel with our era. All the same characters, circumstances and plot twists seem to be in place: traditionalists bent on preserving older forms, innovators insisting upon contemporary music or lyrics, one side arguing for reverence and elevation, the other side arguing for accessibility and comprehension, either side calling the other side names. So, it is fairly easy to smile a smug smile, and say, “We just never learn, do we? It’s just more of the same!”

But is it?

Let me suggest that there are undeniable similarities  between previous worship wars and our own, but there are also considerable differences. The real question is whether or not the similarities are greater than the differences. For if the differences are greater than the similarities, then Miller’s argument falls down. Those who want to dismiss the whole argument as simply a rehashing of an old war must demonstrate that there are no significant differences between previous worship wars and the present one. Conservatives, on the other hand, must demonstrate that this is not merely a variation on the same old battle, but a far more serious battle than ever before, indeed, a different kind of battle altogether.

In the next article, I’d like to explain why I think Miller is wrong, and why the situation is an altogether different kind of conflict than the ones fought previously.

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