Carl Schalk, First Person Singular: Worship Through Alice’s Looking Glass and Other Reflections on Worship, Liturgy, and Children (St. Louis: Morningstar Music Publishers, 1998), 11-12.
Every day standards and guidelines shape our lives. Without regulations governing food, drink, health, safety, and even the state of the air we breathe, our lives, health, and general well-being would be seriously at risk. Standards for healthy living are a fact of life and are welcomed everywhere.
Everywhere, it seems, except in discussions about the church’s worship and music. There, some say, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, no matter how uninformed or harmful such opinions may be. The self-evident connection between the music of worship and spiritual health — affirmed by the Church in every age — is conveniently overlooked.
“It’s all a matter of taste.” And with that, any attempt to establish even basic liturgical or musical standards in parishes goes out the window. One predictable result is the inane concoction of musical and liturgical trivialities served up to many congregations Sunday after Sunday as “relevant and meaningful.”
But after all, isn’t “beauty in the eye of the beholder?” Erik Routley once commented that “there is no . . . miserable or demoralizing hymn tune, no mawkish anthem or organ voluntary . . . [and, we might add, no insipid setting of the liturgy] but somebody has thought it beautiful.” The usual argument in favor of bad music is that fine tunes are without a doubt “musically correct,” but people want something simple. In fact, as Routley suggests, the phrase “musically correct” has little meaning; the only “correct” music is that which is beautiful and noble in character. As for simplicity, what could be simpler than St. Anne or Old Hundredth?
Seeking musical refuge in “what I like” or “what appeals to me” is to withdraw into an individualism which seeks personal gratification before the building up of the community of faith. It avoids the simple fact that, in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ words, the issue is, first of all, a theological and moral issue rather than a musical one.
It may be one thing, in Vaughan Williams’ words, “to dwell in the miasma of the languishing and sentimental hymn tunes [and church music] which often disfigure our services.” It is quite another when such an attitude is encouraged by those charged with leadership in worship. To say, for example, that the choice of hymns in worship is simply “. . . a matter of taste” is ultimately to avoid taking responsibility for the spiritual, musical, and moral development of ourselves and our children.
In matters medical we reject the advice and counsel of our doctor at our own peril.
Regarding worship and its music — for our children’s sake if for no other reason — perhaps we should pay less attention to those advocating faddish whims and passing fashions and more to those who can help young and old alike grow into the church’s worship, the church’s song, and the church’s life.