I’m still coming down from the high of the trip to England with the St. Alban’s Choir last month and steeping for a week in the finest examples of the stately beauty of Anglican liturgy which so inspired the young Kamehameha that when he became King of Hawaii he and his Queen, Emma, established the Anglican Church in Hawaii. (Feast Day, November 28, see “Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints” pages 706-707.)
But I have this “teensy leetle” problem with Anglican Chant. I love it, and my discomfort is entirely the opposite of my objection to the performance of mass settings like Mozart’s C Minor Mass or his Requiem in concert halls as performances instead of as the music for an actual celebration of the Holy Eucharist or a funeral in a church. No, my problem with Anglican Chant has not to do with setting; it was entirely appropriate and as it should be, the music for actual services of Holy Communion and Mattins and Evening Prayer. No, it is simply that for all but the choir and any rare members of the congregation then assembled with a deep choral background, it makes worship into a spectator sport. I’ve attended, vergered even, many Evensongs at Washington Cathedral, and every time the beauty of what the choir is doing is offset for me by all the congregation standing mute during the Magnificat, the Nunc dimittis, the Preces and the Suffrages, when there are musical settings of these that are well within the reach of just about everyone there, and which, if used consistently, an entire congregation would in not too much time become comfortable in full participation, and which, through repetition, would become an ingrained part of their inner spiritual life. Of course, I don’t expect and would not want to see Cathedrals change from their current practice, which preserves through use the rich legacy of Anglican choral music. No, what I’d like to see is not plainsong “in place of,” in the life of the Church but “in addition to,” in more settings, ideally, in every parish no matter how small, and, of course, a renewed encouragement of parishes and individuals to embrace the ideal of the English reformation of daily morning and evening prayer, in addition to Eucharist on Sundays and Holy Days, as the regular way of life of every Anglican. It should be our most distinctive trait, like the Rosary is for Roman Catholics. There seems to be an evolutionary tendency for prayer forms gradually to become more and more elaborate and move ever so slowly out of the reach of everyone, and there is thus a need to periodically restore that balance, but that’s another Cup.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC.