About this blogger:
Richard J. Clark is the Director of Music of the Archdiocese of Boston and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. He is also Chapel Organist (Saint Mary’s Chapel) at Boston College. His compositions have been performed worldwide.
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“A penalty is decreed against clerics, who, being in sacred Orders, or holding benefices, do not wear a dress befitting their Order. […] In these days, the contempt of religion has grown to such a pitch that—making but little account of their own dignity, and of the clerical honor—some even wear in public the dress of laymen…”
— Council of Trent (Session 14, Chapter 6)

The Politics of Sacred Music
published 15 November 2013 by Richard J. Clark

OMEONE RECENTLY SAID TO ME, “You don’t have to deal with politics. You are just doing music.” It took a while for me to stop laughing after I picked myself up off the floor. Music is always part and parcel of church politics. This is true regardless of denomination or location in the world. This dynamic is independent from whether it is a cathedral in a large city or a small rural parish. Politics is part of human nature and human nature is everywhere.

As such, sacred music and liturgy often become the focus of church politics because of emotional reactivity attached to external expressions. Architecture? Incense? Piano? Guitar? Organ? Chant? Old translation? New translation? Latin? Inclusive or non-inclusive language? All the above sometimes have emotions assigned to them that are not in the least bit related to their intent or function. Perceived slights, personal preferences, and a good deal of “emotional baggage” potentially come to light with any or all of these. One might become emotionally entangled in these external expressions, quite unnecessarily, clouding one’s judgment and distracting from prayer. God ceases to be the focus. Instead, something external gets inside one’s head and won’t let go.

Likewise, many of us experience being judged or “pigeonholed” because of the sacred music we sing or play. Not too long ago I had a conversation with a priest who assumed I espoused certain views based upon my insistence to uphold certain liturgical standards. I had to remind him that one cannot “reverse-engineer” my personality simply from my liturgical planning. (In fact, many will think I have multiple personalities depending on which of my church jobs and which mass they observe. I have multiple bosses and priests to please, parish and finance councils to consider, and congregations that are in different places of development, all the while fighting for and upholding the integrity of the sacred music.—Yes, politics!) But because I like Gregorian chant, this does not automatically mean X, Y, and Z. That I live and work in Boston, does not automatically mean I espouse certain political views on A, B, and C. The all-or-nothing society insists upon categories, but most human beings defy categorization as we are all part of God’s creation, each with a unique plan and purpose to serve God.

O, MY DREAM IS THAT SACRED MUSIC and liturgy would be above politics. Jeffrey Tucker and Adam Wood have both expressed that Gregorian Chant should be apolitical. Politics require putting self-interest first. Yet, the liturgy does something very counter-cultural by putting God first. Take for example, the funeral mass. We do two things that go against society’s thinking: 1) We put the Eucharist at the center of the funeral mass. 2) We pray for the soul of the deceased. Putting God first is counter-cultural, but it should be apolitical.

What can be done? As part of inescapable human nature, tension and politics also emanate from anxiety. To best ease this tension, certain music and instruments must become normative, e.g., “no big deal.” This takes time for people to get used to. But for this to happen three things must be in place:

Support from leadership, i.e., the pastor and ideally, the local bishop. Leaders must take a stand—kind but firm. They must also be consistent with agreed upon terms of implementation.

Tenacity—Catechize and have a thick skin. A change of culture usually takes several years at the very least. Pastors and music directors cannot give up if instant results do not appear. There is no quick fix.

The music must be done well. I.e., the choir must sound good and the organ must be well designed and built. This should be self-evident but bad Gregorian Chant and bad organ playing does no one any favors. Again, be patient and tenacious, as this understandably takes time.

NSTEAD OF TRYING TO CONVINCE everyone who is right and who is wrong, my dream is that we evaluate what best serves God and the liturgy. Such an evaluation is possible when we differentiate between reactive feelings and recognize our responsibilities. The Vatican II documents remind us of our responsibilities. They point out the ideals for which we must strive. Emotional reactions to the organ, chant, or guitar (another ancient and venerable instrument with a history that is thousands of years old) may be unrelated to the evaluation of whether it serves the liturgy and how well. We have to be honest with ourselves if this is the case.

Then there is a simple fact that the ideal is not always available. This can be because of finances, lack of support or persistence from leadership, architecture, or ignorance, etc. When the ideal is not available, one has to make choices. For example, I would infinitely prefer a good guitarist or pianist over a bad organist, especially one playing an electronic organ. This is not just because of personal preference, but because the well-played guitar and piano are instruments which may far better serve the liturgy in a given circumstance. (Unlike an electronic organ, they produce natural overtones, something to consider!) A superior player of any instrument can transform an experience for the better quite dramatically. If we are musicians with integrity, we must be honest if this is the case in a given circumstance.

Even when the ideal is present and available, it will quite inevitably be met with resistance from some. This is often due to personal anxiety over change. Or it may be due to a perception that certain styles or instruments equal “conservative” while other styles or instruments equal ”liberal and progressive.” I have personally grown tired of such perceptions. It is nonsense. Either the music is sacred, beautiful, and universal, or it is not. It is either prayerful or not. I don’t care if it is “progressive” or “conservative.” Is it good? Is it God-centered? Is it reverent?

(An aside: I work literally 20 feet from the Berklee College of Music. There are well over 900 guitar players, most quite exceptional in ability. It is often the guitar players, the drummers, and the bass players from Berklee who respond most positively when hearing music such as William Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus” or Jehan Alain’s “Litanies” or “Misereris omnium” on Ash Wednesday. Why? Because as musicians with creative minds, they appreciate music of universal beauty. Great music is great music, period. Politics didn’t enter the picture. Why would it?)

INALLY, TO PERHAPS REFUTE MY DREAM that sacred music be apolitical, I am reminded of a startling reality and paradox: Jesus’ suffering and death was a result of local and global politics of the time. Jesus stood faithful to the will of the Father. This faithfulness brought about our salvation and redemption. If we in turn must navigate the inevitable politics surrounding the liturgy, may our faithfulness serve others as God intends.