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It’s (All) About Worship

There was a reason I named this “The Worship Group”. Before I leave the discussion about English and why I am using it, let me continue by writing a little about “worship”. At the same time, let me challenge you to find a Norwegian term that says the same thing. Let me challenge you indeed even to write this in Norwegian!

The word “worship” is usually translated “tilbedelse” in Norwegian. To me this does not reflect what “worship” is. Indeed the more I think about it, the more inadequate seems our understanding of worship here in Norway (“we” exempting of course those movements and organisations, usually in the free church, who come to us from the outside). This is a huge problem because worship is fundamental to our profession as church musicians!

So what is wrong with “tilbedelse”? Well, nothing – except that in Norwegian we are describing an act more than a state. It is something that happens, for example, in a hymn or prayer. Yet in English,the words “Sunday service” (or  “gudstjeneste”), “praise”, as well as what may happen on one occasion can ALL be replaced with “worship”. Try substituting the word “tilbedelse” for “søndags gudstjeneste”, and it just doesn’t seem to work in Norwegian. Worship is not just an act but it is also a state of being.

The problem is that this same worship is the raison d’ être for church music. No “ifs and buts”. It’s not negotiable.

Here in Norway, we have made church music a career. Unfortunately, because the (Norwegian) language doesn’t express this concept in quite the same way, some may not see the problem in being a concert organist, or the conductor of choirs that travel around the country more than they actually join worship in the churches they are supposedly meant to serve.

Yet we have witnessed the paradox of so-called “church choirs” that rarely sing in the churches to which they belong. Had they been secular choirs, it would be forgiveable. I personally know of some choirs that have received many thousands of kroner in start up funds, where the church council (menighetsrådet/soknerådet) even remunerated the choir’s conductor… and where the said choir still sang only on certain special occasions, and where most of the parish’s services were still without a choir!

It is even worse than that, actually. Because the choir sang so rarely, on those occasions that they did sing in the church, it was not the hymns that ever became embellished by harmony. No, they were there to sing their motet, their special piece, or whatever music it was that they had been working on for the last few weeks, and cumulating now in church as the pinnacle of their present “project” (in between tours to this place and that, and generally having a “cosy” time)! Presented a few days before with a hymn list, they thought it acceptable just to rehearse and lead the melody.

So when could the congregation ever get to hear harmony for their ordinary worship? Is that even important? I shall return to this in a while.

However, the attitude of Norwegian “church” choirs to worship is a complete paradox! Often a church choir will think that it is “meeting its requirements” by making a rota! Not only so, but they think they deserve praise for this contribution!

I refer of course to the so-called “forsangertjeneste“. Of course those of you reading this here in Norway know all about this; those elsewhere will be amazed, if not incredulous. That is to say that if a choir has, let us say, thirty people, four or five of them will have to come to a church service one week – and then they will have done “their bit”. Next time another four or five will be chosen, and these people can then go to their mountain hut, or whatever else they fancy doing at the weekend. Worst of all, in many choirs, even the “forsangstjeneste” (this rota) isn’t every week! And these people actually think they are doing a wonderful job!

Of course I am worried about resources (and about the future in these difficult times). Let no-one say that that is the reason we don’t have more. I more than any of you organists have the right at least to speak about the shortage of money in a council, having lost my job in one place precisely because there were not the funds for my position. Nevertheless consider that here in Norway, both in terms of the resources that have been given to choirs and not least our salaries, we have (for many years) had the kind of money our colleagues in England only can dream of! What have we to show for this, especially when compared to those choral traditions abroad that receive a fraction of what we get, and where singing in a church choir means that you sing in church (not once a year, not once a month, but every week, and in many cases twice each Sunday)?

So let me return to my rhetorical question of whether it even be important that a church choir sing harmony in the service. There are many people today who do not go to church, and who only come during baptisms or during the time they are confirmands. All they get to hear is the often dreary hymn singing of ageing congregations, and however brilliant a brand new pipe organ might be if this has also been installed, first impressions count: many people have already made up their mind that traditional hymns, and church liturgy are not for them. The sad thing is that they never get to hear them! The choir is too busy performing its motet, and the organist whatever fine music he has been working on the last few weeks!

It all boils down to worship. That is what we do, or at least is what we are supposed to do as church musicians. I remember a priest I knew in England. He told me of some people in his parish who thought that the service would be a grand thing if there were a band, a fanfare, a choir and generally made quite “fancy”. Of course – and he was right – if you have all these things, in our case the choir and its motet, the organist and his clever fugue, none of these things makes worship – all they make is an occasion!

We need to get a grip of ourselves, fellow church musicians! At the Norwegian parish to which I referred above, the priest paid me a very kind compliment when they were celebrating my birthday. “Christopher’s problem is that he believes worship should come first: those who represent his music among us [the choir] do not come to regular worship, whereas the young have understood his point, but they don’t want anything of his type of music”! This perfectly expresses it. You may portray me as a charismatic or an extremist because you don’t like what I have written here, yet nothing could be further from the truth.

We are in the beginnings of a great change in Norway. Many of you have commented on Facebook fora that the church’s demands for your qualifications seem (frustratingly) to be out of proportion to what you then find it expects of you. I have also noted that in many places parishes are preferring to allow non-qualified (at least musically) youth workers to form the children’s singing groups – and slowly erode responsibility from you, who traditionally would have, and logically speaking should have, the job of running the music. Why is this? Because what the parish wants is more and more influenced by what its workers understand of worship and being church.

Worship and being church! Both of these are concepts coming in from the outside, but they are concepts really returning to our established church. We are talking about what our job is there for! We are not here to play great works by Bach, but for providing worship. I solemnly tell you that if parishes are choosing their youth worker before their musician, it is not because they are ignorant of the musician’s qualifications; it is because they see those qualifications irrelevant to being church. To amend a saying of Our Lord, that is what is important – while the other ought not to have been neglected.

I personally love hearing boys’ choirs so much that I am literally reduced to tears each time I listen to them on YouTube. I know that that great tradition is now almost gone, and that is why listening to it moves me. I too was brought up and trained as a classical musician. It makes me sad that for too many young people, worship is only synonymous with replacing everything lock, stock, and barrel with the anglo-american pop culture as evidenced in their worship songs (“lovsang”). Yet this is largely our fault!

It is time to put worship first in everything we do. This means invariably that we must open up to some musical forms that we may not like, or which we may have to grow into liking – but if we are proactive, as organists and choirs, young people who have never heard traditional hymns sung in an inspiring fashion may just end up forming a different opinion of them. It is a mutual process. They will then open up to those musical forms that they (thought) they did not like, or might at least grow into them through such exposure.

Your place as a church musician is in worship. You are to provide worship. Worship comes before concerts, and even before the holy crusade of providing a new pipe organ. Those things are secondary, and while they are worthwhile, non essential to what your actual job really is!

Feel free to contradict me, either by commenting here, or by becoming a contributor to this blog. Write your own posts, and let us get a real discussion going here about the nature of our work. Please too write what I have written above in Norwegian – if you think that it can be so translated. I challenge you!

Lastly, as pointed out in the foreword, this blog does not rule out Norwegian. If you wish to write in Norwegian, because you prefer to do so, just put your post under the “Norsk” category. If you have joined this blog to contribute, you will be able to do this on the control panel when submitting what you have written.