To Music

Sunday 18th June 2023
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Colossians 3.12-17
Acts 16.16-34

In 1562 The Council of Trent, as part of the Roman Catholic Church's reaction to the liturgical astringency of the Protestant Reformation, condemned elaborate late polyphonic music which, it said, overwhelmed the purity of the words being set. Palestrina, one of the supposed chief offenders, responded with a simple Mass setting named after Pope Marcellus II which brought a stay of execution.

Eighty years later, Monteverdi was attacked by the Papal Inquisition for writing an aria to close his opera the Coronation of Popea which was much more beautiful, it said, than any of the sacred music he had written. He had therefore committed an act of blasphemy by writing beautiful music for Nero, a persecutor of Christians, and his immoral wife, Popea.

In England, meanwhile, the country of Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons, Weelkes and Tomkins, from the middle of the 16th Century onwards, music was steadily phased out from most Parish Churches except for metrical Psalms. Where the Papal and Inquisitorial onslaught soon gave way to an era of ravishing sacred baroque music, in England it was only with the Methodists at the end of the 18th Century that Hymns became popular, heralding their introduction into the Church of England in the middle of the 19th Century.

Before addressing the issue of the nature of music, let me put it into a broader cultural context. Shamefully, Christianity has a long tradition of banning and burning books as well as people, as far back as accusing the great theologian and exegete Origen c185-250 of heresy. The written  word is most easily censored because although there might be disagreement about the precise meaning of a text, written statements give people something firm to hold onto or to reject. Drama is just a little more tricky but, again, there is a long Western Christian tradition of banning it, not least during the Puritan era in England. The first major attack on Christian representational art took place in Byzantium in the 8th century and at the English Reformation in an act of unparalleled state cultural vandalism hundreds of thousands of statues and pictures, stained glass and ornamented vessels, were destroyed; and what survived that onslaught was attacked during the brief Puritan Commonwealth in the middle of the 17th century.

So we can see that all the arts have at various times been victims of religious particularism; but what is it about music, so much less easily classified, which has generated such suspicion?

The answer lies in the very words I have just said "so much less easily classified". Music, like erotic love, is not subject to purely rational analysis and discourse; it is, once set loose, like fire from Pandora's box, impossible to re-capture. Music and eros, as we know from our own experience, have always been inter-twined. But the problem, from the Church's point of view, went much further: music was not only associated with love and beauty but it was also associated with the mysticism, and alleged superstition of the late Middle Ages. What Christianity needed, the reformists all agreed, was a stiff dose of doctrinal and liturgical astringency. But it was not just a matter of tone and doctrine; in spite of the Protestant theory that each person could draw his own religious conclusions from reading his own Bible, the Protestant reformers soon became as accustomed to burning dissidents as the Catholics.


This cut and dried attitude to religion, which makes doctrine more like physics than metaphorical poetry, is a piece of intellectual arrogance born of the worst sin of all, the sin of pride, but it is also a symptom of the gross heresy which separates and ranks agape above eros, the spiritual above the physical, which is as absurd a concept as ranking prayer above peaches when the two phenomena are in totally different categories. As humanity we were created to be both spiritual and physical, to be at home in agape and eros, as the Trinitarian God is also realised in the physical and the non-physical.

And, the problem for exercising control is that Music has nothing to do with ranking the spiritual above the physical, or agape above eros: music is, fundamentally, even more than is the case with poetry, the generation of emotion through rational means, it is the calculated creation of effect, it is the embodiment of rules which rely for their impact both on reinforcement and infraction. In that sense, music is subversive of the rationalist cause, a cause so often invoked by hierarchy to exercise political and religious control. In that context, the city authorities in Leipzig in the first half of the 18th Century were very brave to put up with Bach; they occasionally wavered but never gave way to their misgivings. To their credit, they did not over-react to musical innovation, a point we should bear in mind when we think of our reaction to new work.

It may seem over dramatic to relate the power of music to the idea of control;  many of us, for example, may simply find Choral Evensong comforting; but we will be very unlucky if, sometimes in our life, we have not been so deeply moved by music that it has taken us quite out of ourselves.

And that, ultimately, is the point. The imperative in worship is that we should give our very best to God, and much of what is best in worship is our music which combines our rationalism and our emotion in one act which is why it should be as important in our Christian lives as it is in our romantic lives. Music embraces our ritual and God's mystery, it takes us beyond words and beyond ideas of duty; and, at its best, it takes us as close to God as we will ever get in this life.