Contemporary Worship Wisdom from a Medieval Rhetorician

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Worship planning contemporary worship wisdom 246x300
13th C Madonna, Assisi. Public Domain.

"Permit an old word to regain its youth by giving it a home in another situation where it can be a novel guest, giving pleasure by its strangeness."
- Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Poetria Nova, translated by Kemper Crabb in his essay, "A Manifesto: Making the Beautiful Strange"

I received this quote and the brief manifesto in which it appears, from a colleague in another denomination (the Rev. Dr. Duane Arnold, an Episcopal priest) who is working on a significant musical project with a colleague in our own, a deacon from the Iowa Annual Conference, The Rev. Michael Bell. That project embodies this quote from another longtime friend of Duane, Kemper Crabb, who is doing something along similar lines.

Duane and Michael are working on recording musical settings of prayers of a number of the church's martyrs, from Carpus of Pergamum to Oscar Romero, with others between and before. These are ancient words or words from settings of martyrdom, far removed from much we know of Christianity in American, now being clothed in a variety of contemporary musical idioms and made singable for individual or corporate prayer. Having heard a sampling of these pieces, I can tell you they fulfill Geoffrey's ideal. The unfamiliar words are truly novel guests, giving pleasure in their strangeness.

At present, it appears The Martyr's Project may in fact be released in time for the beginning of A Season of Saints in 2012 (October 7-November 4). If so, you may wish to consider using their arrangements of prayers by Carpus (October 6, 2012) or Dietrich Bonhoeffer (October 23, 2011) in worship in some way if you choose to commemorate them at some point.

Kemper Crabb's project is the revival of medieval western music, but not as it has usually been done. As a student of medieval music myself as an undergraduate (and my favorite Western musical period remains late medieval, early Renaissance-- go Harmonia!), I'm well acquainted with and even love the efforts to recover and perform medieval music as authentically as possible (auf Alten Instrumenten, as we say auf Deutsch!).

But Kemper Crabb is right. As he writes in his manifesto, "a brute retrieval of these songs is not enough.... Those vital things which have been allowed to sink into obscurity must be resurrected, though in a fashion which renders them accessible and attractive to an age which has forgotten them."

And that's what he does. Here's a sample.

Ever heard of John Dunstable? Guillaume Dufay? Johannes Ockeghem? Josquin des Prez? Can you sing a single phrase from any of their works? I can. But most folks I know can't. For them these names are unknown, lost, or perhaps at best forgotten.

Forgotten maybe. But not finished. The poetry and music of these composers can still sing, and not just in academic institutions funded to preserve the relics as they were.

Let me bring this home a bit more though. How many different Charles Wesley hymns do you still sing? He wrote hundreds of hymn texts. We have a bit over 40 in the current United Methodist Hymnal. The Music and Worship Study we conducted in the last quadrennium showed we United Methodists in the US tended to sing perhaps 1 or 2 Charles Wesley hymns per month. We don't know this, but based on observation, we think this may amount to perhaps 6-8 different Charles Wesley hymns per year. As for the rest of the corpus? Probably like Dunstable, Dufay and the rest, unknown, lost or forgotten.

To be sure, there are composers who are bringing Charles Wesley hymns back with new tunes. Mark Miller's 2000 "Azmon's Ghost" sets "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing" as the first piece in the new collection of congregational songs for United Methodists, Worship&Song. Old words, new tune. Carl Thomas Gladstone and Jackson Henry, among others, are doing the same with other Charles Wesley texts.

But generally not the forgotten words. Not the lost texts, those we've never sung and perhaps never even knew existed.

What will it take to resurrect those... not simply retrieve them by brute force, but actually experience their unique life and life-giving power here and now?

Ancient Future Here and Now
The challenge is not unique to whether we United Methodists recover more of our Wesleyan texts or even tunes. ("Love Divine," for example, was written to a Henry Purcell aria, and in fact is a parody of its text. Charles Wesley was the superior poet!).

No, the challenge, and the opportunity before us, is nothing less than to dwell in all the riches of prayer, music, art, and the drama of liturgy and ritual itself of the entire church in every place, riches all ours to learn from and share. And as we do so not simply retrieve them by brute force, but truly resurrect them, as Kemper Crabb says.

The Madonna from Assisi, pictured above, for example. Look at it closely. What happens if instead of seeing this as a medieval fresco belonging on the ceiling of an Italian church (which it is), we place it alongside works of painters like Pablo Picasso or Paul Klee? What do we beauty can we see and rejoice in that we might otherwise have overlooked were it not keeping such strange company among us here and now?

Now think of lost practices of worship where you are. The saying of a creed, for example, or the singing of the Gloria in Excelsis (or the Gloria Patri, for that matter!), or the chanting of the Psalms. What about the use of the ancient sign of the cross? What about kneeling?

What might it be like, as Geoffrey of Vinsauf reminds from eight centuries ago, to let these some of these or other old gifts regain their youth by making their home among us as novel guests?

How might we revel and rejoice in the Triune God who inspired them all through the beauty of their very strangeness?