I was privileged to give a talk on this topic at St. Mary’s Church, Portchester, on Reformation Sunday (29 October 2017). I took the liberty of reflecting on the role of music in worship more generally.
The text below is a transcript of the talk, with a little tidying up. The passages enclosed in square brackets are ad lib and incidental to the substance.
If you prefer, you can listen to a recording instead. Or as well as
Thank you very much for the welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here. It’s a case of buses again. Eight years I’ve been in this part of the world and visited a few times—never spoken here—now twice in two weeks. It’s a great privilege.
The making of music is such a basic human activity that it’s hard to imagine that there’s ever been a society where there wasn’t music in society that did not make music. For this reason alone, and for others, that people of God has always been a singing people. And, ironically, it is in our own time that we are experiencing a particularly low point in the history of music-making in society and in the church.
“What a lot of nonsense!” you might think. In the era of non-stop music on the radio and in shops and on transport, the technology to carry entire choirs, symphony orchestras, pop musicians, or whatever else you might fancy, in our pockets, and stream whatever we wish to hear almost anywhere we like, and whenever we like, it seems that in fact the opposite is the case. Never has there been so much music available continuously to so many people, so much of the time.
Yet in this era of commercial music we are experiencing what the BBC comedy W1A might call “more of less”. While the professionals sing them play for us, music making has become a specialised activity alongside football and chess and landscape painting, rather than what it has been throughout the history of mankind, a universal human activity in which all people participate rather than something primarily for listening to passively. We have become consumers of music rather than music-makers.