Tag Archives: William Temple

“Music and Ascetical Theology”

(This is an essay by Martin Thornton published in the Programme for the Southern Cathedrals Festival, Salisbury, July 27-29, 1967.)

There is an old tradition which sees the relation between the Organist and the Vicar as roughly that between cat and dog: by domestication they manage to exist together without physical violence while remaining natural enemies at heart. Times have happily changed and the idea of a creative interplay between music and liturgy is now taken for granted. But liturgical theology is only a part of that larger whole which tradition usually calls ascetical theology, or sometimes simply “spirituality.” This is concerned with the whole of prayer, and the consequently of the whole of life: “religious experience,” wrote William Temple, “is the total experience of a religious man.”

The point is accentuated by current trends in the study of ascetical theology itself, especially as it is interpreted in existentialist and “secularist” forms of thought. Today “Prayer” means a total relation between man and God, embracing personal devotion, corporate worship, recollection, and even moral decision, within itself. Prayer implies a total spiritual continuum rather than some isolated “religious” exercise, and although the traditional adjectives “actual” and “habitual” retain their usefulness, the strongest possible stress is placed upon the latter concept. Some modern scholars would even deny any meaning to a prayer, or religious service, if these were regarded as isolated “acts.”

Like most “modern” movements, there is nothing very new in all this. The Hebrews were fully aware that prayer was a continuous activity of the whole man. Medieval devotion expressed the same fact in relating it to all five senses. Julian of Norwich describes the very union with God in these words: “And then shall we all come into our Lord, our self clearly knowing and God fully having: and we shall endlessly be all had in God: Him verily seeing and fully feeling, Him spiritually hearing, and Him delectably smelling, and Him sweetly tasting.” In classic spirituality the Eucharistic procession, with its colour, music, incense and movement, as preparatory to “tasting the Lord,” is the supreme examplar of the Gifts of the Spirit: the total activity of the whole man in the whole Church.

But this ideal integration of prayer and life, this spiritual continuum which expresses the whole faith, is easier to talk about than to achieve. Even its partial achievement is the fruit of a prolonged, disciplined struggle, and it is with this that ascetical theology is concerned. I would therefore define it as “the theology of prayer, in its totality, together with those physical, mental, psychological and emotional discipines which nurture and support it.”

Ideally all Christian prayer is Trinitarian in form: it is offered to God the Father, through the Son, within the Holy Spirit. But again this is easier said than done, so the Church in her traditional wisdom is content if our total life of prayer contains all the theological emphases which flow from the doctrine of God the Holy Trinity: transcendence and immanence, praise and petition, objective and subjective, corporate and individual, penitence and joy, and so on. The traditional pattern of achieving this spiritual health, or “balance,” is the synthetic complex of the divine office, the Eucharist, and our uniquely personal devotion, each with their proper stresses, aims and emphases. Very briefly the divine office is mainly concerned with the corporate praise of God the Father by the Body of Christ, so it calls for a good deal of self-effacement and emotional discipline from each member of the congregation. The Eucharist is also offered to the Father, in the Spirit, but it is plainly centred upon Our Lord as Redeemer. Eucharistic worship is, therefore, less regimented and offers the worshipper more psychological and emotional freedom.

Now what does all this mean to Church music? Can we widen the inter-relation involved from liturgical to ascetical consideration? All I can try to do is to raise some points and ask some questions of a very elementary kind. Let me hasten to confess that I am a music-lover of the strictly consumer kind, a non-productive drone whose technical knowledge is as near to nill as makes no difference.

My starting point is with the modern (and ancient) insistence on such key words as “integration,” “continuum,” “totality,” and so on. If the divine office, the Eucharist, and personal devotion are inseparable, then so are the practical elements of worship: posture, rite, ceremonial, emotion, cognition—and music. Worship is the total response of the whole man. So music cannot be relegated to an addendum, and I should deplore phrases lie the “use of music” in liturgy, or “music as handmaid of liturgy.” I should prefer to say that if prayer is the activity of the whole man in particular (“spiritual”) mode, or if thought is the cognitive action of the whole man, then music is worship in its musical mode. No doubt the musician will applaud this view, but we must go further. It follows that if music is given this autonomous value its emotional and psychological impact must coincide with the basic disciplines and emphases of ascetical theology itself. What does this say to the composer of liturgical music?

I think it says several things which I can only hint at in—musically speaking—kindergarten terms. First, if a composer is concerned with a setting for the Mass, or with the composition or arrangement of Eucharistic hymn-tunes, then he may indulge in an absolute freedom of expression. Because of the Trinitarian “balance” of the Eucharistic action almost anything can be fitted in somewhere during some liturgical season. But if he is writing music for the Psalter, or the Canticles of the divine office, a more disciplined approach is required: the theological emphases and ascetical purpose have to be considered. Apart from the relation between words and music, can these ascetical stresses be musically interpreted?

I suppose that, in the last resort, all music is received subjectively; the same music makes a different impression on different people. Yet, in kindergarten terms, there seems to be a possible classification from an ascetical theological point of view. Because the divine office is strictly corporate, could we suggest that its music should be of a kind which tends to unite listeners, like a military march or more subtly, dance or ballet music? And is there not some distinction between music that “takes you out of yourself” and music which “stirs one up inside;” psychologically between music to which the listener “goes out” and that which he “receives”? I suggest, very tentatively, that My God, how wonderful Thou art to Turle’s tune is of the former kind; Bach’s O Sacred head surrounded is of the latter. Whatever the intrinsic quality of the music, only the first hymn is ascetically suitable in the divine office, while both could be used eucharistically. The first is an “office” hymn because it is addressed to God Almighty and transcendent and I think the music inspires outgoing praise. The second is subjective and meditative, and again I think the music assists towards a penitential meditation. In fine, is it possible to conceive a type of “office-music” which might be described by some such phrase as allegro elevato?

This, I suggest, is the prior emphasis: in composing or choosing Church music the first question is what is this particular service for within the total complex of Christian prayer? Is it a question of giving praise or receiving inspiration? Of being the Church or of being a unique person within it? Yet our popular hymnals, for example, would appear hardly to have got around to this prior point. “Office” hymns need a long section to themselves, while “Holy Communion” and “General” amount to much the same thing. Arrangement according to liturgical season obviously has its point for music can express the mood of Christmas, Lent and Easter better than words, but this is a secondary consideration. The sort of music we have come to associate with Advent and Lent is usually quite impossible in association with Matins and Evensong—at these or any other seasons—because it is unsuitable for the prior emphases of the divine office as such.

Although I have tried to say something about moods, emphases and so on, I have been careful to avoid any dogmatism about an actual type or idiom of Church music, and this, too, is consonant with modern ascetical theology which will have nothing to do with a “sacred-secular” distinction in this or any other context. Yet I think this very point might throw a little light on discussions about musical tradition. In any such discussions between a group of clergymen two things are bound to happen. Some devout old boy is sure to get up and say that plainsong is the Church’s music and there can be no other. Then a vigorous young curate will counter with a plea for “pop” and hootinanny: we’ve got to get “with-it.” Obviously nobody wins, but ascetical theology might even help with this situation. I should say that a very strong case could be made for plainsong as the supreme vehicle for the proper offering of the divine office; not because it is tradition or even because it sounds nice, but because it combines the objective-corporate-self-effacing stresses that are here required. But does it follow that Eucharistic worship and other liturgical acts are also bound to this one form? Ascetical theology, especially in its modern trends, would have to say No.

Cover image “The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” by Fra Angelico is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original