Paul Westermeyer’s Te Deum
At the heart of Paul Westermeyer’s Te Deum: The Church and Music is his central conviction that music is revelatory and that music in worship constitutes an interpersonal encounter between God and the community that has gathered to worship him. But, as Westermeyer argues in his postscript, “. . . everything has not been sweetness and light.” In this quest to encounter the divine through the liturgical use of music, and as suggested by the subtitle title of his book, The Church and Music (not The Church and Her Music), the institutional church and composers, musicians, choirs and congregants have coexisted in uneasy tension over the centuries. This tension persists, Westermeyer contends, because of ethical and hermeneutical questions such as “. . . the role of the Church in social justice versus personal morality or differences about racism, abortion, homosexuality, the role of women, and biblical interpretation.”
While probing into the social and religious history of the church, and exploring the interdependence of theology, music, liturgy and spirituality, Westermeyer exposes the church’s continued difficulty in defining the role of the church musician and the place of music in ministry. Is their role, Westermeyer asks, to simply provide a level of entertainment to keep the congregation suitably impressed to continue coming back and financing the church’s overhead expenses? Or are church musicians, he asks, servants of elite interests – a financially powerful core of patrons who see their role as enculturating a congregation with the beauty and grace of a particular corpus of music. And what, Westermeyer asks, is the functional role of the church musician? Is she or he a worship leader, a musical custodian, a director of hymnody, a minister of the sung word, a servant to the liturgy, or an “organist”? These are the central questions that make Westermeyer’s book such a useful resource. Westermeyer’s conviction that congregational singing, as worship, should form the very basis for worship and interaction with God stands as a governing thesis for his broad survey of the history of music in the development of the church from its ancient origins. Westermeyer suggests such early singing would have been found in Eucharistic celebration in homes, at the sharing of the Word and at baptism, to contemporary times.
Westermeyer traces the devaluation of congregational singing to the complexities and foreignness of the language of the Roman liturgy at the time of Charlemagne in the ninth century. Westermeyer observes the disenfranchisement of congregational singers as the role of singing moved from congregational participation in the pews to trained choirs and professional musicians in the choir. The congregation, he argues, “. . . lost it’s musical office in worship [and] . . . high art prevail[ed] at the expense of folk art, and turn[ed] beauty into idolatry.” Such congregations, Westermeyer observes, were reduced to passive spectators, deprived of their liturgical voices; by the sixteenth century church music had become the purview of choirs: congregations listened and watched as choirs sang for them. It would not be until the Reformation that congregants would slowly begin to reclaim their vocal place in the liturgy as religious leaders like Luther recovered congregational singing as “God’s creation” in the liturgy.
It is this “primacy of identity”, Westermeyer argues, that continues to be found in the ongoing tensions in modern congregations. This, Westermeyer offers, is why:
. . . some pastors virtually demand certain types of music, and why musicians are so adamant about the music they chose, and why the people want certain hymns. The stakes are high precisely because the musical doing of a people is so potent and so expressive of its being.
The church, Westermeyer contends, has struggled with theological and musical presuppositions that have often lead to opposing conclusions and divisive practices. Backing off from a “dispassionate view”, Westermeyer offers, is an important skill for anyone seeking to understand the arousal of emotion associated with musical decisions in any worship community.
Nearly every worshipping tradition argues for music in corporate worship that expresses congregational prayer and enacts the proclamation of the gospel. Our own tradition writes of music as a God-given gift which has the “. . . power to speak to the worshiper at a deep level” Pablo Sosa, an Argentine church musician and Methodist minister, sees music as facilitating the drama of liturgy and bringing the sacred story to life. John Bell, a Scottish Presbyterian in the Iona Community, maintains that “something extremely rare happens whenever a congregation sings to its Maker. . . . If we can but sense it, every time a congregation sings, it is offering an absolutely one-time-only gift to its Maker. It is important that every song sung is offered to God with that sense of uniqueness.” Marlene Kropf and Kenneth Nafziger, Mennonites, suggest that “Beyond creating
understanding and belief, singing is a gateway to prayer for Mennonites . . . . For Mennonites the prompt for prayer is singing, and [they] pray best when [they] sing” Dean Thompson, from the Reformed Presbyterian tradition in the USA, suggests that musical ” . . . art in the liturgical context is not an end in itself. It is instead a servant of our chief end, which is the praise and glory of God. . . . Art in the service of liturgy is a winsome vessel for our celebration and understanding of God’s self-disclosure as the One who comes to us in Jesus Christ.”
Despite this apparent agreement within and between religious institutions regarding the place of music in worship, Westermeyer laments the trend in our time to define church music much like the market-driven world around it: “In place of the Te Deum and the long strand of the church’s song which it represents, the temptation has been to substitute superficial praise choruses or poorly crafted attempts to tell God how we feel.” It is to our biblical roots, Westermeyer argues, together with our common bond to the musical traditions and conventions of the early church through the Middle Ages, the Reformation and what followed right up to the present that should continue to inform the musical choices we make today. Sensitivity to our musical heritage, Westermeyer offers, not slavish loyalty to contemporary sectarian self-interest or the “counterfeit song of our novelty,” may prepare a new generation of church musicians to regain the nerve, as Westermeyer puts it, to take both the legacy and the future of its music seriously.