By Fran Torres-Lopez
I don’t recall the very first time I heard music, but from a young age it was an integral part of my life. When I was a child my mother sang at weddings. One of my favorite songs she sang was an echo “Our Father.” I also recall singing at school church services every Friday when I attended St. Paul’s Catholic School in San Antonio.
When I was a freshman in college, I joined the youth choir at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in San Antonio where my connection to music as spiritual formation blossomed. In the youth choir, we sang common hymns such as “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” Latin hymns in four part harmony like “Panis Angelicus” (Bread of Angels), post Vatican II 1970’s hymns like “One Bread One Body,” bilingual songs like “Pan de Vida” (Bread of Life), and African American spirituals such as “Wade in the Water.”
It was this singing in the youth choir that greatly informed my understanding of music in worship as something more than simply choosing songs that were preferred by a small subset of the choir or even simply likable by the congregation.
In the youth choir, I learned from a great friend and professional musician three governing principals of music selection:
1. Theology: Does the text reflect the theology of our faith?
2. Musical quality: Is the music sing-able by an assembly?
3. Liturgical appropriateness: Does the song/hymn support the liturgical action?
Over time, as our youth choir grew in maturity, two additional aspects emerged which informed our music ministry:
1. Worship versus performance
2. Cultural inclusivity in music selection
The first aspect of worship versus performance became increasingly important as our musical training grew. The core choir members had music degrees, sang in university choirs, and had paid choral and acting positions.
The lesson of worship versus performance was further ingrained on my heart when I became an adult with my own family. After a singing hiatus that lasted a few years, my wife and I joined a parish in which we planned to raise our children. As an adult raising children, my faith grew and began to penetrate all aspects of my life. With this change, I found the liturgy and songs we sang at church were steeped in rich meaning. The first few Sundays after joining the choir at our new parish, I felt as if I was one with the liturgy. My song was my offering, and everything I had was joined together in the music to be given back as worship.
Then one Sunday a choir member tapped me and told me to hold my book up higher. That week during choir practice, she told everyone they needed to sit a certain way and hold their books a certain way. I realized then that if we were to focus too much on how we held our books, I would no longer be able to sing in the choir. This was not a logical choice for me. Instead this was something deeper, compelling me to see that I could not authentically participate if our ministry felt more like a performance than a worship offering.
The second aspect, cultural inclusivity in music selection, is something else I learned while singing in the youth choir. However, I was not consciously aware of this lesson until I came to what is now our home parish where we sing primarily Anglican and European hymnody.
The music our current choir sings is sublime. Indeed our first Sunday there, over six years ago, I recall passing between the choir as I walked up to receive communion. The way the music surrounded me created a feeling of transcendence.
But over time, I began wondering why we do not sing more African American spirituals or why on occasion we do not sing songs in Spanish since we are situated in the middle of downtown San Antonio surrounded by a majority Hispanic population.
This does not mean we should dispose of Anglican and European hymnody. The beauty and richness of the tradition should remain a cornerstone of our worship, especially given its historical place within the Episcopal Church. Yet it is my understanding that meaningful worship increases the congregants’ awareness of the church’s universal nature — an awareness that truly all are welcome or at least should be.
Thankfully, to help with this task the Episcopal Church in her wisdom has given us great gifts in the form of The Hymnal 1982 and supplements.
The preface to The Hymnal 1982 affirms the need for inclusivity:
“The Hymnal 1982 retains the best of the past and sets forth many riches of our own time. [The Standing Commission on Church Music] looked for theological orthodoxy, poetic beauty, and integrity of meaning. At the same time, the Commission was especially concerned that the hymnody affirm ‘the participation of all in the Body of Christ the Church, while recognizing our diverse natures as children of God.’ … Texts and music which reflect the pluralistic nature of the Church have been included, affording the use of Native American, Afro-American, Hispanic, and Asian material.”
In addition to the few diverse songs offered in the The Hymnal 1982, the African American Hymnal Lift Every Voice and Sing II (LEVAS II) was created as a supplement by the Episcopal Commission for Black Ministries in collaboration with the Standing Commission on Church Music. In the introduction of LEVAS II, the Reverend Canon Harold T. Lewis D.D. writes:
“The ways in which a people express itself musically and liturgically provide us, perhaps, with the most significant insights into its culture.”
This statement leads me to believe that if we truly want to know each other, it behooves us to sing each other’s music.
In the first version of the LEVAS Hymnal, Bishop John M. Burgess writes:
“It is the hope of the editors and the Commission for Black Ministries that there will be acceptance far beyond those parishes composed largely of Black people. This music will serve the whole church well, if, in making it its own, it will come to understand something more of the mission of all people in today’s world.”
My hope is that over time, all of our churches master the basic principals of music selection, then mature beyond these principals to ensure that authentic worship eclipses performance and that cultural inclusivity in our music is the standard.
Fran Torres-Lopez is a member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio TX.