Why should the Presbyterians have all the good music?

January 24, 2016

It’s been a while since I wrote about Christian music, but something this morning really made me pause and think.

Horatio Spafford is known for a few things, principally as a chum of great evangelist Dwight Moody and the writer of “It is well with my Soul” – a hymn inspired by the tragic loss of his four daughters in a shipwreck when crossing the Atlantic to holiday in England. The hymn, published by Sankey to a tune by Philip Bliss, is a standard in traditional protestant Christian churches, an inspiring message that whatever the world throws at a person God’s love and grace are sufficient to meet the challenge. It’s a hymn strong on key Christian themes, and recognised and sung across the English-speaking world.

Which is why I’m rather disappointed that Matt Redman nicked the chorus to shore up one of his recent compositions. Read the rest of this entry »

A completely amateur approach

November 5, 2012

On October 24th, I helped out at Walsall Social Media Surgery. It was great to work with active and inquisitive folks trying to use and understand the reach of social media. In particular, I enjoyed talking with Bill Ellens from (among others) CUSP in Walsall.

I promised Bill I’d run over some of the tools I was using and talking about. So, here goes:
Read the rest of this entry »


December 29, 2011

I’ve been doing a little research. Those who know me will be surprised at this news.

It would appear that I’m closer to my goal of writing some Christmas devotional music, albeit a little late for 2011. I had a moment of inspiration, realising that instead of a full blown oratorio, I could quite possibly tackle a cantata. Read the rest of this entry »

Ales, Beers and Carols

December 11, 2011

We had a lot of fun singing carols in the absolutely freezing cold of Aldridge Shopping Precinct, but it was freezing, and not many people were hanging around to hear us, and frankly it was fun but only in spite of the cold.

If only we could find a friendly, local, warm venue to carol in… Read the rest of this entry »

Leading worship for beginners

April 2, 2011

Sometimes I think we need a filter on our worship lyrics and even our liturgy. If you’re using a word which you only ever hear in church, or you’re doing something you’d never even think of doing outside of church, how on earth are the new folks supposed to know what’s going on, or what you mean, or why you do it? Read the rest of this entry »

An open invitation…

January 2, 2011

I need to find a fresh direction with some of the music I’m doing at the moment.

There is the more-than-half-my-lifetime spent playing in church, mostly on piano. There’s the misguided youth of playing cheesy covers and filling out the back row of a band or two, playing keyboards. There are the occasional choir things, the music degree, the range of odd or at least unexpected instruments I now own. I’m even getting to grips finally with the bouzouki.

What does all this sum to?

I feel like I should be beginning a new project or trying to work something out. I have plenty of particles of ideas, and a broad context in which I know some of this will be acceptable. I am, however, not about to release a concept album. That’s way too 70s for me.

But I do want to find something.

So, here it is. Please feel free to get on board. Or invite me on board. You can find some of my stuff here. I’m on twitter. Comment on this post. Whatever you do, get in touch and let’s make something.

Angels and Idioms

September 2, 2009

I have seen the light, and it’s a pure, lovely thing. Experiencing the intervention of an angel can turn your life around and make a complete change not only possible but perhaps irrepressible.
I am, however, a little uncertain about the nature and significance of angels. The Bible has angels turning up in all sorts of places and contexts, performing a range of functions to communicate, direct, fight, protect, inform and even just to inspire awe. They are more than a narrative device. There is the implication that they are real and have a tangible impact. The most evident impact of angels appearing is when a bunch of big tough shepherds come running off the hillsides around Bethlehem to find a baby. There’s little need for the shepherds to come into the story, but they do, and because of an angelic encounter. They are changed by the event, not only in their behaviour but also in their actions when returning from the town. They tell everyone the things they have seen.
So, how about an atheist’s view? Terry Pratchett presents the angel as a metaphor in his Discworld novels Going Postal and Making Money, where a despotic ruler uses the notion of an angel to present fresh chances to an undeserving man. Admittedly, the first time we see this in progress, the man in question has just been hanged to within an inch of his life in front of a crowd, thus providing an excellent opportunity to start again where noone will recognise him. How is the angel brought into play here? It’s simply an image of the complex planning of a powerful man. There is no divine experience, and funnily enough the gods of Discworld seem to have no use for angels as such.
It is possible to purchase a number of books on the subject of angels and how to experience them, capture their essence, control your use or exposure and maybe even identify your own special guardian angel. There may an element of truth in some of these, and I would hate to suggest any book has no intrinsic worth, but for me they do tend to fall in the same literary pigeon hole as Jordan’s autobiographies.

How best to deal with the angel in Christian circles, where the narrative tradition of our society seems to indicate either angelic forces as part of a greater spiritual primordial soup or as a dry allegory?

I can’t offer any solutions, but I can offer suggestions.

1. Differentiate. A Christian (Jewish/Islamic) perspective of angels is very different to the less solid proposals of many authors in the popular spirituality section of Waterstones, and completely divorced from the deus ex machina presented by others.

2. Discriminate. Don’t treat all things as equal. Robbie Williams’ song “Angels” is about a woman. Metaphor strikes again. So, don’t use the song in Christian context unless you’re making a point.

3. Delve. People are quite happy to give accounts of their own spiritual experiences, and sometimes credit angels for acts of random kindness or excessively perfect timing of events. People who are only visible to a select group of people or one individual may be angels. So may the timely arrival of an English speaking stranger outside an airport when your taxi hasn’t met you and you can’t even read the alphabet on the signage. However, if you gently find out more information, you may draw a different conclusion. It’s not our place to confront or criticise. You may draw your own conclusions, and I recommend this as a responsible approach to anything in this sphere.

How does this relate to Christian music? Easy: please don’t play that Robbie Williams song, it makes me nauseous. Also, pick your material carefully and look around. Even in a strictly Christian context, angels are a narrative thing in so many ways, and some of the best narrative expression in modern times is wordless – music and image.

What sort of church music do you want?

May 16, 2009

I have no problem whatsoever understanding why my musical tastes aren’t universal.

I like John Cage, Dire Straits and Igor Stravinsky. This is a heady combination best approached with care and if possible while slightly under the influence.

However my tastes in church music, or should I say music used in collective worship within church, are more narrowed. It’s not that I exclude a large swathe of church music, but that church music itself seems to be quite a narrow field. Consequently my eclectic church music tastes appear somewhat restrictive if compared to the rest of my musical sensibilities.

I have just finished listening properly to a new worship song which has been recommended to me. The CD track is great, with enthusiastic support from the congregation (/audience) and accomplished music from gifted musicians. However, I do not recognise the relevance of this song or this musical style to my own church.

Last week I moved from the piano in church to the guitar for part of the service. During Holy Communion the drummer and I moved to less instrusive instruements, we turned the microphones off and we jammed in the name and spirit of our Lord God.

OK, so our music was inaccessible to the deaf memebrs of the congregation using the Hearing Aid loop. We didn’t take into account the desire of some people to sing along and others not to. We blatantly enjoyed ourselves playing laid back music in praise of our God. We explored our musicality gently and effectively through the simple process of actually doing it.

It’s not a criticism of other things that are out there, but I think the reason I found it personally so fulfilling is very simple. Rather than listening to a CD of someone else making the music and trying to adapt that to our circumstances, we took someone else’s material and totally claimed it for our own. We sang in canon, we reworked the underlying rhythmic hook, and we had a damned good time doing so.

Do I want up to date music, or traditional music, or modern music, or Mission Praise music? This is a pointless question. I seek music from the heart and soul of the musicians, and if I can’t get it I respectfully request we sit in silence for a time.

Is this harsh? Probably so, but I’m not sure that I’m entirely wrong. Maybe you would consider this stream-of-consciousness rant when you ask the same questions of yourself and your own situation.

And if the heart and soul of your church musicians aren’t quite what you’re used to listening to in church? Compare it to the wide wide range of stuff out in the rest of the world, and see if you can find a niche for it there.

It’s all Greek

May 2, 2009

Did you know that much of the New Testament language we use is not only based in Greek, but coloured or flavoured by Greek culture from the time of Christ and before?

Of course you did. I’ve known for some time that my audience is mostly scholars of ancient culture and biblical studies.

It does, however, present the odd problem when dealing with words out of context.

I’m beginning a project based on a text from the first chapter of John’s Gospel. The passage describes Christ as The Word (lots of capital letters) and in Greek that would be “logos” (obviously written in funky Greek letters, not this alphabet) (Ooh “Alphabet” – another Greek word hiding in our language)

Except that Logos has a distinct meaning in Greek culture before Christ which John is deliberately referring to. It’s OK for me to associate Christ and the Logos, but I now feel I need to undertake a couple of weeks undergraduate study to find out the relationship between the Greek Classical “Logos” and the Biblical use of the word, including how the use in John’s Gospel makes use of the pre-existing Greek meaning.

Phew! A quick consultation of Wikipedia proves two things – firstly that some people are really clued up on this, and secondly that they’re being edited randomly by people who aren’t. So much for the Internet I feel.

And what is this wonderful project I’m working on? It’s going to be called “logos” with a lower case L, and it’s going to be a music and art thing, ironically requiring no written words in any of the pieces which will make it up.

Is there a point to this? Yes, I wish to provide a focus for my creative energy other than the Musical I’m writing, and the other little composition projects I have on the boil. I also want to include as many other people as will give up their gifts for it. I like it when arty people work together even if it tends to get like a sack full of sleep-deprived freshly shaved cats sometimes.

It’s good to talk (Thanks, BT) but it’s sometimes even better not to talk and instead let the art do it’s job. Assuming I’ve identified a valid cause and use of art in the first place. I feel that discussion could require some further study as well. I get the horribly appealing idea that I should get on with doing the project and leave the undergraduate navel-gazing where it belongs – firmly in the past.

Which brings me full circle to dredging up a dead branch of the ancient tree of language and trying to apply a word from that language to a culture and concept some two thousand years anachronistic to the people who originally used it.

Did you hear the one about the vicar and the organist?

March 29, 2009

No? Can’t be helped I suppose. Ever since I read about the Reverend Persimmon in An Alien at St Wilfred’s and his continuing interaction with his organist, I’ve shied away from discussing this sort of relationship.

It’s tough when you have to provide musical accompaniment to a church that your choices are subject not only to that internal moderation which identifies the sorts of things which “will not do”; but also to suggestion and even instruction by the minister in charge. If you’re lucky, the minister is approachable and sensitive. Even if they’re tone deaf, they can see the need for good quality worship material and the relevance of specific lyrics to specific occasions.

The danger is a clergyman who either by virtue of wide musical experience or a cultivated ignorance of that entire sphere (or, more likely, somewhere between the two) deems their own opinion to have intrinsic value and will not allow the musical life of the church to proceed without supervision or even intervention.

Of course, I’m being ridiculous. In the vicar, there is no enemy, there is no danger. We may (as the Revered Persimmon) fail to communicate effectively between one another, but the responsibility lies in both quarters. It is as much the vicar’s remit to direct musical worship as the readings, sermons, prayers, and most importantly the work that happens outside the hour or so we meet up to renew our sense of community, connect with God and celebrate together.

In fact, the joke about the vicar and the organist is that often one or other has a sense of pretension about their role and responsibilities that they have no right to bear. I see no need to instruct an equality of all people under God. God himself is ruler and judge. If he gives the responsibility for worship to one, and the responsibility of music to another, that’s how it is.

There’s a fair chunk of New Testament scripture which seems to tell us collectively and specifically to get over ourselves, submit ourselves to Christ (however one does that – I’ve never seen the instructions for that bit) and serve each other. The point about loving one another cuts both ways. In being a useful part of our church in concert with our fellow people, we serve God and His plans for us.