THE POLITICIZING OF THE MUSIC MINISTRY OF THE ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN CHURCH

By dogcatcher on February 26th, 2012
Editors’ Introduction

The article below has an interesting genesis. The author and one of our Editors were discussing yet another Parish choir that was recently dissolved by an Ephraimite Priest. The choir in question was from a Parish located in the Metropolis of San Francisco, California. The Editor in question is from the Metropolis of Chicago. The author, a Senior Greek Orthodox Priest, has served in three different Metropolises but is not currently part of the dissolved choir’s Parish or Metropolis. Both the Editor and the Author are not strangers to this issue. Both are concerned about the by-products generated in our Parishes by the spiritual sons of Ephraimite theology. Both of these men strongly believe that these problems operate like a cancer within our beloved Archdiocese. Every ministry is subject to attack from within. We are confident that this article will create the necessary dialogue needed to preserve the sanctity of our Churches and their historic ministries.

 

The Politicizing of the Music Ministry of the Orthodox Christian Church

Music is an important medium that communicates with its words as well as the tones themselves. The Orthodox Church has identified 8 tones that are used in church music because they contribute towards enhancing prayer and inspiration. The Church is a dynamic place of worship. The form might present itself in different ways, but the content is the same.  It is self evident how important music is within the Church’s life. It certainly lifts the spirit. Throughout the Church’s history, services are intoned or sung for this very reason. We see this phenomenon not only within the Orthodox Christian Church, but even within our Judaic roots, as illustrated in Old Testament Scripture as well. Even the Old Testament Scripture indicates the appropriateness of using musical instruments (as we see in the Psalms). Also in the Psalms, singing itself is noted as an offering to God. The place of chanters has long been evident in Old and New Testament worship.  Whether it is in the synagogue or the Orthodox Christian church, chanters have provided a necessary contribution to the worship experience. Within the Orthodox Christian Church, chanters have been complemented by the use of choirs and organs.  But this music ministry, like every ministry, has its challenges that should be identified and addressed, in order to better provide an atmosphere of understanding, peace and love within the community.

Being a Greek Orthodox Priest for a number of decades has afforded me the opportunity to witness these challenges in person and first hand whether it was in my community or that of another. This short article is not meant to be a scholarly address to solve these issues. Rather, my efforts here are only to help identify these challenges and perhaps suggest a spirit needed to start a healthy dialogue to help address them. Here are the challenges I see:

Byzantine v. Western Music

There are some that like to position the two dynamic and beautiful parts of the music ministry (chanters and choirs) as competitors rather than complementing one another. There is a place for both.

These two groups represent different styles of music, Byzantine and Western. They each appeal to different people. Although we all have likes and dislikes, at times, we unfortunately see them becoming politicized. Chanters seem to have an affinity with those who like traditional or Byzantine music. (The word traditional is now used by some as a politicized word.) Choirs seem to have an affinity with those who like a kind of music that is within the parameters of the Church’s 8 tones, but has a softer feel that allows for more group participation also known as congregational singing.  This poses a question. Do we as Orthodox Christians have a fondness for charging phrases with political overtones, or is this a universal phenomenon that happens simply because we are humans?  I ask this because people who speak the same language unfortunately define things differently, as in the phrases of “congregational singing” or “traditional”.

There are a few that show themselves as self appointed prophets of doom and gloom. We see this element in any religious group of any denomination or religion. They define this use of westernized music as their evidence that the Orthodox Church is becoming Catholic or Protestant. I have actually heard this vocabulary from different people throughout our beloved Archdiocese.  These people make the argument that we are somehow betraying our Orthodox heritage that the martyrs have died for and the fathers have extolled. These same nay-sayers also extrapolate this as evidence of a great sin that they call Ecumenism. Ecumenism has been used to define a movement to promote Christian unity at the expense of true doctrine. Those on the fanatical side of the spectrum perpetuate their prophecies of fear and intimidation to posture themselves as self appointed authorities who are standing up for pure Orthodoxy. I do not know how this gets so extrapolated, but it does. I am not naive and I like to think that I have a sense of what is going on in our Church. It is wrong to foster animosity towards our Hierarchs, Priests, and fellow laymen by alleging they are betraying the Orthodox Christian Faith by using western music.

Women in the Church

In this camp there are some who actually believe that women should not be heard in the Church’s music (or anywhere else). Because Choirs seem to have more female constituents than chanters do, it is no wonder that those who adhere to this belief are critical of choirs. Are we so arrogant, insecure, and chauvinistic that we actually have to use up our energy trying to defend women and choirs against this nonsense that should not be an issue at all? We will stand up and defend women and choirs, yet it is unbelievable that this kind of thinking still exists!

The use of Organs in the Orthodox Church

Those who identify themselves as traditionalists have also called the use of the organs into question. They casually disregard the many scriptural references that legitimize the use of instruments in our faith.  In their pursuit of being what they define as purists and traditionalists they in fact marginalize the precedence of Scripture. People who think they are doing the right thing sometimes compromise the peace of the Church.

Certainly we are allowed to have our preferences. Some may simply like hearing chanters, while others may simply like hearing choirs. That is fine. The problem begins when people start making trouble because they are not happy with the type of music they are hearing. Why does this lead some people into creating gossip by alleging the faith is being compromised? I don’t know. I just cannot understand the impetus to compromise the peace of the church when in fact nothing is being comprised, other than peace.

Logistics of Chanters v. Choirs

It is possible that people in either camp begin to roll their eyes because the choir, or the chanters, are using music that is simply too difficult. When a cacophony is heard rather than a harmony, it is used as proof by the nay-sayers that they are right. Let’s face it; the reason we go to church is not to be entertained, but to grow in Christ Jesus. In some communities that do not have a choir, or a chanter, hymns and responses are intoned very simply, and in some cases simply read. This is done out of necessity. This does not mean the service is any less legitimate, as some may allege.

It may be easier to have one good chanter handle the challenges of a robust set of liturgical and musical parameters (and sound good doing it), than it is to organize and direct a group of people to do the same, especially if the ranks are thin. This may contribute to people being critical of the choir.

Each community has its own personality. This is a given. Each community has its own strengths and weaknesses. I have seen people not be bothered by a priest who may not sing or chant well, but some of those same people become quite intolerant in the case of the use of Chanters vs. Choirs. Whether it is being critical of the chanters or the choir, there is no reason to create problems. It is better to lend a hand than to point a finger. Some communities have congregational singing. Other communities have great choirs. Some have mediocre choirs. Some have good chanters, while others have chanters that simply think they are good. Whatever the case, ALL of these are people have the guts, faith, and discipline, to stand up in front of a community and sing praises to God! How dare anyone question their efforts or their motives? This is a familiar scenario that has been used by some for a different controversy.

This same mentality has manifested itself with the use of language. Some communities use Greek, while other communities use English. Some have shown their propensity for controversy by exacerbating and exploiting the language issue to accommodate their capricious perceptions. Many communities are all too familiar with this scenario. Whether it is the use of language, or the use of chanters and choirs, it seems to me, that what works best for that particular community (based on certain demographics, as well as whoever volunteers and commits) is more than likely the best thing to do. It is not right to fire a choir because it is not perceived as being Orthodox enough. I have seen their very Orthodoxy questioned when a choir is weak. Socially engineering a community to go against who they are is a presumptuous act of arrogance that is often confused with leadership.

Conclusion

I have articulated a number of points that challenge our communities in regards to choirs and chanters.  My summation is simply that both are great. No one benefits from a controversy that is contrived based on this style or that style. The community may become divided. Is this what we want? The fact is what works well in one community may not work well in another. Challenge your community to grow in each ministry. Plant seeds. Then let the Lord allow it to grow as it will.  Do your part, participate in what compels you. If the music in your church is not to your liking, remember it is still prayer. Encourage them! Thank them! Our communities are not an opera for people to sit in the pews to watch and be entertained. Our communities are not museums where kids are not supposed to be kids. Our communities are a house of prayer. The hymns are there for all to sing, to learn from, and “pray”. If you cannot sing them, then say them! It is not our house, but the Lord’s. Contribute positive encouragement and prayers for all of your brothers and sisters there. Here is a statement that was made famous in a non Orthodox Christian venue that has eternal value:  What would Jesus do? If Jesus himself is pleased with the people singing his praises there, who are we to put them down?

While I chose not to put my name on this, I feel the topics identified are objective and self-evident enough that they are effortlessly identified by everyone who reads this as legitimate and real.  I remained anonymous because I am painfully aware of the mob mentality of those who do not see the big picture, who are disposed to easily marginalize someone because they are different, who hurl unfounded accusations of compromising the faith, and who also cannot focus on sentences that have more than several words. I prefer not to have myself, or my family, exposed to these elements. While they are a minority, they still have the capacity to inflict pain. I am most confident in the majority of the people who will read this and, (aside from my verbose poetic license) acknowledge the legitimacy of these issues I have suggested for your efforts, contemplation and prayer.

My observations are neither exhaustive nor exclusive.  There may be more issues than those I have identified.  I welcome anyone’s contribution that helps enhance our efforts and our ability to praise God and inspire one another.