The Organ and Organist in Reformed Worship
"The Organ and the Organist in Reformed Worship": a talk given to the Youth Group of the Reformed Churches of Dunedin and Oamaru, at Oamaru Reformed Church, 23 August 1997, by Ronald G. Newton. Revised and enlarged for the Editor of Faith in Focus.
We begin with a reading from Isaiah, chapter 52 verse 14 to chapter 53 verse 3:
Just as many were appalled at you, so His visage was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men; so shall He startle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths at Him; for what had not been told them, they shall see; and what they had not heard, they shall consider.
Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness, and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
I am very glad to have the opportunity to speak to you in this particular interior, which I shall explain in a little while. I have been asked by our minister, Rev. Vaatstra, to speak on the subject of worship. I have chosen the title "the organ and organist in reformed worship," as organs and organists are a particular study of mine, but I will be touching on many other things as well, all to the end of asking the question "is our worship really reformed?" I have no theological qualifications or authority, and this talk certainly isn't a sermon, but I hope that you will find it interesting and challenging.
My PhD thesis, which is presently being examined, looks at the various cultural contexts of organ building in New Zealand, attempting to answer the question "why were so many pipe organs built in New Zealand from 1895 to 1930?" What I found was that in the nineteenth century, contemporary with a move towards what we now call "liberal" theology, there was a trend in protestant churches towards what I call "aesthetic worship." It was this new style of worship, widespread throughout the various nonconformist denominations (such as Baptist, Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian, even Unitarian), and widespread throughout the English-speaking world, which created a huge demand for pipe organs. The "aesthetic worship" movement peaked from around 1895 to around 1910, and it would seem that practically every protestant church built or remodelled by the end of that period, certainly in New Zealand, and the style of worship conducted in those buildings, was to varying extents modelled on aesthetic worship ideals. As I had never come across this phenomenon before, I decided that it was worth digging a little deeper to try and determine why this movement was so powerful, and why it has been all but forgotten today. I won't bore you with every last little discovery, but I wish to start by bringing before you various facets that bear upon our subject tonight.
The philosophical basis for the aesthetic worship movement was not at all Christian, but a mix of various eastern religious ideas, particularly from Hinduism and Buddhism. These influences did not bear directly on the Christian church of the nineteenth century, but came via the medium of secular German philosophy, commonly known as German romanticism. After the failure of the French Revolution, German intellectuals retreated from their pursuit of rationalism to create an escapist cult of subjectivity, or transcendentalism, and found ready-made formulations in their study of hinduistic writings. They dispensed with the concept of the objective existence of God as the central factor in their systems, and replaced it with various self-projected human Ideals or Infinites, the most powerful and long-lasting of which was the Will; in other words, they deified the human will. The leaders, however, were generally employed in protestant universities, so in order to protect their positions, they disguised the pagan and seemingly Catholic aspects of their writings with the use of familiar religious language, some even claiming that in their philosophy they were simply taking the principles of the Reformation to their logical conclusion! In this manner they were able to influence generations of students in such areas as metaphysics, aesthetics, and theology. The areas of their writings which deal with aesthetics (that is, defining art, and our response to art) are also very interesting, and show that a confusion arose between aesthetics and spirituality and morality; that is, not only was beauty seen to be inherently good (so experiencing a beautiful piece of music or art made you into a good person) but it was also seen to be inherently spiritual, so one also had a spiritual experience. Music, which in classical philosophy from the ancient Greeks right up to the eighteenth century was merely an adjunct to astronomy and mathematics, was suddenly accorded the place of highest honour amongst all the arts, and the written word was relegated to the lowest. As one writer said:
Romantic art springs from man's attempt to transcend the sphere of cognition, to experience higher, more spiritual things, and to sense the presence of the ineffable. No aesthetic material is better suited to the expression of the ineffable than is sound... The proper realm of true music only begins where speech leaves off.
A number of these philosophers said that music was the most direct expression of their particular Infinite and therefore by listening to music we are put in direct touch with that Infinite. One philosopher even said that even if the world did not exist, music would. All agreed that music itself was inherently spiritual, and that if we wanted to get in touch with the Infinite, we should listen to music. The key phrase which is reiterated over and over in German romantic philosophy is, "music elevates the soul to the infinite." Further study shows that German transcendentalism was strongly Gnostic, and was basically the New Age Movement of last century, a point which is not picked up on in recent books on the subject.
These Gnostic and Hinduistic ideas infiltrated British culture and churches through various means. Writers such as Carlyle and Meredith studied with German philosophers and writers, musicians such as Sullivan, Elgar and our own Alfred Hill were sent to Germany to train, and Germans went to Britain where they were given positions of influence. The marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg gave the royal seal of approval to all things Germanic, and this showed in their patronage of musicians such as Mendelssohn and, later, Wagner. Presbyterians, particularly Scots Presbyterians, were highly intellectual in their approach to Christianity, and because English universities such as Oxford and Cambridge required students to subscribe to Anglican beliefs, they sent their sons to Germany to study at the great Universities there, where they picked up the latest ideas in philosophy and theology, particularly the new rationalistic techniques of Bible study known as "higher criticism," and brought them back home and on to the colonies.
The single most important way in which the hinduistic ideas of the German transcendentalists came to influence protestant church worship, was through the provision of a model on which the new cultural forms could be constructed. This was the gesamtkunstwerk, or total art work, in which various art forms are synthesized into a new, supposedly higher art form. This concept was brought to its peak in the work of Richard Wagner, whose musikdrama was a synthesis of literature, stage production, set design, the architecture of his own theatre, and symphonic and vocal music, all subordinated to his own will. Wagner came to this point after reading the philosophy of Artur Schopenhauer, a student of eastern transcendentalism and nihilism, particularly his The World as Will and Idea, and a comparison of the two men leaves no doubt that the work of one was firmly based on the other. By the end of the nineteenth century, Schopenhauer and Wagner were required reading and listening for every trendy young person.
When we study church history, it is usually the theology of the church we turn to to understand why things were the way they were. When we study the history of worship, however, it is not only theology we must turn to to understand things, but also contemporary cultural forms. For the nineteenth-century church, we can look at the theological aspects of Spurgeon's fight against the Baptist Down-grade movement, or Ryle's battle with the Anglican High-church movement, but in fact they were concerned as much with contemporary trends in worship as they were with combatting heresies. What basically was happening in the churches, was a profound shift from objectivity in theology and worship, to subjectivity: from classicism to romanticism. This is seen in the undermining of perceptions of the objective existence of God (until God was simply a projection of aspects of one's own self or subconscious), of Scripture, the creeds and confessions, and classical forms of worship, and the overwhelming turn to aesthetics as a substitute for true, spiritual worship. It is of course worship we want to concentrate on tonight, and the Presbyterians provide us with the best case study, as their formerly classicist position most resembles that of the Reformed churches today, and their intellectualism meant that copious source materials still exist. Indeed, the worship issues which most vexed the Presbyterians were the introduction of hymns and instrumental music, and by focussing on this we can easily chart the move from classicism to romanticism in worship, and also see much that troubled the English-speaking protestant churches last century.
One of the most important things that distinguished the worship of the reformed denominations (such as the Presbyterians, the Reformed churches of northern Europe, and the Calvinist branches of the Congregationalist, Baptist and Methodist churches) from the evangelical denominations (such as the low church Lutheran and Anglicans) from the time of the Reformation, was the regulative principle of worship. The Lutherans did not allow anything into worship that was forbidden in Scripture, and the Anglicans did not allow anything into worship that was inconsistent with Scripture, but the reformed churches did not allow anything into worship that wasn't commanded in Scripture. This is expressed in the Westminster Confession, chapter 21:
The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doeth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God, is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.
This idea, that we may not worship God in any way that is not commanded in Scripture, is what makes reformed worship distinctive. I cannot speak for the history of the Dutch reformed churches, as I am ignorant, but the Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists and some others in Britain maintained their adherence to the regulative principle of public worship right from the time of the reformation to the nineteenth century. Their worship was simple: plain whitewashed interiors, central prominent pulpit, basic orders of service, unaccompanied singing of psalms, indeed, everything subordinated to the reading and preaching of the Word. There was no place for the singing of hymns, or the playing of organs. This was also true of many Anglican parish churches, but the history of music in the Anglican churches is outside the scope of this talk. The various nonconformist denominations may have had different forms of baptism and government, but their adherence to the regulative principle resulted in forms of worship which we today would find difficult to distinguish.
The move toward subjective theology undermined the adherence to any form of written guideline, whether it be Scripture or a creed or confession, and in 1893 the Declaratory Act (which excused ministers from adhering to the Westminster Confession on grounds of conscience) was approved of by Presbyterian Sessions throughout New Zealand. The previous high regard for the spoken word, was replaced with a high regard for aesthetics, and one of the key factors in the rise of aesthetic worship, is the diminution of preaching, and the increased role of the organ, organist and choir. The question of whether or not the regulative principle excludes instrumental music from public worship was a controversial one, and I wish now to present some historic arguments excluding instruments from public worship, which is the historic position of the reformed churches, at least in Britain. While we find that the Psalms exhort us to praise God with instruments, this was seen by the reformers to have been part of the elaborate Temple worship ordained by God in the Old Testament; there is no evidence that synagogues used such worship at all. With the rending of the veil of the Temple, the requirements of the Temple worship came to an end, along with its instrumental music, and as there is no direct command regarding the use of instruments (or even hymns) for Christian worship in the New Testament, the application of the regulative principle would mean that there is no place for it in public worship today.
In our day of every possible musical entertainment being produced in the name of worship, the issue seems irrelevant to the point that it may surprise you to know that it was considered one of the most divisive issues in Presbyterian churches in the nineteenth century. In New Zealand, the various home-grown Presbyteries decided to form themselves into a national body by organising a General Assembly in 1862. At this Assembly, however, the issue of whether or not instruments might be allowed into worship was considered, and it was decided that the choice was up to each individual congregation. As a result of this decision, the churches south of the Waitaki River refused to recognise the authority of the Assembly, and in 1867 formed their own Synod of Otago and Southland. Union between the two churches was not achieved until 1901. The northern churches embraced organs, choirs, hymns and other innovations with ease, Napier introducing the first reed organ in 1862 and the first pipe organ in 1877.
It was not simply that those who favoured purity of worship believed that music was bad. Rather, from a close reading of the multitude of sources relating to the issue, it is clear that they identified the introduction of instrumental music as a visible manifestation of more sinister innovations in theology and worship. They, being predominantly uneducated laymen and unable to combat the subtle intellectualism and sophisticated aestheticism of the progressive element, took up this issue as their way of fighting for the truth, and their arguments were based exclusively on scripture and the regulative principle. The progressives, however, used any and every excuse they could come up with to introduce organs and other aesthetic devices. One correspondent from South Auckland even claimed that the weather was the reason their church had to adopt a reed organ:
There can be no doubt but that in this climate the voice needs to be sustained by an instrument, even more than in the home climate, and perhaps, even more in Auckland than in Otago.
Those who stood by the regulative principle were labelled as backward, troublemakers, narrowminded, even worse:
If our hearts are right, God will prosper us, with or without instrumental music; and it is worse than idle for any man to pretend that he cannot enjoy religion in a house of worship which holds an organ or an harmonium. In such cases the devil is not in the instrument, but he has managed to get into the heart of the person complaining.
When the issue was first brought up in the southern churches in 1874, one Session declared that they were "unanimously of the opinion that the use of such is both inexpedient and unscriptural and think that those who have ventured to cast the apple of discord into our midst have much to answer for," and another considered that the introduction of organs "into the public worship of God is dangerous to the peace and purity of the Church." The debate at the next Synod was the largest up until then, and the innovation was passed by a very slim majority. The dissents, appeals and protests lasted a few years, but the issue was finally settled in 1877, the final dissent reiterating once more the regulative principle and concluding that it was "giving a place to instrumental music hitherto unknown to the worship of this Church." The last church on the Taieri plain to have an organ introduced was East Taieri, near Mosgiel, in 1894. To a number of members, it was "equal to a sentence of excommunication," they now having "no presbyterian church near that Dunedin to which they can have access." As church after church applied for sanction to introduce organs, the resignations of elders and members grew, all recorded reasons referring to the regulative principle, and some including warnings of impending trouble: "from every observation that I have been able to make, the tendency is to formality, and often engenders pride, and destroys the spirituality of Divine worship." During a canvass of Knox church in Dunedin in 1882 a member stated that he "would look upon the introduction with much dread as leading to ritualism." A very large and expensive organ was purchased for this church, and a few years later it was stated that
so extremely favourable was the impression made that the last vestiges of opposition died away. Even those who had stood out most strongly against it were melted into a warm approval.
The question, however, was not as simple as "shall we have organs or shall we not?" There were other factors to be considered, greater forces involved, and this last quote gives us an important clue: classicism loses its resolve under the influence of aestheticism. We mentioned before that the gesamtkunstwerk of the German romantics provided the model for protestant aesthetic worship, and it is this that I would like us now to turn our attention to.
I started this talk by referring to this particular interior. This building, formerly Church of Christ, is a very good example of the aesthetic worship interior, designed for aesthetic worship practices, and I would now like to point out some of its features.
It was built in 1910, at the height of the aesthetic worship movement. Along with music, the German romantics decided that gothic architecture was also inherently divine. The English romantics also believed this, but their response was quite different from the Germans. They developed very strict guidelines as to how gothic architecture was to be used, as they thought that it made people moral and so you shouldn't make mistakes. Pugin, the intellectual power behind the English gothic revival, believed that gothic architecture was inherently Christian, and that if you put a bad person in a gothic building, they would become good. The Germans, however, believed gothic to be inherently spiritual, and so didn't worry too much about how it was used, as you were going to have an irrational experience with it anyway. This is a protestant building, and shows in its use of gothic along Germanic lines. If we were to visit the Anglican church in Oamaru, St. Luke's, I could demonstrate the very different, correct English use of it there. This building, however, is basically a classical shell with gothic design features tacked on. The structure itself exhibits nothing in the way of gothic architecture, and only uses a few design features repeatedly. But, as I said, the object was not to recreate a mediaeval church as the Anglicans were trying to, but to create an interior conducive to an aesthetic experience. Gothic architecture in such an interior is not art: like music it was used as an aesthetic device, to induce feelings of devotion, and prepare the minds of the congregation for the aesthetic experience to come. Perhaps the gothic arch was used in a similar way to the New Age movement's use of pyramids and crystals: a medium for the spiritualisation of objects and people.
Indeed, the arch is the main gothic feature used in protestant aesthetic worship interiors, and here we have two prominent ones. Other churches also use the trefoil and the quatrefoil. The larger frames a blank wall. Had the building been completed to plan (and we don't know what that plan might have been) the arch may have framed a chancel; even now it suggests a chancel, but that is all it needed to do: suggest. The church would have had no use for a real chancel, not being Anglican, but the perceived spiritual connotations of the chancel are suggested in the arch placed where it is. As I said, the aesthetic worship interior uses gothic as a device. Another arch frames a small alcove, but more on that in a minute. Both are surrounded by banners with scripture texts. The side windows are in a simple gothic form, the larger window, mirroring the interior arch, is more elaborate.
The exterior tower is simply crenellated, as are also the rafters. The use of Gothic in the baptistry screen and pulpit is more reminiscent of art nouveau.
Now the pews. They are arrayed in quarter circles on a similarly sloping floor, giving everyone a view of the worship platform, and a sense of social cohesion. One may elsewhere find the seating in a sloping semicircle, an example of which is found in the reconstruction of Ponsonby Presbyterian, dating from the same year. The circular arrangement, however, is more common in Australia and the United States, but the model for it is found in German protestant churches, and the principle behind its use there is the Greek amphitheatre. The German romantics were fascinated with the revival of ancient Greek life, just as the British were fascinated with the mediaeval or Gothic revival, and the most famous example of the revival of the Greek amphitheatre in Germany is in the theatre Wagner designed for the performance of his own musikdrama in Bayreuth.
Another aspect related to architecture, is the use of interior decoration and colour. Stencilling was a common way of enhancing the visual splendour of the aesthetic worship interior, and the use of soft toned colours, particularly greens and browns, as seen in the banners over the arches, were popular. There may have been other examples of stencilling in this room, since obscured. The windows also are coloured. But the meaning of colour was more than merely visual. It had also been perceived to be inherently spiritual by the German transcendentalists, and hence also by British nonconformists. As late as 1916, the headmistress of Southland Girls' High School went to church at First Presbyterian, Invercargill, one Sunday morning and to her horror, a new pipe organ had been placed at the front of the church with a colour scheme of which she did not approve. Her subsequent letter to the Deacons reveals how widespread was the romantic confusion of aesthetics with spirituality and morality:
While congratulating the Deacons' Court upon the new organ, in the interests of those members of the congregation who are sensitive to colour and of the younger generation, who must be trained to appreciate beauty and must not be allowed to become accustomed to ugliness in any shape or form, I would protest most earnestly, against the colour scheme of the organ pipes. Harmony of colour is no less important than harmony of sound. God, who made the world, made it beautiful; the harmony of colour in Nature is divinely wonderful, an everlasting source of happiness and a joy for ever. Why then should there not also be harmony of colour in God's House? Why should the eyes of those who love the beauty of colour harmonies be distressed by such colour discords as those organ pipes? The interior of a Church should conduce to the feeling of worship - of worship is "the beauty of holiness" - for true beauty in its essence is divine and uplifting. I understand that the purchase of the organ is not yet definite; but would it not be possible to have the pipes painted a soft brown harmonising with the wood, relieved with a little gold, even though the organ may not be installed permanently?
Now we move on to the most important element of the aesthetic worship interior: the worship platform, which is in fact the hallmark of the aesthetic worship interior, and this is a particularly good example. It is always comprised of three parts: the pulpit, the organ and the choir.
First, the pulpit. Because of the decreased interest in the spoken word in romanticism and therefore aesthetic worship, the sermon, instead of being a vehicle for preaching the truth, became merely one more aesthetic device, one more means by which the feelings of the congregation would be "elevated." Sermons tended to be moralistic, portraying the life and works of Christ as excellent moral examples. The word used most to describe sermons at this time, was "eloquent." Again we turn to Wagner for a model to understand the role of the sermon in aesthetic worship, for in his musikdrama Wagner reduced the role of the spoken word so that the solo vocal line became part of the overall symphonic texture. In classical opera, the orchestra and everything else served simply to accompany the voices, which told the story. Wagner made the music itself the point of the whole exercise, the voices being treated as just one more musical instrument, the words themselves being primarily connotative, and enigmatic to the point of meaninglessness, much as one would find in any serious rock music today. His use of Teutonic mythology merely as a resource for psychological drama, is similar to the new theologian's use of the Old, and increasingly New, Testaments merely as a resource for moralistic and psychological guidelines, used by preachers to exhort hearers to take up a life of good works.
Second, the choir. The choir was a widespread and powerful institution in New Zealand history, not only in churches. The larger choral societies attracted the elite of New Zealand society, and the local church choirs likewise vied with each other for members. They tended to be educated and aesthetically-minded, and were always on the lookout for ways to improve their position in the church. They also tended to be young, mostly people of Bible Class age. The choirs were also large, being the largest grouping in the church next to the congregation itself. In classicist Presbyterian churches it was normal for the Session to be seated at the front of the church with the minister, the choir (if there was one) being scattered amongst the congregation. The Methodists and Anglicans in their classicist worship usually had a choir in a gallery at the opposite end of the church from the pulpit; the Catholics still do. But with the increased role of music in worship in the nineteenth century the position of the choir became critical. By the 1880s the choir in all the nonconformist denominations was generally to be found in a prominent position at the front of the church, with the harmonium in tow. In this interior, the choir, although perhaps not as large as some, would have been seated across here. There, they were made an example for the congregation to follow in the way of devotional behaviour and appearance. They were, again, an aesthetic device. They sang music of a sentimental nature, designed to pull at the heart strings, and as their music became more sophisticated, they began demanding a more sophisticated form of accompaniment: the pipe organ.
The third part of the worship platform was, of course, the organ. It was interesting to discover in the course of my research that most of the 150 organs built in New Zealand from 1895 to 1930 were ordered and purchased by church choirs, not congregations. It was the choir that needed the organ, as the congregation in its singing followed the choir, and the increased use of anthems by choirs in worship demanded it. The demand for the organ was not only accompanimental, it was also used to set the devotional atmosphere for aesthetic worship, so the design of the organ was changed to include a greater range of soft sounds. It is for these reasons that so many of these pipe organs today seem so woefully inadequate to lead congregational singing: their position at the front of the church does not support singing, and their volume is too quiet. Because organs, particularly pipe organs, were moved to the front of churches to accompany the choir, the visual appearance of the organ became an important aspect of aesthetic worship. The prominent placing of the organ was always the most visually compelling aspect of the aesthetic worship interior. Coloured and decorated pipes were painted to blend in with the existing colour scheme and stencilling of the interior, but from around 1905 to 1910 a new trend becomes apparent. Pipes were now arrayed in straight rows without any apparent supporting casework, standing above a plain dull wooden base, and painted in plain dull aluminium. The effect is of a formless shining flat of pipes, detached from the seemingly earthly, temporal case. The "spiritualised" pipes thus mirror the "spiritualised" music of aesthetic worship. And of course, being spiritual, it became normal for the organ to be associated with the gothic arch, and the examples of organ pipes surrounded by an arch in New Zealand protestant architecture seem endless. A German romantic writer had stated that the
impulse that gave birth to Gothic architecture also fathered the music that developed, several centuries later, like a kind of nobler and therefore more slowly ripening fruit... It is of the same kind, but its form is clearer, for it is created from more spiritual materials and its uplifting effect on the spirit is less restricted...
In this church we have a good example of the association, with the small gothic arch framing the chamber where a small pipe organ or large reed organ has at some time been placed. Indeed, the hole in the side of the chamber for the wind trunking is still visible. The use of the word "praise" in the banner is also confirmation of this, as by this stage the praise part of worship was considered impossible without choirs and organs; indeed, as one Methodist writer said, again under the influence of German transcendentalism, "Praise lifts our souls to God; music lifts them higher."
In considering the worship platform as a whole, we notice that the choir would have been seated in front of the organ, and that both are not only positioned on the same level as the pulpit, but all three parts are physically associated by being positioned together on the raised and railed platform, separate from the congregation. Again we turn to romanticism for the answer. Because music had been spiritualised, and the role of preaching diminished, music was now its equal, if not its superior. At St. John's Napier in 1907, it was said that "while words were wonderful in appealing to the mind and intellect, music was still more wonderful in appealing directly to the heart and soul. Music was the language of God Himself." Another preacher suggested that Mendelssohn's setting of Psalm 55 was more effective than the original text, as music was a "more adequate medium of expression" than words. Having considered the aesthetic worship interior and its various elements, we must now look at aesthetic worship itself. The first thing to note, is the ridicule that was heaped upon traditional reformed worship with its prayers and petitions, classicist worshippers being labelled as sinful, needy beggars, who came to God with their hands empty. Congregations were urged to attain a higher, nobler, and more divine level of worship called "praise," which involved the emotions in "rapturous delight," and beyond to an even higher, mystical level called "adoration," in which the soul passes "into the light that surrounds His throne. These are the highest moments when the vision breaks upon the praying, waiting soul, and it adores God in His own radiant glory." The way in which a congregation could attain these transcendent levels of worship, was through aesthetics, and the central factor in aesthetics was of course music, and the primary means of obtaining music was the pipe organ. Sermons on the subject of music were usually preached at the openings of pipe organs, and by examining these, we come to the heart of the matter: the nonconformists in abandoning classical for romantic theology and worship, had taken on board German transcendentalism to the point that, simply by changing the words "Ideal" and "Infinite" to "God," a number of that philosophy's key phrases are found verbatim. At Trinity Presbyterian in Timaru in 1903 the congregation were told that
good music should tend to foster the devotional feeling, to lift men's hearts up to God, to give them thoughts of the spiritual and the eternal... music has still this power to soothe and calm and elevate the soul to God... We believe that God should have the best of everything, and we are not to offer unto Him that which costs us little... We no longer look upon the [music] as a trivial interruption to more serious things. We think of it now as an important and essential part of the service of God's house.
He went on to say that creeds and confessions divide, but all Christians are united in music.
If there was one person upon whose shoulders fell the responsibility for adequately conducting aesthetic worship, it was the organist. Because of the spiritualising of music, his playing was seen not only to be the means by which the congregation could attain a more spiritual level of worship, but also to be equal to the preaching of the Gospel. Again we turn to German romanticism for a model for understanding the role of the organist in aesthetic worship, and that model is provided by the concept of the "aesthetic priest." As Hegel said:
If he is a genius he expresses the truest spirit of his people. The aesthetic gods of his people speak through his mouth... When his people participate in the lofty revelation of a divine vision, expressed in the art of his genius, they share with him the same weaving of aesthetic liberation; a freedom from and above mere life... when some such dedicated being, fired with blissful inspiration, contrives truly and faithfully to reproduce what his inspired vision perceives, moving us to the depths of our souls, we ought all to sink in obeisance.
As absurd as this may seem to us today, it was nevertheless a common belief in protestant churches a hundred years ago that the organist was divinely inspired to lead and guide the congregation through the aesthetic worship experience into the presence of God, and that his feelings and taste were superior to those of the congregation. When the American Guild of Organists was established in 1896, their declared object was not to improve standards of playing and professional conduct, but to impress upon their members that organists had a divine function to perform.
It is as much a service rendered to God and men to thrill the soul with a sense of the mysteries that are unutterable as to instruct the soul in the truth that can be declared... Music has great power to bring to the mind a consciousness of the vastness of our need and the nearness of succour and help... Music has a unifying power beyond creed or preaching, because it expresses the profoundest experiences and sentiments of the human heart, sentiments which nothing else can express... the first truth about God which men need to know is this: that the divine heart is touched with the feeling of our infirmities, and there is no vehicle so consummately capable of conveying this truth to men as religious music.
The Guild's creed included the item "We believe that the office of music in Christian worship is a sacred oblation before the Most High."
In New Zealand, these ideas are also apparent: at Knox church in Parnell in 1912 it was said "just as we pray for the minister who leads the worship, so ought we to pray for the organist who leads the praise of the congregation. In different spheres, they are not otherwise than preachers both of the eternal Word of God." And at the Baptist Tabernacle in Auckland the next year "the preacher emphasised the importance of the musical service and the ministry of the organist. If a motto were needed for the organ... it might be... Woe unto me if I preach not the Gospel."
By now, some of you will have realised that aesthetic worship was based on the German romantic model of the gesamtkunstwerk, the total art work, in which an array of aesthetic devices are coordinated in order to produce a total aesthetic environment in which a total aesthetic experience can be induced. Let us look briefly at two examples in New Zealand, the first being of a total aesthetic environment. At Roslyn Presbyterian a beautiful new church was built, a progressive minister was hired in 1910, but "its ornate & artistic completeness is worthy of a better & more complete organ... one which could... suit the suggested alterations, & also to harmonize with the surroundings." A new pipe organ was ordered and the minister spoke of their "beautiful church, with its excellent appointments, which would soon be completed by the installation of a fine organ, the very largest in keeping with the size of the building and of the best qualities and appearance, [and which] also stood for the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty." When the organ arrived in 1913 it was reported that the "pipes are very gracefully grouped and artistically tinted, cream and gold being prominent, and the instrument adds to the beauty and dignity of an already very beautiful church."
The second example, of a total aesthetic experience, is Knox Presbyterian in Parnell. The choir had a high profile in the church, and employed a fine organist, and services often included many items of religious music, a number of Catholic origin. Their use of flowers and colour was often commented on. Indeed, the communion services were advertised as "fully choral," an Anglican phrase which provoked much reaction. "Loyal Presbyterian" wrote that "it was with disgust that I read in the ecclesiastical columns the programme for Knox Church on Communion Sunday. Now, Mr Editor, I want to know are we gaining ground in the salvation of our fellow-man with elaborate music, solos, etc.? All the attention is directed towards the musical programme... why isn't there more attention given to prayer and the sermon?" The minister did indeed draw large crowds with his impressive sermons, but what was he actually preaching? In an Easter Day sermon "Is there life after death?" he had this to say:
According to the argument of [Immanuel] Kant, the demand of conscience is perfection; but this cannot be realised if this earth be all. Man's nature demands immortality for its full realisation. Then, again, life's inequalities demand future rectification, and his powers full scope for their development.
Man's life spells progress and is always upwards in the evolution of things. No one has yet achieved his best, and therefore it would not be sane to break off and prevent this advance. If we believe in progress we must believe in immortality.
So, aesthetic devices such as colour, patterns, light, gothic design, sermons, music, choirs, organs and organists were perceived to be inherently spiritual, and so could be coordinated to guide a congregation through a collective aesthetic experience.
The true nature of aesthetic worship was not at all spiritual, however, but psychological and sociological, thus utilitarian, and this was later admitted in a secular source. The writer was asked by a financial organisation to report on the feasibility of continuing to donate pipe organs to churches, in order to promote aesthetic worship for the purpose of achieving improved social stability; in other words, using the church as a tool of social engineering. His own self-projected infinite is the Oversoul, a concept beloved of the American transcendentalist, Emerson, and which has its origins in early hinduistic writings. Emerson had earlier written:
The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest... that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other... By the same fire, vital, consecrating, celestial, which burns until it shall dissolve all things into the waves and surges of an ocean of light, we see and know each other, and what spirit each is of.
The report itself, dated 1916, is clearly sympathetic to Emerson's transcendentalism:
It is unquestionably true that music possesses a fusing and welding power tending to convert a mass of separate individual souls into one great oversoul having a common vision and a single purpose. This unified expression in song of human needs and aspirations is a great uplifting force; it takes from each his burden of care and sorrow and causes him to forget self in a rebirth in a rightly directed collective emotion of his fellows. The participants, losing the capacity for individual thought, live for the moment a fuller life because they consciously share that of a greater whole...
The volume of song that rises from the congregation serves as a curtain behind which the cares, anxieties and activities of the six proceeding days are unconsciously relegated and the mind, cleared of worldly thoughts, becomes receptive of moral truths and spiritual teachings. In the soul-soil thus prepared, the preacher can, with a power increased by this conviction, render a better service and some of the greater good can be ascribed to the music made more efficient by the organ.
For an even more extreme view of the utilitarianism of aesthetic worship one may turn to chapter five of Huxley's Brave New World. With the great cataclysms of the twentieth century, the impetus and widespread acceptance of aesthetic worship was lost. It was transformed somewhat as Barthian neo-orthodoxy became widely accepted, in that, as theology became further reduced to a system of existential symbolism, protestantism took on aspects of catholicism for their connotative value: one might have a real chancel, stone altar, icons and statues so long as one did not actually use them for their obvious purposes.
The basic concepts of aesthetic worship, however, still live on today in our cultural memory. We may still harbour a fondness for gothic architecture as being devotional, hold organists in high esteem, implicitly believe that worship should primarily be an emotional experience, or convince ourselves that unless certain aesthetic devices (such as organs) or processes are brought into our worship then we simply cannot worship. More significantly, with the development of more sophisticated psychological techniques and the introduction of electronic media, church leaders and musicians no longer need gothic architecture, colour, choirs, organs, and so on to induce the sort of mass feelings of devotion which the finance company's report talked about. The new (and cheaper) gesamtkunstwerk of the electronic music group, the electronic sound system, the electric lighting system, and the electric overhead projector enable the minister and worship leader to have a far more direct access to people's subconscious minds than the most expensive array of nineteenth-century aesthetic devices ever could. In fact, the old-fashioned aesthetic and symbolic worship, which is still practised in some larger city churches (though they have no idea why) is no different from the new-fashioned "charismatic" "pentecostal" or "contemporary" worship which has replaced it, in that music and other devices are still used to manipulate people into feeling that they are worshipping when they really aren't.
When we come to church to have an emotional or subjective experience, we do not worship God, we worship our own feelings. When we come to church to go through a psychological or sociological process, in order to attain a higher level of psychological or sociological integration, we do not worship God, we worship our selves and the selves of others. When we worship the way we want to, we do not worship God, we worship our own wills, and that is exactly want our wills want us to do.
God cannot be worshipped, except on His terms. We are in fact in and of ourselves incapable of worshipping God. That we are able to worship God at all is entirely out of our hands. Neither does God need our worship. Because of our sinful natures nothing we bring to Him is acceptable, except that which He gives and commands us to bring. Worship is entirely by means of the unmerited Grace of God. Without the Grace of God no one would want to worship Him, and without the Grace of God no one would know how to, either. The only way we are able to worship Him is because He has by His unmerited Grace given us the means to, and has shown us in His Revelation what those means are. Without that Revelation, we would not know what to do. The remnant of the image of God in us might give us some vague feeling that we ought to do something, but without God's Grace and Revelation we would be totally blind. We ought not to come to church to feel devotional; if we ought to feel anything, it would be fear and awe.
The intentions which pave the road to Hell are not only good, they are also nice, and "nice" is one of the worst four-letter words I know of. As a friend of mine, a Reformed minister, once told me, "there are two kinds of people on this planet, and nice isn't one of them." There is a popular belief that Hell is presided over by the Devil. Well, it isn't: it is presided over by God. And it certainly isn't a nice place. It can't be: it has to be worse than being aborted. God is not nice.
And Jesus is not nice. As part of our aesthetic worship heritage, we may have memories of Sunday School pictures of a tall, tanned, athletic, blue-eyed guy who looked as if he had just stepped out of the hair salon. But our reading from Isaiah tells us that "He has no form or comeliness, and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him." God had declared His absolute being to Moses from the burning bush when He said "I am I am." The essence of existentialism, the logical conclusion of aestheticism, whether it be found in the writings of Satre, or the American "beat" culture, or the latest rock video (another form of gesamtkunstwerk), is simply the individual deifying his own self-will, in effect declaring "I am I am." Jesus said, "before Abraham, I am." He also said "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life," and since the rending of the veil of the temple, we are to worship God in spirit and in truth.
But the truth is not nice, either. The truth is not attractive, it is not compatible with either aesthetics or entertainment. And the Truth is not obvious to our human minds: if Pilate could ask "what is Truth?" when He was standing right in front of him, what right have we to disguise revelation and true worship with aesthetic devices? We still believe that by making worship attractive or desirable, it will be easier for people to accept the truth. The very notion that we can hold to the truth with one hand and with the other repackage it so that it is made attractive to those who hate God is absurd. Did God add a postscript to the Bible "P.S. By the way, culturally reformat as you will"? Then why do we persist in trying to make worship nice? If we are not to add to or subtract from anything in the Bible, then why do we add to or subtract from God's revealed commands as to how we are to worship Him? How often do we catch ourselves thinking, "wouldn't it be nice if... we had more music before the service, but pretend its not meant to be worship/we got Sally to play a little something on the flute during the offertory, she does play so nicely/we got a music group together for the odd evening service, it will encourage the young folk to come along/etc, etc"?
We still believe, deep down, that worship is subjective. But feelings are dangerous and are not to be trusted; they are easily led, and lead, astray. If the German transcendentalists believed that music was the way to get in touch with one's deepest subconscious, or as they put it, to get in touch with the Infinite, then it ought not to have been embraced by Christian churches as the way to get in touch with God. Instead, it ought to have been avoided or, at the least, minimised. The human heart is deceitful above all else, and desires to be worshipped above all else. To introduce aesthetic elements with the purpose of appealing to the subconscious, is asking for trouble. We need revealed, objective means of worship in order to worship God in spirit and in truth, otherwise we use subjective means to worship ourselves.
As reformed folk we tend to be proud of the purity of our theology, the excellencies of our preachers, our high regard for the Word, but are we as concerned for the purity of our worship? When any individual or group wants their own subjective ideas of how worship should be added to or subtracted from enforced, they offend their brother's conscience. Would we tolerate such a state in our theology? Of course not. But in worship, the fact that churches do have dissensions over matters of worship only shows that we have very vague notions as to what reformed worship is all about. We do not all have our own ideas and preferences as to what ought to be included or excluded from the canon of Scripture or the Heidelberg Catechism, but when it comes to worship it sometimes seems that anything goes.
The issue of music in worship is difficult; there are no easy answers. The silence of New Testament Scripture encourages some in one direction, some in others. Pragmatism would suggest that, as we are commanded to meet together to worship we need buildings, therefore as we are commanded to sing praises we need hymns and organs: neither buildings nor organs are commanded in Scripture, but all things are to be done decently and in order. Others rely on tradition, but traditions are constantly changing: one group says "we have always had hymns and organs" and another says "we are used to songs and music groups" but neither look beyond cultural relevance to ask the question "what is the scriptural basis for either preference?" Others, observing the regulative principle, are happy in their own consciences to worship without hymns and organs, but join in anyway, recognising that where Scripture is silent, so should they be, wishing also to avoid dissension where none is needed. Others apply the regulative principle more overtly.
Organists are no different from anyone, and the skills of a church musician are no more or less valuable to God than those of anyone else. Whenever we seek to set apart church musicians or other "artists" by basing their roles on Old Testament or even historical models, we are taking a worldly view. Indeed, as there is no New Testament precedent for church musicians, their role is lower than that of any other servant. If a church insists on having organists or musicians, their role is to support the ministry of that congregation and its pastor as that church sees fit, and as such they are no more significant than the person who cleans the toilets or mows the lawn.
But a musician must have something to play. If a congregation decides to sing hymns, and also decides on purchasing an instrument to accompany them, then an organ is the most logical choice. If songs are preferred, then a music group is necessary: at least hymns may be sung unaccompanied.
In all such discussion it must be remembered that the New Testament is silent on the place of music in public worship. This should be reflected both in the use of instruments and instrumentalists in the church (do they take a dominating position and role in worship? Do we need them at all?) and in the attitude we take towards music and instruments (do we seek to dominate others with our own opinions when there is no mandate either way?). A gracious and forebearing spirit should be the mark of such discussion; above all, we must remember what it is we are about.
True worship is not subjective, it is objective. We meet together to come before the God who is there, to offer Him the true worship He enables and commands us to. Anything else is not the worship of God, it is the worship of ourselves. We need to re-evaluate our concepts of what worship really is; we need to return to the classicism of reformed worship; and we need to reclaim that worship from the junk heap of romanticism, to free it from the yoke of subjectivity, and to liberate it from the mill stone of psycho- aestheticism. I believe that purity of worship should be just as much a distinctive of the reformed churches as purity of doctrine. Just as liberal theology and aesthetic worship go hand in hand, so should reformed theology and reformed worship. If they do not, then we must ask ourselves the question, "does the Reformation mean nothing?"