Reclaim Gregorian Chant!

I’ve joked before about why liberals and heretics should sing Gregorian chant, and regular readers might have seen my personal essay at PrayTell about how and why I think progressive/liberal theology fits well with traditionalist liturgical practices.

But a recent story at the Friends of Jake Blog (regarding a homophobic presentation at a Catholic High School in Minneapolis), reminded me of the strained relationship between liberals and conservatives (however they define themselves) within Christianity generally, and the Catholic Church specifically. Moreover, I continue to be troubled by the fact that the apparent resurgence of traditional liturgy and music is tied (in both real and imagined ways) to an increase in political and theological conservatism.

In short, I think the glories of traditional music, much like the glories of Christ Himself, are being co-opted by political and theological conservatism; I also think that the liberal establishment (not all liberals- just the establishment ones) are letting them do this, pretty much without a fight.

This is wrong.

The sacred music of our heritage – Gregorian Chant and Polyphony (and, I might include, Anglican choral music and traditional hymnody) – this music belongs to ALL OF US. It is “a treasure of inestimable value,” and allowing it to become the possession of a single sub-group (Conservatives) denigrates both the music itself as well as any other groups (non-conservatives) who are, apparently, not Catholic enough to sing the most Catholic of all music.

In the name of activism or active participation, liberals and progressive-minded types have spent the last forty (or more) years fighting against a culture of elitist liturgical practice, “reclaiming” the Liturgy from the hierarchs, the clerics, and the general fuddy-duddies.

But what has been reclaimed by the liberals? Not the liturgy itself, but only the time-period on Sunday mornings when the liturgy is going on. The hour (mas o menos) has, in large part, been taken over by progressives. Even in parishes teeming with conservatism, the use of mainstream Catholic hymnals means that 4 or more pieces of music each Sunday were pre-selected by a (likely progressive or liberal) committee or editorial board at one of the major publishing companies.

That’s not a victory to be over-proud of. We took the hour, but we left the Liturgy (the WORK) alone. We created an alternate way of doing Mass- something seperate from the traditionalists, and imagined that it could be equal in value.

How, then, can we be surprised that the point-of-view associated with this “separate but equal” liturgical pracice is marginalized in the institutional Church, and will likely become marginalized within ageneration by the laity? How can an ideology long survive if it yokes itself to a passing fad (popular music), while its opposition is anchored firmly in the oldest extant musical culture on Earth? Shouldn’t we build our liturgical lives on a solid bedrock of music that will ALWAYS EXIST, instead of on the shifting sands of WHATEVER IS POPULAR RIGHT NOW?

Well, yes of course we should.

But there’s more!

It isn’t merely survivalism that lobbies for a greater adoption of traditional music. It isn’t only that we deserve an equal seat at the table of REAL liturgy.

From a liturgical standpoint, traditional sacred music has in it everything that liberals and progressives have been looking for. It accomplishes what the liberal reforms set out to do. In a sane world, it would be embraced by the liberals, and feared by the conservatives.

Or, to put it another way:

Gregorian Chant is radical.

(Stay tuned for more on that.)

6 thoughts on “Reclaim Gregorian Chant!

  1. Adam, Many progressive churches are caught in their own time machine. They still have the look and the sound of 1970, but others I’ve visited aren’t as committed to guitar Masses and the dated folk stuff as many “orthodox” followers of the EF would have us believe. Times, they are a changing.

    Gregorian and Anglican chant are catching on. The music of Father Samuel Weber and others, in addition to some Latin, seems to have stilled even the hardest progressive hearts. To read “The National Reporter” letters to the editor, you wouldn’t think so, but I don’t consider the NCR the most reliable organ for assessing liberal/progressive thought today. Just as I wouldn’t use Father Z as the sole guide for judging the state of current conservative thought and tastes.

    We can’t live in the 1960s forever and it wasn’t realistic or healthy for us to think we could. We’re seeing a lot of mixing and matching of English with Latin music, a huge transformation in the remodeling of churches. A dabbling in eastern and a number of western liturgical practices and styles of “ars celebrandi”.

    The post modernist and neo Bauhaus concrete boxes Catholics loved for so long are being abandoned or torn down, and they’re dying fast, thank goodness. Grandma’s dining table for an altar is going with it.

    I just hope it leads not to nostalgia for uninspiring clones of gothic and baroque models, but to a burst of creativity which draws from the past and from the rich, authentic Catholic styles of art and architecture of the first millenium. While retaining dignified, but simple elegance as well. We don’t need kitschy churches which look like a set from a Cecile B. DeMille Hollywood set.

  2. Of course you’re right- people are starting to get a little tired of the worst aspects of Catholic Folk music, along with modernist architecture and tacky vestments.

    There are many others like, I know- progressives/liberals who tend toward tradition. But, in my (of course, somewhat limited) experience, mainstream liberals tend to continue to have either apathy or antipathy towards Gregorian Chant and Latin. I think this is exacerbated, in large part, by the conservative leanings of the hierarchy (teachings about sex and teachings about music being seen by many as equally irrelevant) and the conservative-cum-triumphalism of the Reform of the Reform crowd.

    There, are of course, simple matters of taste (Fr. Z is never going to like the Mass of Light… Adam Wood is never going to like the Fiddle-back chasuble), but I think a lot of taste preferences are motivated by perceptions about who’s right and what belongs to whom.

    I am trying to be another voice (not the only, just another) telling liberals and progressives: This music belongs to us. This tradition is our tradition. It is not a cudgel designed by conservatives to beat us down. It is a gift of God, to all of us in the Church, to lift us up, to bring us together, and to further the Kingdom of God.

    I hope you’re looking forward to my next post: Gregorian Chant is Radical. (Or… Gregorian Chant is for Radicals.)

  3. I think Roman Catholics would all be be well served by following our liturgical heritage. I think there are a lot of Catholics of both a conservative and liberal persuasion who do not have an appreciation of Gregorian Chant. This is a great tragedy. But hopefully we are starting to see some light dawning at the end of this dark age of liturgy and music.

  4. It seems to me you are simply describing Anglicanism. I do not know your writing style, so perhaps you just enjoy a little rhetorical exaggeration, but it seems perverse to claim that liberals have been denied their place at the traditional music table when they were the ones who flipped the table over and stomped on whatever saucer or cup wasn’t already broken. What do you mean that they left the hour of the liturgy untouched? that is absurd. And then if the church tries to find any balance among different legitimate values the left howls at the horrible reactionary hierarchy. Sorry, I found your whole attitude to be unreal.

  5. Pingback: Gregorian Chant is For Radicals: Part One | Music For Sunday

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