An Evangelical Mass Proper — Introit

Picture this — a procession of clergy enters a small church building. They slowly step down the aisle, with the congregation in rows of chairs on both sides. This church does not have stained glass windows or pews. Indeed, it is rather minimalist. The only decoration that can be seen is a cross above the altar, at the end of the aisle. 

As the procession approaches the altar, a small choir, divided into two, flank them on both sides. They sing a short introit, a capella, in the vernacular. Vestments are not worn by the clergy or the choir. Everyone dresses as usual — modest, but by no means formal.

When the procession reaches the altar, they not not bow, and sit on the front row. The president of the service remains standing, turns to the congregation, and welcomes them once the introit ends. S/he reminds them that this service is a Eucharist, a worshipful remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice paid on the cross for the redeemed’s sins.

The procession is a formality that cannot be ignored. Many evangelical denominations still employ it at the start of every service. The purpose is not to highlight the clergy, or to elevate them above the congregation. It is simply there to alert the congregation that the service has started, and that it is a serious affair. God’s people are preparing to meet with him in sung and said prayer, as well as partaking in the biblically ordained sacrament of communion. Solemness is most called for.

Regarding pews, most churches have no need of them. Indeed, many get rid of them since they restrict the use of space. They may have been useful in the past as a method of fitting a crowd into church, but movable chairs nowadays are by far more convenient and shall remain superior.

Needless to say, most churches built within the last fifty years or so are not heavily decorated, unless they are built for a denomination with liturgical worship practices. Emphasis on a visual stimulus in churches which provokes worship is often ignored. Yet, despite this, there is a certain beauty to the modern minimalist outlook (or, at least, a less decorated appearance). Unless a church can afford extensive refurbishment, there would be not need to install stained glass windows, carvings, or anything of the sort.

The disappearance of the choral worship in the modern evangelical church is happening swiftly. Contemporary Christian worship (CCM) is favoured by most as a modern alternative, yet this genre does not have the same beauty as choral music. This is not just a personal opinion; ontologically, it is impossible for it to be aesthetically superior. CCM is designed to be easy to sing, easy to play, and easy to understand. Given these restrictions, its literary and musical development is heavily curbed, rendering it to be often repetitive and unoriginal. Of course, the fact that it is not difficult means that almost anyone anywhere can sing and play it. Active participation in worship is the expected norm. But, perhaps, we have grown to ignore the value of heard worship. We need not be musically active in our services all the time, every time.

Vestments are not often seen in an evangelical setting, and it is unlikely that they would make a come back. It probably takes as much effort for the modern Christian to wear smart casual as it was for the parish priest to put on his vestments a hundred years ago. If choice of clothing be a sign of seriousness, simply modesty will do.

Bowing and genuflecting are almost never seen in evangelicalism. It is an obvious mark of respect towards God, made evident physically. Perhaps because it is so obvious, many find it to be excessive. The procession, the choir, and the formal tone of the service ought to be sufficient to convey a sense of solemness. The congregation probably gets the gist.

The Eucharist continues…


An Evangelical Mass Proper — Why Liturgy?

It is safe to say that, for better or for worse, liturgy plays a small role in the majority of evangelical churches worldwide today. Particularly amongst the younger generations of the church, liturgy has very little appeal since it comes across as outdated, overly severe and, ultimately, boring. Many are seeking an ‘authentic’, ‘first-century’ encounter with God, with little boundaries and plenty of time spent enjoying the presence of the Holy Spirit. Liturgy just does not lend itself to that purpose very well.

At the same time, an opposite trend is also occurring amongst young adults. Many are seeking a more sincere form of worship which, as John Piper puts it, ‘worship services in jeans and movie clips and bouncing beach balls and the shrines of the drum set just don’t satisfy’. Surely, I cannot be the only one who is noticing growing interest in Anglo-Catholicism and Catholicism in evangelical churches.

In reality, almost every church service has a liturgy of its own. If a service has an premeditated order and structure which is designed specifically to offer worship, then that can be regarded as a liturgy of sorts. Hesitancy to include more traditional elements such as vestments, incense or segments of the mass is caused by a deliberate desire to distance the Protestant Church from Catholic practices. Many protestants throughout the centuries have criticised rites as a distraction from Scripture which places unwarranted importance on the clergy. Fair enough. But, one wonders whether there a middle ground, a hybrid which can reconcile the artistry of traditional liturgical practices without subsidising the emphasis on the supremacy of Scripture in an evangelical setting. This article forms the start of a series in questioning whether the above would be possible, and what measures would need to be taken for an evangelical and liturgical Eucharist to actualise.

Of course, this is all merely a thought experiment and is by no means authoritative. Please entertain the hypothesis and not take the content too seriously. It must be noted that liturgical worship, like any other style of worship, in limited and imperfect. I do not hold it to be a superior mode of worship. Also, this series uses the term ‘mass proper’ not in relation to the modern-day Roman rite specifically, but to the inter-denominational Eucharist liturgy employed by the Western Church generally. (The issue of semantics will be explored more thoroughly later.) The aim is not to shoehorn evangelical worship practices into liturgy, nor to compromise theology in favour of a worship style, but to find channels through which evangelicals can employ liturgy to fill a growing hunger for seriousness and artistry in worship.

Now that all the necessary disclaimers have been made, let us enter into our imaginary Eucharist…


Byzantine Chant and Acoustics

Back in February, I was privileged to attend a seminar on byzantine chant and kalophony led by Professor Alexander Lingas, musicologist and founder of Capella Romana. The expositions on compositional devices, liturgical purposes of music within the Byzantine Rite, and historical influences on chant were most interesting and worthwhile. I learnt an awful lot within a couple of hours.

I have always been intrigued by the memorising aesthetics of byzantine chant, particularly in the effects of the ison (ίσον), the sustained bass drone which accompanies the chant melody above. To me, in visceral terms, the drone creates a sense of vastness, a feeling of overwhelming power and support. This effect can only be enhanced with chant being sung in a large setting such as a cathedral, with natural reverberation. Remarkably, this compositional device is so simple, yet it achieves so much in terms of acoustic power. Sometimes, less is indeed more.

Last year, I went on a quest to find out whether there is a scientific or physiological reason for the sensation of ‘vastness’ evoked by a sustained low frequency such as the ison. With the invaluable help of academics from the music and physics faculties at Oxford, I managed to come to this brief conclusion:

The further the displacement between two sustained sounds in musical range, the larger the acoustic space it evokes in the listener’s mind, regardless of the size of the actual, physical acoustic space in which the listener is positioned.

Please do not quote me on this. It is only a hypothesis, and a crude one at that. But if it is true, then it provokes many questions regarding the use of range in composition, and whether it should be regulated to create certain effects with acoustic space.

I have been attempting to utilise the ison in my compositions. Below is a recording of my piece, Trisagion, as performed by choristers at Worcester College, Oxford. I am indebted to them for their willing participation and excellent sight-reading.

You can also check out Capella Romana’s Icons of Sound project here, where the acoustics of the performance hall are adjusted digitally to closely mimic that of the Hagia Sophia, the hub of byzantine religion where thousands of chants would have been sung over the the centuries.

I wonder if byzantine chant can provoke a new aesthetic in composition and performance for the future. Whilst composers such as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener have been influenced by the Eastern Church, it is only by Russian Orthodox music. Byzantine chant has yet to make an explicit appearance. I do hope it will be noticed soon enough by composers, or else a valuable and rich source of inspiration would be sadly overlooked.

Book Review: Pilgrim’s Progress

(The edition I read can be found here on Amazon.)

To be sure, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress had a profound impact on me. In an action-packed volume of what seems to be Lord of the Rings meets Puritanism, the protagonist named Christian strives to reach the Celestial City on a journey of epic proportions. On the way, he meets various characters, some who seek to help him, and many who want to kill him. If you’re looking for some solid Christian teaching with a bit of sword fighting and giants involved, then this book is for you.

I was initially hesitant about reading the book. Having read a few chapters of John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin, I was not looking forward to deciphering seventeenth-century English and its ancient jargon again. Yet, as I dug into Bunyan’s work, I was pleasantly surprised by its readability. The vocabulary is simple enough, and the chapters are short, with clear subheadings in my edition marking the theme of each section. Prosimetrum is also employed, with a sprinkle of poetry in each chapter to compliment the prose. Sure, I had to occasionally look up words such as ‘Apollyon’ and ‘Beulah’, but much of the book can be easily understood without a problem.

My second fear was that the book would be rigidly instructive as an allegory and the plot would be dreadfully boring as a result. This also turned out to be a false assumption. The story line flows logically, with no absurdities arising so that a teaching can be shoehorned into the plot. Except for a few long, but not tedious, sections of dialogue, the action flows naturally and a sense of realism is maintained despite the work being a form of allegorical fantasy. Theology and narrative sit happily interpolated and cooperate with each other. I anticipate this is largely caused by the fact that the plot is based on the Christian life. Every detail inserted refers to the reality  experienced by Bunyan and Christians today, and so the content feels deeply relevant despite the age of the book.

Of course, the most rewarding part of the book is its theological content. There was scarcely a moment when I could not empathise with Christian, or his companions Faithful and Hopeful, as they struggle and sometimes fail miserably in their journey to the Celestial City. Weakness, doubt, guilt and persecution all come to haunt the characters and every Christian who seeks to follow Christ. But Bunyan, and the Bible he quotes, reminds us that Christ’s grace is sufficient in every trial. ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Cor. 12:9) *Spoilers* In the end, the protagonists succeed in arriving to their destination, and the sufferings they had endured, compared to the rewards they enjoy forever, seem so minuscule that they are no longer significant.

The Pilgrim’s Progress reminds its readers that the Christian life is most certainly difficult, fraught with trials, pain and failure. But if we trust in the providence and grace of God, even in times of darkness, we can be sure that the Almighty will deliver.

Highly recommended, 5/5