The Eleventh Annual Lambeth Tyndale Lecture

From iPod to Evensong: Listening to the Music of Scripture

by Canon Lucy Winkett
Report by Eunice Burton
November 2005

The Guard Room at Lambeth Palace was again the venue for the Annual Tyndale Lecture 2005, which was chaired by His Grace, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He welcomed us, and introduced Canon Lucy Winkett, Precentor at St Paul’s Cathedral, whose lecture was entitled ‘From iPod to Evensong: Listening to the Music of Scripture’.

Canon Lucy told us she had obtained a degree in music before ordination, had served her curacy in Essex, so she had been exposed to all types of music. She described a pilgrimage, by bicycle, she had undertaken in 2003 to Santiago de Compostela: she had expected that the beautiful scenery of the Pyrenees would evoke uplifting musical memories, but found that it was the lyrics of Morrisey’s punk band, ‘the Smiths’, of the early 1980’s, which kept recurring and could not be suppressed. ‘Heaven knows I’m miserable now’ with the haunting line ‘In my life, why should I waste valuable time with people who don’t care if I live or die?’ especially caused her despair and panic. Where were the well-loved liturgies and melodies of Mozart and Bach?

This led her to analyse Sound Worlds, both inner and outer, and ask how we are influenced by the soundscapes of our lives —then to imagine a modern person walking from the street into a Cathedral, a space full of the ancient wisdom of Scripture, beautiful music and the challenge of silence, where time meets eternity.

In the spirit of Tyndale’s power of translation, Canon Lucy searched for the vernacular in musical language and considered its place in worship: as she makes the cultural journey from Church to street and back again, she enjoys the range of music from plainsong to Byrd to Beethoven to Abba to Macey Gray. She spoke movingly of Rebecca, a girl exposed to violence, abuse and drugs, who had been helped by the charity ‘Kids Company’ — she could not articulate her feelings verbally, but was able to offload her moods and despair to music.

Music is an international language, transcending human differences, but in the West our relationship to music has changed irreversibly, affecting our inner lives and communal experience of the world and the church. She considered: —

The Solitary Listener.

Technology has created iPods which hold limitless resources, including “shuffle buttons” to give surprise when we are overwhelmed by the available choice. Mobile phones and iPods cut out the unpleasant city noises, but also birdsong and the chatter of children having fun. So music has become our servant.

The Music of Scripture.

Canon Lucy imagined the Word of Creation being sung and the Scriptures a soundscape of poems, prophecies and exhortations in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and English being laughed over and cried over down the centuries. Compare this with the sculpted sound of “Raw Materials” in the vast emptiness of Tate Modern; then hear again the melody and rhythm of Scripture, the laments of the psalms, the fugues and variations in Paul’s letters and the final symphonic apocalypses of Daniel and Revelation.

Are there Scriptural Resonances in Popular Music?

Ms. Dynamite explores issues such as gun crime and domestic violence in a style indebted to Reggae: her recent album, ‘Judgment Days’, asks questions: ‘What are you gonna do..... Where are you gonna hide when he comes for you? ..... What are you gonna say on Judgment Day?’, which is reminiscent of Matthew’s account of Christ dividing the sheep from the goats. She seeks to galvanise us in the present by the threat of the future, addressing the iPod generation (‘Generation Text’), using the medium of lyrics and music to proclaim the truth.

The Mitchell Brothers from Manor Park, East London, recently released ‘Breath of Fresh Attire’ - their concerns are domestic but themes eternal, e.g. love, work, being alone: the everyday stories suggest prosaic parables with eternity in their sights. Canon Lucy discussed artists of the 1990’s (Oasis and Robbie Williams) and videos portraying crime, personal relationships and the quest for money and power. The church tends to divide modern music into ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’, inferring ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, which appears judgmental — but taste is not to be confused with standards.

The multilayered linguistic landscape of modern London means we understand each other less.

The Music of the Church.

The Church proclaims the transcendence and eminence of God: music best expresses His exuberance, mystery and sadness. It is music from the past sung in the present that calls us to the future, transcending our earthbound existence. The creation of music involves struggle and often a political and financial context; lurking under the gift of music (cf. the theological language of faith, grace and gift; is the language of the market —obligation and commission. Even at St Paul’s too long a psalm may mean paying the musicians overtime!

The Reformation shifted religious music from Latin to English, and Cranmer’s instruction for his 1544 Liturgy was for a simple style, with a note for each syllable, to aid distinctness and devotion. Tye and Tallis wrote in Latin, but Tallis’ pupil, William Byrd, composed in both Latin and English, and increasingly more in the vernacular: his pupil, Tomkins, wrote entirely in English, as did Orlando Gibbons. A progression can be traced to metrical psalms and hymns in which the people participated. In 1560, Bishop John Jewel noted that 6,000 persons gathered at St Paul’s Cross after the service to sing metrical psalms together to praise God, and that at the spot where Bishop Tunstall had burned Tyndale’s English New Testament only 34 years before! Even here today little ‘blues’ or ‘jazz’ music is heard in church, although some melodies creep into Gospel music.

No Church is an Island.

The church can adopt too critical a stance and become intolerant of human frailty while striving for perfection, or “engage” with popular music in a way verging on the ridiculous, but there is a middle way of understanding the contribution of modern music and encouraging young composers. To Canon Lucy, Choral Evensong creates a special sacred space, absorbing the day’s events, delights and disappointments and renewing a congregation seeking rest and peace.

From iPod to Evensong.

In conclusion, Canon Lucy warned again of the danger of disengagement by the solitary listeners, detached from their physical surroundings, whereas joining in a service develops relationships with the composers and living worshippers today. Using music as a means of dialogue with God and the world shows we cannot expect all to be comforting, while the paradox, despair and frustration in dissonance should challenge us.

Plato wrote that “music is a heaven sent ally in reducing to order and harmony any disharmony in the revolutions within us”, and Canon Lucy saw in the many facets of music, the movement of the Spirit bringing order out of chaos.

A time of questions, comment and discussion followed, the topics ranging from communal reading of the Scriptures after the Reformation; the joy of choral music with its discipline of listening to others: the absence of silence with iPods; the need for flexibility, especially as one ages; the dissonance of music in Africa and Afghanistan; the word centered hymns of the Wesleys; the physical extremities of sound (top Bs and Cs) representing the Cross and the final peace in Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ and Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’.

The Archbishop closed with noting the need to read the whole Bible including the awkward parts. He thanked Canon Lucy for a memorable lecture and invited us to join him over a glass of wine. Later a large group had dinner together in a nearby hotel.

Rev. Lucy Winkett is the Canon Precentor of St Paul’s Cathedral, London.