© Paul V. Marshall
[Bishop Paul Marshall of the Diocese of Bethlehem served as conference preacher for the June 2012 Association of Anglican Musicians in Philadelphia. He preached four sermons. This is the first. "Grave" is a musical term meaning "played slowly and seriously."]
Gratitude is the chief word I have for the opportunity to share this week with you, gratitude and a little awe, but with your permission I will not go into that now beyond acknowledging the keen pleasure I take at the invitation to be among this company in this hallowed place.
You have given me a tough place to start, however, as our propers are “of the Holy Trinity.”
You know better than I that Gustav Mahler was asked why, given the immense spirituality of his compositions, he had never composed a mass. His reply was telling, “Do you think I could take that upon myself? Well, why not? But no, there’s the credo in it.” Fair enough, but then he went on to recite the creed in Latin, keeping the ambiguity of the encounter high.
I think of Mahler today just because his story is tantalizing. We cannot say with precision exactly what if any brand of faith he had. Nobody can prove what his conversion was ultimately about, and there are lots of opinions. That multitude of opinion about the very same information reminds us that all beliefs, including our own, are motivated, motivated by many things going on inside of us in our deepest unconscious, so we may perhaps put nagging historical questions in favor of the theological one when we think of this story. Mahler would not have been the first to write a mass with no creed (of course, he couldn’t write anything-Brevis); why would he have focused on the very existence of credo as a reason to bow out of mass-writing entirely?
Let me thicken that question. More than one of the great composers of religious music in the Anglican tradition, when pressed about theology, have chosen to declare for atheism or agnosticism as did Vaughan Williams. Others will mount an esoteric heterodoxy like that of my beloved Parry. Again, we can speculate about their deepest motives, but is it not possible that for those who sing of God and the Lamb the language of dogmatic theology is, forgive me, not always very interesting, and perhaps quite alienating? Bach is the greatest exception here, but he is always the greatest exception. But for Mahler and my English examples, perhaps it was one thing to set the earnest prayer “Veni Creator Spiritus” in a symphony of a thousand, and quite another thing to set to music a group of propositions. Not all of us believe with words. Not all of us believe with words.
Perhaps the dogmatically hesitant have a vital point to make, at least in the present culture that speaks so trippingly of the uncertainty principle and parallel universes. That is, I have to remember that for the orthodox Christianity of Mahler’s day, the creed was for the most part data, not a song. So perceived, it ultimately reduced God to an object, capable of study, dissection, and definition, the fuel for debate and even persecution. Such talk of a domesticated and definable God does not invite the ecstasy of music. Who would want to set the periodic chart of the elements to music?—well, of course, Tom Lehrer did just that, but you get my point.
To those for whom the idea of God as object is unthinkable or at least uninviting, it is life-giving to observe that the creed has gotten more musical of late. The revival of Trinitarian theology in the last two generations has been at its heart the rediscovery by western Christians that what the ancient church chose to say about God is not in the first place data; it is doxology. That doxology (and let us steadfastly remember that all doxologies get an Amen played at the end, just as one is said at the doxology in each prayer!), that doxology comes from reflection on both practical and ecstatic experience, and Trinitarian doxology comes to the conclusion that God is, in God’s deepest self, in relationship, from before time and forever. Many have observed that the Greek word for that relationship is very like the word for dance. Three distinct persons in one eternal Dance. Delicate, rhythmic, supple, inviting.
It is also worth reflection that over the course of the years most of the so-called Trinitarian heresies that have been rejected have one thing in common: each of them simplified words about God, made God seem to be understandable and manageable, pedestrian, and certainly less lyrical. What we call the heresies often moved theology from the mystical dance to something like bad Powerpoint. (This is not to say that the Arians, for instance, didn’t have popular songs, but their songs were apparently shallow, slogan-like, and not very sophisticated musically—but that was a long time ago.)
So to the part of us that resonates strongly with Mahler and other spiritually rich composers who balked at dogma perhaps because of its ineradicable unmusicality, there come two words. The first is that our God worshiped with the creed is not worshiped as a datum, but is adored as the eternal dynamic relationship, and that we perceive that very God inviting us to join the dance. The second word is that if I try to figure God out rather than relax and adore the mystery, and lose myself in it, I condemn myself to theological tone-deafness and will not get to dance.
We can focus this by asking what does any of this doxological dance look like when it is at home?
Let me illustrate by mentioning the spirit of a musician who hovers over this meeting. A colleague in my office wrote this about Gerre Hancock back in 2000:
“When I was a seminarian and the thurifer for a Sung Eucharist one Sunday, I opened the ambulatory door as quietly as possible to see how soon incense would be needed in the service. The ambulatory was empty, and the view from that door to the organ bench is perfect. And there was Uncle Gerre sitting on the bench, unaware that someone was watching. The heels of his shoes were cocked on the beam beneath the bench itself. His hands were just outside his knees, gripping the bench. His head was bowed, and his shoulders were slumped. I put it to you that he wasn’t trying to remember how to play Merbecke….
“He was doing that rare thing, rare for church employees everywhere, both lay and clerical. He was praying. He’s based his life on the conviction that he’s on earth for one reason: to praise God. And, he does it with his playing. He does it with his composing. He does it with his conducting. He does it with his teaching. All of which is to say he gives thanks and praise unto the Lord with his whole heart.”I left those verbs in the present tense, because that is where they belong. Gerre Hancock touched many in this room with his authentic blend of faith and art. Perhaps as we honor his memory by singing it, we may also experience just a bit more gladness to feel, experience, and say, “Credo.”
 The Venerable Howard W Stringfellow III, whom I quote with permission.