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The Liturgical Impact of Current Theological Discussions

Begins with my first Coventry Choir rehearsal in February 1983

The Liturgical Impact of Current Theological Discussions
Sunday, May 6, 2007 James Walker

A presentation for the Rector’s Forum, Sunday, May 6, 2007

It is an awesome task to come before you today, to talk about some very confusing and often emotionally-​charged concepts, as well as share some very joyful tidings.

The Rector has asked me to share some reflections as a church musician on how the conversation about sacrificial atonement theology in the Anglican Communion impacts the selection of music for liturgies at All Saints. When he suggested that I do this, I said, “You are out of your mind.” But this process has been very interesting for me, and I will share some of my journey with you, beginning in more general terms.

And then, I will close with a few comments about my imminent sabbatical, and we’ll have some time to open the forum for any questions or comments, before I scurry back to regroup with Canterbury Choir.


Let me take you back to February, 1983. If you weren’t born yet, think in cosmic terms.

I was 26 years old and was hired as the Associate Organist-​Choirmaster of All Saints Church, essentially as an ace organist just out of graduate school, to accompany Coventry Choir (we had one adult choir at the time) and to play major organ works, anthems and service music for the one primary Sunday morning service at 10:00.

Straight-​forward and clear. It all sounded so very sweet.

I walked into my first Coventry Choir rehearsal on the third Thursday of February, 1983. The choir had been asked to come half an hour early, to have some discussion led by the rector. There sat George Regas, Anne Peterson and the young curate Frannie Hall. The topic: a controversy in the choir over changing the text in a Rachmaninoff anthem from “Blessed is the Man” to “Blessed is the One.” It was a wonderfully strange yet amazing discussion about the power of language, open-​mindedness, change and inclusivity.

Sitting off to the side of the choir room, I thought to myself: “What have I gotten myself into?”

Here I stand, 24 years later, asking the same question, and mostly rejoicing in it … because, this is a church I want to be a part of, where there is a dynamic openness to exploring faith together. Where we can search for truth and find our way to God in differing ways, and still come to the altar rail together.

Evolution of Language Usage

Over the years, we have struggled together over the use of language. In retrospect, changing “man” to “one” seems like such an easy and natural move. Yet, we all view life through our own filters and our individual backgrounds, and words hold powerful meaning for each of us.

For a time, we completely removed pronouns in referring to God. So we would alter a hymn text to read: “Praise God for God’s grace and favor to God’s people”. A little hard to sing and awkward poetically, but an important step, I think.

I remember the first time we changed “God is Love, Let Heaven Adore Him,” to “God is Love, Let Heaven Adore Her.” There were tears of joy and healing for so many in the congregation, as we together in robust song were able to expand our imagery of an ineffable mystery. And I also remember there was great anxiety about that decision.

Sometimes I make false assumptions that we’ve finished some discussions.

Last Sunday, some were upset with me about Bobby McFerrin’s setting of the 23rd Psalm, where all the imagery of God is feminine, including the Trinitarian “Glory be to our Mother, and Daughter, and to Holy of Holies”. Some assumed that I had changed the lyrics myself. Well, first of all, I do not change the work of Bobby McFerrin, a living composer; it’s his setting of Psalm 23.

However, the deeper issue expressed to me was that, other than the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father”), there wasn’t balance within the liturgy. I wonder, though, if perhaps there should not always be that kind of balance, after centuries of exclusively male-​God imagery. And, I do hear where that desire for balance is coming from.

I’ve been heard to say that I’m not doing my job if I don’t make someone angry every Sunday (I generally use more colorful language in saying that!). But seriously, I don’t feel that I’m doing my job if people don’t come up to me or write me, on a weekly basis, about their discomfort with the language, theology, style or genre of the music.

We are part of a diverse and dynamic community, and how can we possibly stretch ourselves without some challenge and maybe even some agitation. Sometimes people bring pretty fierce anger to me, and I try to absorb that as best I can, while listening to whatever truth that individual is trying to share with me.

In any case, I do think we always need to ask ourselves in these discussions, as individuals and as a community: What is truly underneath our being uncomfortable or angry? What are we really giving up? What are we able to gain from that creative tension? When is holding on to something important? When is letting go of something an act of health and growth?

More Textual Complexities

And it goes well beyond masculine and feminine imagery.

For instance, so much liturgical music — in choral anthems and hymns — is about getting to heaven. Open a hymnal some day and check out the last verses. Many talk of “gaining the immortal crown;” of the faithful “dwelling on high with thee;” of “reaching heaven’s joys” at the last day.

I happen to believe in a heavenly realm — an after-​life that is a holy mystery. I have an extensive list of people I plan to have quality time with when I pass from this earthly existence … including my grandmother and Johann Sebastian Bach.

So, I personally don’t have much of a problem with singing about it, except when it becomes the focus of the text. When we are so focused on getting to heaven, it can distract us from the work of bringing heaven to earth.

Life is complicated here. You can choose to stop singing some pieces, and there can be great loss in that. The glory of having the printed liturgy every week is that we’re not bound by what is in this hymnal, and we draw from many sources beyond it, particularly multicultural music.

On any given Sunday, the congregation and choir sing 13 pieces of music — hymns, anthems and service music. At least 75% of those have altered texts, and I would estimate that about half of the congregational music we sing is not in the Hymnal 1982. In fact, over the years, we have created our own All Saints Hymnal — two thick loose leaf binders of congregational music we sing here. This is a great resource to us in liturgy planning, and it continues to expand.

The rector and I meet each week to plan liturgies 3–4 weeks in advance. More often than not, these planning sessions lead to theological reflection that will shape and guide our community in worship, based on the appointed lessons for that week. And, when a hymn has value but needs some updating, I get to work, with the help of staff colleagues and parishoners who have creative poetic gifts. The same holds true for every piece that the choirs sing. A tremendous amount of energy and commitment goes into what we communicate in our singing.

I think it is also important for you to know that the Rector and I disagree about a lot of things, and I cherish my relationship with Ed Bacon. It took me a few years to trust that it is okay to disagree with my boss, and it took practice, but what a rewarding relationship we have developed over twelve years.

Sacrificial Atonement Theology

And that is a perfect segue to this atonement theology stuff. Lord, have mercy. Or as we say in Greek, Kyrie eleison.

I grew up in a simple, down-​home Presbyterian Church where we were taught that God’s love is unconditional. I don’t remember anyone telling me that I needed to be ransomed through the blood of Jesus on the cross, or that God sent Jesus to be sacrificed to pay the debt of my sin. The God of my upbringing was not the wrathful old man keeping score of my bad deeds.

If the phrase “fear of God” was used, it was understood as “awe and wonder in God’s presence.” This was the faith of my childhood. Also, most of my close friends in elementary and secondary school were Jewish. I consider myself very fortunate, in this regard. God is the one God of all.

On the other hand, growing up as an adolescent and coming to the realization that I was a homosexual, I knew that I was going to Hell. It is hard to reconcile those two concepts — unconditional love of God and eternal damnation.

But somehow it worked, until I got lots of therapy and sorted through that insanity — all without the help of the Church. So, I do understand where this punitive/​penal theology of God did feed all that unhealthy damnation stuff.

In any case, except for that one Homo-​problem, I guess I was just blissfully unaware of the subtle nature of the sacrificial atonement theology. God is love. God is love. God is unconditional love.

I believe that Jesus was sent by God so that we could see what God looks like. Jesus shows me the way to live. In this sense, Jesus is my Savior. I know that is a loaded statement. This whole issue of salvation is so murky. But the concept of being saved, for me, is a positive one. Jesus is my Savior. Moreover, it is through Jesus’ death on a cross that my salvation is complete.

Jesus is an example of how to live my life, and to make the way of the cross the way of life, is life and health, for me. Jesus shows me the way to live in love, and that love is so immense and gives itself so fully that it will walk steadfastly even to execution on the cross. That love is so great, that in freely choosing to follow Jesus’ way of love, I can become one with God — at one with God. Atonement.

And, I am coming to more fully understand that others do not have this view of the cross and of Jesus as savior of the world … that others have been fed with the idea that only through Jesus’ being sacrificed by God, and paying the debt of our human evil, could we then have any relationship with God. I do understand how that can be a really hurtful theology for some.

Creative Tension

So, go with me back to Palm Sunday (a month ago). The rector is preaching a powerful sermon about his views on Sacrificial Atonement Theology, right next to our singing “Ah, Holy Jesus”, one of the great passion hymns.

The third verse reads:

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered;
For our atonement, while we nothing heeded,
God interceded.

Can we hold both the challenge from the pulpit and this passion hymn in our worship? As I was leading the hymn from the organ on Palm Sunday, when we got to this verse I had a pain in my chest. As much as I am attached to this hymn, this one verse pretty clearly communicates that God offers Jesus, the lamb, to be slaughtered — offered as a sacrifice for our sins.

I’m quite sure Ed Bacon and I will be looking at this hymn very carefully next February, as we plan for Palm Sunday in March. Maybe that verse will be altered. Maybe that verse will be omitted, and we’ll passionately sing the other four verses — which are probably enough, anyway.

We are in this adventure together, and I believe we can worship in this creative tension, with understanding. My stated mission of the music department is to lead the All Saints community in liturgies that glorify God — moving the heart and challenging the mind — all with great variety, color and reverence. Moving the heart and challenging the mind.

There are some pieces that I simply don’t think I would have us sing anymore, and there are hymns and anthems that can be sung with new and different understandings and interpretations. “Blessed are the men who fear God” isn’t hard to change to “Blessed are the ones who love God.” And, I won’t be giving up that marvelous anthem by Mendelssohn, because the punch line to “Blessed are the ones who love God” is … “they ever walk in the ways of peace.”

Blessed are those who love God, they ever walk in the ways of peace” — a wonderful, timeless message, set to exquisite music. It’s a keeper.

On the other hand, Handel’s “Worthy is the lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches…” etc. is just too loaded. It is doubtful that I will ever use it again with a choir, leading worship. That’s sad, because apart from the text, it is a really fun piece.

This is why singing in Latin is so wonderful, because you can fudge a little with the translation, while keeping the essence of the text, and it is such a beautiful language to sing.

Is it necessary to believe everything that you sing? Not everything. We’d have nothing to sing together, if it were a requirement that we all believe every word or expression of faith. On the other hand, I believe we are called to engage both heart and mind in examining that which we say and sing in liturgy. And I believe we can creatively hold ambiguity, mystery and paradox in our life together, at the table.

As we increasingly bring music of many cultures into our liturgies, this awareness and celebration of difference is further heightened. For me, all this is a joyful opportunity.

Sabbatical Preview

This leads me to sabbatical. I need one, and it will begin in approximately eight hours. Dealing with the complexities of all that I’ve talked about here — trying to hold it all together — is very challenging work, all the while trying to be a musician. Learn more

A nationally-​recognized conductor and concert organist, James Walker entertains and enlightens audiences throughout the United States, and his solo recitals are broadcast on National Public Radio. Winner of the prestigious Mader National Organ-​Playing Competition in 1986, he is a featured soloist at Bach festivals and regional and national music conventions. Currently James is Director of Music at All Saints Church, Pasadena, California.