There is such beauty to be found in the traditions that connect us to other times and places, and as people who worship in a traditional setting, there can be an energy which comes from being rooted in the past – rooted in sound theology, and in liturgy and music that soars and take us along to a more glorious understanding of God. When done well, we can be nourished by the traditions our forebears created to worship God within the framework of a liturgy which speaks for a community rather than individuals.
When we care enough, we aspire to live into those traditions, whether that means decorating for Christmas or saying “The Lord’s Prayer.” The acolytes learn to carry the cross and torches with care and dignity. Lay readers demonstrate that they’ve rehearsed their readings at home, often bringing a real sense of drama and wonder to the lessons. And hearing and singing the great hymns and anthems of the Anglican tradition, as well as music from other traditions, will be something that stays with children throughout their lives. I’ve seen proof of that in talking to former Choristers. Junk food can be fun, and temporarily tasty, but nourishment comes from real food, and if you’ve read anything about nutrition lately, you know that traditional grains and ways of cooking are back!
I subscribe to a listserv for choral directors on which there is periodic chatter around the appropriate use of spirituals in “white” churches. I used to follow the talk with some bemusement as I wondered how people could still worry about this in 21st century America, but recent events and political discourse have changed bemusement to concern. In one instance, a minister had emailed his musician (you see the problem already – email is never the way to discuss a problem) to say that he was disturbed by the published anthem schedule, which included a spiritual. The minister didn’t believe a “white” church choir could sing African-American music in an authentic way, and seemed to be skeptical of singing in African-American dialect – Ain’a dat good news, for example.
There is a tradition to uphold, however, in the dialect which grew out of slavery. We honor something good that came out of the darkest part of American history, when we sing in dialect, which, by the way, is an integral part of the music, servings the music’s rhythms so beautifully. I can’t imagine wanting to iron out the dialect of spirituals to make it more acceptable to modern ears. I believe singing spirituals in dialect provides a sense of the historical and cultural context from which these songs spring, and a profound respect for the suffering and inequalities they represent.
And yet, I too have experienced the quick judgements of singers and congregations who suggest that largely white choirs shouldn’t sing music from the African-American tradition. I find that embarrassing. Not to be “white” (well, I’m actually kind of beige), but to think that somehow people believe that this music doesn’t belong to us. In that case I would have to question whether or not a “black” church should ever sing Handel or Mozart. Spirituals and Gospel music are good. Bach and Tallis are good. And all good things belong to everybody. We won’t excel at every tradition, but there is joy in trying.
The printed words of Ain’t got time to die , sung this Sunday at St. John’s, will embarrass some folks, but in singing them we are honoring a tradition. It is a tradition of strength and resilience, of indomitable spirit and creativity. We sing and hear the words of African-American spirituals, and we are more deeply connected to another time and place, as we are when we sing the hymns of Martin Luther, the motets of Palestrina, the folk tunes of the Shakers and the resistance songs of South Africans.