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As an important expression of our vision and mission within the context of worship, the importance of music and liturgy is unquestioned. SsAM’s vision is for a church that recognizes and embraces music as the universal language of the human soul and is uniquely spiritually uplifting. As the parish has continued to evolve, the quality and diversity of musical offerings has continued to evolve and expand.
While our worship experience is unique, it is by no means happenstance. Rather, it has evolved out of a highly intentional process. The purpose of this document is to attempt to articulate the philosophy and strategic principles that have guided this process.
The purpose of liturgy at SsAM is to inspire and empower the members of the SsAM parish and to extend a “radical welcome” to visitors in the pews. Music, within the context of worship, is primarily chosen for is its power to draw each worshipper and the entire parish community into communion with God, with moments of uplifting praise as well as moments of deep meditation and peace. The musical focus is designed to engage the congregation, encouraging and inspiring them to be enthusiastic and active participants. While tasteful and well-executed choral music is one of the hallmarks of our liturgy, it is the music that is sung by the congregation that has the greatest importance.
Many visitors are particularly struck by the unique way our congregation sings. The congregation is not only enthusiastic, but there is a great deal of musical skill among our members. Frequently, our congregation sings in parts and readily engages in creative approaches such as singing in rounds, making up unique harmonies, and group improvisation. Most Sundays, the entire congregation participates in the singing of the psalm to Anglican chant. This has been intentionally cultivated and is one of the defining characteristics of worship at SsAM.
Diversity is intentional on numerous levels at SsAM. Not only do we strive to have balance in those who are chosen to take leadership roles in worship, but the music that we sing is an intentional representation of the cultural backgrounds and preferences of the diverse people who make up our congregation. In addition to music that is associated with traditionally Black and White cultures, we regularly include music that represents a wider range of people and cultures from around the world. Some individual services may have a more Euro-traditional, or Black Gospel, or World Music orientation, but in general, we strive for an overall balance. At appropriate times, services may be considerably formal, often incorporating incense, chanting and traditional rituals such as the Great Litany in procession. The average Sunday morning service at SsAM, however, will be based in traditional music suitable for Anglican-style worship, while incorporating various styes of chant, spirituals, gospel and world music in a way that represents our global community. In all cases, we strive to bring a faithful sense of integrity to the liturgy and incorporate these elements in a prayerful and dignified manner.
It is true that some of the traditional works that we include, such as many of the great choral masterworks and Gospel favorites, have language that reflects historic views that we no longer espouse as relevant. However, we consciously strive to have an overall inclusive and expansive spirit at SsAM. Therefore we do not eliminate all traditional elements that were created in a former time, simply because of the lack of inclusive or expansive language. We acknowledge, however, that we are not defined by all of the religious views of the past and attempt to see the historic texts used in some of our music from a poetic view rather than a literal one. This is reflected in the church’s policy on Expansive Language (written in 2004 by the Expansive Language Task Force), which is available on the information tables around the church. During the Season of Creation, we take particular care to use Expansive Language that reflects our current thinking on how we must be intentional about the words we choose to speak in the context of liturgy.
Since the beginning of the parish, musical excellence has been one of the hallmarks of worship at SsAM. We always strive to bring our very best to God, especially within the context of liturgy. But beyond that, we are highly aware that without the leadership of a superior choir and highly skilled musical leaders, our liturgy will not have the ability to move and inspire as it is known to do. It is this ability to inspire through excellence that draws many people to our parish, and then keeps them coming back each week. Excellence does not necessarily mean perfection however, but rather, a striving for the very best we can do at any given time. While singing in the Adult Choir is extremely demanding and requires, not only skill, but a huge commitment of time, there are opportunities for people of all skill levels to participate in in our musical and liturgical programs in various ways.
AUTHENTICITY OF MUSICAL STYLES
A particular area of excellence for which we strive is an intentional attempt toward authenticity. This refers to the way we treat the wide variety of styles of music performed within the liturgy. Perhaps the easiest style for many of the trained musicians at SsAM is the more traditional Anglican/classical style that one might expect within the context of a traditional Anglican liturgy. But when we do a Negro Spiritual or Black Gospel song, we strive to adopt very different performance practices that demonstrate an understanding and respect of those styles of music as well. The introduction to LEVAS II has an excellent essay about attaining authenticity in many of the hymns within that hymnal. It suggests that in traditionally Black church music, the notes are only a starting point and that it would be inappropriate to sing many of the hymns without enhancing them with altered rhythms, enhanced accompaniment or improvised vocal lines This is true in the same way that performing Baroque music without ornaments would show an lack of understanding of the style, and essentially be incorrect.
Since we are a relatively new congregation, we have had the luxury of defining ourselves in a way that we view as relevant and intentional, specifically to represent the mission and vision of the parish. Parishes with a long history, and even some newer ones, often feel compelled to approach music and worship in a way that tradition tells us is correct and proper. For some parishes, this is an effective and meaningful strategy, but frequently the result is strongly lacking in creativity and inspiration. It is our feeling that this ineffective approach to liturgy is a strong factor in the sense of decline and irrelevance being experienced throughout the wider Episcopal Church. At SsAM, we have always embraced traditional elements, but have never been bound by them if they became obsolete, or God forbid, boring! If a hymn is dull and uninspiring to our members, we simply replace it with something that is more effective and engaging. One big challenge of this approach, however is that what inspires one person may not speak to the person sitting next to them in the pew, and vice versa. Therefore, we have always taken the approach that if you can’t relate to the music that is currently being sung — have patience because we’ll soon be singing something that that does speak to you. Generally, this approach has worked extremely well, and insures that worship at SsAM is always creative, inspiring, unique and fresh.
UNFOLDING OUR LITURGY
Please take a look at our commentaries through which we unfold our liturgy — how and why we do what we do. Our liturgy unfolded 2017