Editor’s note: Marilyn Haskel is vice president of
Church Publishing, Inc., the publishing arm of the Episcopal Church
in the United States, and a former parish organist. In the 1990s,
she headed the team charged with creating a new Episcopal songbook
to stand beside the familiar Hymnal 1982—a collection that
would reflect the musical and cultural diversity of today’s
church. More than 90,000 copies of Wonder, Love, and Praise are
currently in print and in use in some 1,500 parishes nationwide.
(St. Gregory’s own Music for Liturgy contains a few favorites
borrowed from WLP.) In this article she describes some of her
experience of helping to create Wonder, Love, and Praise.
Based in New York, Haskel conducts music workshops in parishes
around the country. She continues to find that singing in Episcopal
congregations today ranges from almost nonexistent to richly participatory,
and covers an astonishing range of musical styles. God’s
Friends asked her to write about what makes music work for congregational
Five years ago, I was about to lead worship for a small gathering
of liturgists, an august body I’d heard about all my adult
life—and I was very nervous. I’d been inducted into
this legendary group a year before, and I guess this was my initiation.
As we began the familiar words, I relaxed. I intoned the psalm,
a simple tune. The group seemed to falter but kept going. When
we got to the hymn, the group again struggled—with no piano
for support—to stay with the melody. I was stunned. It seemed
even this group of church professionals could not sing together—at
least not without accompaniment.
Several years later, the same gathering stood around a blazing
fire pit, singing a psalm in rich harmony alternating with a cantor’s
single voice. What had changed?
Several factors contributed to the evolution of this group’s
ability to sing together, I believe. After that first difficult
event, we kept singing. We didn’t give up, and by the end
of the weeklong meeting we were much better. We focused on music
that was reasonably simple and tuneful—music that could
succeed on melody alone and did not depend on harmony for its
appeal, since we hadn’t the confidence for harmony. Over
time, we began to laugh at ourselves making mistakes (we really
didn’t know it all!) and began learning in a new atmosphere
of acceptance. We experimented. We focused on praying, not on
reading words and notes. We went through a difficult time of transition,
but we kept singing, often without accompaniment.
Successful congregational singing is the sum of many parts. One
is choosing the right music—but determining what music works
for liturgy, and why, is not easy, for the same reasons that one
can rarely predict what book will be a bestseller, which movie
will have wide appeal, or what song will sell millions of copies.
One can analyze the components of music that has worked, trying
to establish criteria for all church music, yet still not be able
to predict with certainty that a given piece of music will succeed.
There is music that breaks all the rules and still works. I’m
thankful for that. Just when I think I have “the answer,”
I find I don’t. As I grow older there seems to be less and
less that I know for sure, and I am greatly freed by that knowledge.
Living with this kind of uncertainty is a challenge for those
who would be faithful.
Music for the church is more than a product to be refined and
finally perfected. Many texts that serve people for a time ultimately
cease to do so. Musical styles and tastes change. Creativity takes
new forms. Some ancient texts we sing have proved to be timeless,
but many hymns that once marked us as Anglicans are no longer
significant spiritually, culturally, or theologically
So why compile collections of music for people to sing? The short
answer might be because the body of texts and music that make
up “the Song” of the church must be constantly reshaped
for us as we seek to pray.
A Musical Trinity
My advisor in seminary, Miriam Therese Winter, has articulated
a view of church music in the late twentieth century that steps
away from the mechanics of style, taste, and even perfection to
focus on its holistic nature.
According to Dr. Winter, the evolution of church music parallels
the renewal of the ecumenical liturgical world as embodied by
the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). Prior to the Council,
she writes, the Song was considered the “perfect offering…It
is for God, not for people. Sacred chant perfectly rendered,
the Divine Office, sung precisely as prescribed by those duly
appointed, is the Church’s perfect prayer of praise.”
In the Anglican tradition, the Song was primarily the choral service,
wherein the congregation listened to a trained group of musicians
but was not vocally involved. This is still a cherished experience
in the Episcopal Church, though less common now than in the past.
As liturgical renewal prompted by Vatican II encouraged full
participation of the assembly, however, the act of Singing grew
in importance. The communal celebration of singing helped create
community. “Singing is a pastoral experience because it
reaches out to people, connects them with each other,” Winter
writes. The effect on Roman Catholic church music was to create
singing congregations from those that had been silent for years—particularly
in the American church. This development paralleled the folk-singing
movement of the 1960s.
As liturgical practice continued to mature, the emphasis of music
in the church kept changing as well. Winter discerns a third phrase,
of which she observes: “Song is important, not for itself,
but for what it can accomplish. It is a tool of transformation,
capable of effecting a conversion of the heart. Song is for the
singer. The singer praises God.”
The Song. The Singing. The Singer. These changing perspectives
on vocal music in the church are not mutually exclusive. All three
help determine how music in liturgy works and why it works. The
perfection of the song, the creation of community in singing,
and the conversion of the singer all contribute to the great prayer
that is congregational singing.
Broadening Music Practice in the Church
The Episcopal Church, I believe, has tended to embrace the perfection
of the song to the neglect of the other two perspectives. There
is nothing wrong with exalting the Song, except that it can intimidate
the average singer in the pew. Supposedly, the song of the trained
has more value before God than that of the untrained. It’s
said that if you sit in one of the first ten pews in a certain
well-known parish, you don’t sing, because you have sat
there to hear the choir. If a stranger violates this code, an
unsubtle glare from surrounding parishioners communicates the
faux pas. I truly hope this is a myth.
Individual priests and musicians throughout the church have attempted
to bring the Singer and the Singing more into the central focus
of Episcopal church music. In the triennium 1994–97, the
effort was broadened when the General Convention requested that
the Standing Commission on Church Music compile a new collection
of music to support the church’s diversity. The membership
of the commission charged with doing the work was itself ethnically,
geographically, and demographically diverse. The fruit of that
work was Wonder, Love, and Praise, a supplement to The Hymnal
Episcopalians have taken
responsibility to achieve the best of the Song for ages.
What we have not embraced with as much enthusiasm is responsibility
for the pastoral and evangelistic nature of the Singing,
and the sign of love demonstrated by the Singer crying
out the Good News.
Initially we struggled with what the collection should be. Although
not all of us were convinced of the need for major change, all
were more than a little daunted by the challenge. We had discovered
that the Episcopal Church in the United States, if it was singing
at all, was singing everything from popular religious songs (Christian
radio) to white gospel music from the early part of the century.
The range included standard denominational hymns, prayer and praise
choruses, and cross-denominational standards from the African-American,
Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and other communities. In many
places, singing was lackluster and uninspired. A particular challenge
was the many small parishes (under 50 members) that had no musical
leadership and reportedly none to develop.
In any case, we plunged ahead, and a working method began to
emerge. We decided that the music must be strong melodically and
musically accessible, especially to small congregations. A major
question was “How do we get the church singing again where
it isn’t?” We sang through several thousand pieces
of music before finally selecting nearly 200 hymns, songs, and
refrains, as well as service music, for the collection. We chose
a number of brief choruses and rounds that could be used unaccompanied
at potluck suppers or as the opening prayer at vestry meetings.
We looked for tunefulness, simple forms with classic (AABA) phrase
structure, and rich harmonies that are predictable enough to encourage
singing in parts. And we looked for a variety of texts that express
what we believe in different voices. We wanted the singing to
become confident and selfless.
We had little need to find more choir and organ music, but when
something came to us that was too extraordinary or useful to pass
up we included it. Disagreements flared over certain pieces that
some deemed the “work of the devil” or substandard
at the very least. The work of several well-known composers was
rejected—they were good pieces of music, but they didn’t
fit our goals. Some selections were made to appeal to particular
lobbies because we were, after all, preparing material for the
whole church. At one time or another, each of us had to put aside
our personal preferences in service of the larger goal.
Testing the Waters
Several of us on the commission hit the road to introduce the
work in progress to parishes and dioceses. We found that people
were often more concerned about doing what was “right”
as Episcopalians than about what would work in their congregations.
Many apologized for being small and having few resources, while
some musicians would boast that their small congregation of 22
sang a new hymn every week! The range of responses was truly amazing.
In places where the Song ruled, people were uneasy with what
they viewed as “dumbed-down” music. Some would rather
not sing at all than sing something they didn’t consider
the “right” kind of music. In other places, fortunately,
people were thankful that the collection contained non-Episcopal
songs and hymns that they were already singing, and they readily
embraced similar musical selections.
Toward the end of our time working on the book, the Music Commission
met with the Standing Liturgical Commission at a diocesan conference
center in Louisiana. Those of us on the Music Commission were
very familiar with the new music; the rest had never heard most
of it. Events during those few days helped shape the final pass
of materials for the book.
Even then, we were still collecting music. At the Louisiana meeting
we tracked down several table graces to include, and one commission
member even wrote one on the spot. Its tune is titled “Bayou”
in recognition of our location.
One evening we gathered in comfortable chairs and sofas around
a towering natural stone fireplace that rose through the ceiling
of the rustic lodge. The leader sat on the hearth, his tattered
prayer book-cum-Bible in hand, and announced that we would celebrate
evening prayer. When someone offered to get prayer books and hymnals,
he promised we wouldn’t need them. The look of doubt on
the volunteer’s face expressed the questions in our minds:
Would we be able to remember the Apostles Creed? Would we know
the hymn he picked? Earlier in the day, we had tried to sing a
familiar hymn without the words in front of us, and became hopelessly
derailed. But that night, after a time of silence, the leader
skillfully set an atmosphere of acceptance that made us know we
were to pray—not to remember words. He chose simple music
from the collection in progress, and repeated it throughout the
worship. As we became convinced that we were safe, harmony began
to emerge, and then countermelodies.
This experience was a test of what we had been working toward
in theory. Did material exist to support a simple worship so that
everyone, skilled or unskilled, could sing? Later that week, we
celebrated the eucharist in the chapel using music from the collection,
and again it successfully supported the variety of singers, including
those unfamiliar with the music.
Why did it work? I could tell you that it was because we were
intelligent musicians and had picked only the best music we could
find. That might be true, but more informative is our consensus
In preparing a Leader’s Guide to Wonder, Love, and Praise,
we included stories from people who had sent us their music. We
wanted others to hear what we had heard from those who create
music. These stories show that church music is often practical
stuff—perhaps written for a specific event or as a spiritual
discipline—that sometimes achieves extraordinary things.
We wanted to reach the heart of the singers.
My favorite story came from a mother who wrote the music for
one of a group of texts we had sent out. She had chosen that text
because it expressed her prayer of hope as she faced the pain
of losing her daughter through estrangement. Her daughter had
gone so far as to change her name, and the composer/mother gave
that new name to the tune. It is a stunning combination of melody
and text. The composer embraced the poet’s work as a means
of her own salvation, and the result is an authentic vehicle for
the Church’s song.
I have heard this hymn sung many times at conferences, workshops,
and in worship services. The reactions vary from lukewarm to respectful
acceptance to overwhelmed enthusiasm. Why the difference? I don’t
know. Most church musicians will tell you this phenomenon is real
but not readily explained.
There are some standard criteria for a good piece of church music:
a text that reads well as poetry and that expresses belief; a
stepwise melody the shape of which fits the shape of the text;
an engaging harmonic structure that also supports the shape of
the text; and a straightforward rhythm. However, I know hymns
and songs that defy all these rules and still speak to people.
Besides, these rules address only the Song. Episcopalians have
taken responsibility to achieve the best of the Song for ages.
What we have not embraced with as much enthusiasm is responsibility
for the pastoral and evangelistic nature of the Singing, and the
sign of love demonstrated by the Singer crying out the Good News.
In workshops I sometimes ask participants to recall times when
they have been in worship and found the Singing overwhelming.
Most have had that experience at least once. When I ask what moved
them so deeply, they almost invariably reply that it was the sense
of at-oneness, of expansive love, the strength of the witness
of those around them. We know that this force of evangelical and
pastoral strength exists, but we have not articulated it as a
goal in choosing music.
I believe that there is no substitute for knowing the craft of
making music. I believe that the quality of music composed for
the church must be high. I believe that liturgy must be planned
by people who understand the structure and intent of ritual. I
also believe that the Holy Spirit blows where it will, using whatever
means are at hand. We are mere practitioners who prepare the way
as best we can.