Music, as Paul Westermeyer writes in Liturgy (30, no.1), creates a space for worshippers in which is revealed the Triune God.
Given the contentiousness over musical choices for worship in recent decades – and how common it became to define worship on the basis of its music! – it is well to be reminded of the deepest importance of music in the life of the church. Westermeyer draws our attention to what music does to create the body of Christ and how it is determined by worship leaders. Here is some of what he has to say:
When the church gathers at the liturgy, it sings a complex but simple song. It is simple because life, the Trinity, worship, and music in the Christian vision are not only complex, but also profoundly simple—clear, intelligible, understandable, lucid. That is why the whole body of the baptized sings together, everybody—butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, teachers, students, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, presidents, secretaries, computer programmers, bankers, tax collectors, janitors, street sweepers, parking attendants, legislators, young, old, poverty-stricken, wealthy, weak, strong, short, tall, the most and the least intelligent—everybody. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free in this singing assembly. Trinitarian hospitality welcomes everybody to the liturgical party.
Church musicians, cantors, in their very particular times and places, with the wisdom of the church catholic across centuries of times and places, are called in their vocation to figure out how to make this singing possible with the cross section of people. They cannot possibly know or do everything that is explicit or implicit in this article, but in their finitude they can look at its breadth and practice its dimensions among the particular congregations and choirs who grace them. This breadth turns directly into the practice of musicians themselves who do their utmost to help the musical practice of the people they serve.
Pastors study the Bible, theology, church history, worship, Christian education, and pastoral care to help them carry out their vocation of preaching and presiding. Church musicians are not called to the detail of that study except perhaps in worship, but they need to be acquainted with it as they study and practice music to carry out their vocation of leading the church's song. The Trinity graces the church with the massive capaciousness of fugue, sings with us in person before going out to Golgotha, and then breathes in us a song. Church musicians are expected to figure out what that means in as many practical liturgical musical dimensions as they can, with “duty and delight.”
The church will sing the liturgy and its trinitarian doxology, no matter what; but, as in all aspects of the church's life, some are called to help the enterprise. In this case, the church musician gets the call. This case of music is as practical as it gets, with theory and practice working in tandem. Without the theory as a check on the practice, the practice gets skewed; without the practice as a check on the theory, the theory dances on a pin and falls off. 39
Paul Westermeyer is Emeritus Professor of Church Music, Cantor, and Director of Master of Sacred Music with St. Olaf College, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Paul Westermeyer, “The Trinity and Liturgy: Music,” Liturgy 30, no. 1 (2015): 42-49.