On Guitars in Worship

This is a response to David E in his comment on the last post. I started a comment but it got out of hand, so here it is in an expanded form.

Read here on the St Louis Jesuits. As the first adopters of vernacular music in a vernacular idiom for Roman Catholic worship, the music of the St Louis Jesuits holds an appeal (and a disdain) for some not based on its musical or theological properties. For what it’s worth, I think the musical and theological qualities of much of this repertoire is rather limited. However, it is of immense symbolic importance, especially for Roman or Rome-leaning people (like some progressive Anglo-Catholics) of a certain age (read: Baby-Boomers) who were coming of age in the Vatican II years and its aftermath. That is, their attachment to the music is due to what it represents–the American Catholic Church getting to do things its way , a new generation literally getting its voice heard and overturning old ways of doing things. Now that a new “new generation” is rising, certain elements are in classic back-lash mode and despise SLJ music for precisely the reasons their parents loved it. I’ll admit to having one foot in this camp.

To avoid dwelling in knee-jerk generational generalizations, I’d rather cut to what I see as the real reason why this is a fight and/or why a fight exists–and should exist.

It’s not really about guitars and folk songs or not-guitars and not-folk songs, rather what lies at the center of the argument (as I see it) is competing notions of immanence and transcendence and their place in divine worship. Should church music sound like secular music? Why or why not? Speaking personally, I like guitars quite a lot whether it is in classic country or the virtuosity of Van Halen, Hendrix, Gibbons, Morelli or others.  But that doesn’t mean I want to hear that style of music in church. (I mentioned this briefly in my critique of a U2charist we attended a while back.) I generally don’t like American Folk Revival music  from the 60’s and 70’s anyway; I especially don’t want to hear that style in church.

For me, it’s too immanent; I crave something more transcendent. Some have argued that people can generally be grouped as Platonists or Aristotelians. That is, they either have a sense of reality as something “out there” or of reality as something “really here” intimately bound up with daily mundanities. I intuit that the same is true of spirituality. Some find their connection with God as the God who is immanent and bound up in the holiness of quotidian mundane life. Others find that connection in the God of the transcendent who is “out there” and Other and speaks a word of challenge against what we think is our mundane life.

Both sorts can learn from each other; both sorts need to learn from each other. But a basic orientation one way or the other will still endure.

I’m the second kind. I’m a Platonist by natural inclination. I find God “out there” and in the transcendent and in the different and in the things that shocking me out of my business-as-usual way of living and, through those experiences, can find God and the Hoy in the mundane and the everyday in the ways that I can identify God shocking and surprising me towards transcendence.

As a result, I want my worship to be transcendentally oriented. I want it to help me get in connection with the God “out there” so that I can learn the feel, the touch, the taste of the Other and transcendent God in order that I might recognize that same God in my daily eating, breathing, and moving. Chant is to the ear what incense is to the nose what stained glass and icons are to the eye: culturally conditioned signs of the transcendent but—cutting through the culturally-based significance—vehicles that truly assist me to touch the face of God.

That’s why I don’t want guitars in my service.

And that’s why I understand that other people want them—and need them.

The other side is that I sang for a couple of years in seminary in a Catholic Mass choir that did Marty Haugen’s Mass of Creation with a guitar front-center. (i know; most rad-trads hate Haugen—I don’t. I think its better than a lot of the alternatives [especially Metho-Baptists worship settings ones I’ve experienced].) I’ve served and preached at folk services. I’ve even led with guitar in hand a Taize-style service with guitar and recorder.

Yes, there can be a place for the guitar. Yes, it can be done well, reverently, worshipfully.

But it’s not my taste. And when I’m choosing a congregation where I worship—especially given the recognition that as the spouse of a priest or if I become a priest myself I will not have any choice in the matter—I will choose a service without guitars.

Shout-out to bls for the spelling corrections… ;-)

29 thoughts on “On Guitars in Worship

  1. The Postulant

    I was going to scorn you for not sufficiently loathing Haugen’s Mass of Creation (with which, as an organist and pianist for countless RC masses in my grad student days at the University of Our Lady, I am sadly familiar). But then I recalled that I secretly like Eucharistic Prayer C, so my own credentials as an arbiter of taste are not all they should be. Let him who is without tackiness smash the first guitar!

    But we can agree, at least, that “One Bread, One Body” is right out.

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    After having been in the South for several years and experiencing a number of folk services of various protestant inclinations, I embraced Haugen’s Mass of Creation as my first experience of non-organ-driven liturgy that was actually in touch with the traditions of the church. Trust me—if you think Haugen’s bad there’s *much* worse out there…

  3. bls

    I don’t know “One Bread, One Body” – but I like Prayer “C,” also. Very much, in fact, in parts.

  4. Anastasia

    I dislike some renewal music because the poetry is clunky and irregular and that makes it difficult to sing.

    Actually, I’ve never encountered it in a catholic or anglican context, but as an evangelical, I encountered many, many songs that were not only clunky and difficult to sing but were filled with theological missteps, some of them so strange and puzzling that you’d stop and say…what did I just sing? The lord is my shepherd, I have no needs? Heh?

    In all of the above cases, if I’m focused on how the frick does this thing go and what am I talking about anyway, I’m not praying.

    and I do think one can pray through well-composed hymnody. If it at least sings well, I can concentrate on what’s being said, and get through to real prayer. sort of like praying a liturgy you know inside and out. it’s only once you know it intimately that you can begin to pray it.

    It has to be saying something worth praying, on the other hand. that’s where some of the renewal or praise music I know seems thin compared to regular hymnody.

    This comment has just turned epic but I have to share. My MIL compares hymns and choruses this way.

    Hymn: The cows are on the green hill.

    praise chorus: The cows, the cows, oh the cows, the cows are on, oh they’re on, they’re on, Lord, the green green green green hill.

    But to me, the difference is more like this (and I’m revealing all my biases):

    Hymn: Taste and touch and vision to discern thee fail. faith that comes by hearing, pierces through the veil. I believe whate’re the Son of God hath told. what the Truth hath spoken, that for truth I hold.

    praise chorus: Jesus is kinda neat and I like him.

  5. Caelius Spinator

    Anastasia–Your MIL speaks the truth concerning form; you speak the truth concerning content.

    My present parish sings a variety of works that have the imprint of the Oregon Catholic Press (which I sometimes call the Orange Catholic Press) and the Gregorian Institute of America, both of which are strongly associated with the Roman Catholic vernacular music much despised by my generation. They fortunately have not abandoned the Episcopal Hymnal. It has been some years also since I have heard, “On Eagles’ Wings.” Traveling mercies.

    Postulant–Marty Haugen. I know several very sweet Catholic girls who would do everything short of putting a hit on Marty Haugen. But it’s good to have a different perspective from Derek.

  6. Tim Cravens

    I have a cousin who is a Methodist who calls praise choruses 7-11 choruses — the same seven words repeated eleven times.

    I am an Independent Catholic, and it’s generational with us — the baby boomers (at least the ones raised RC)want Haugen, Haas, and the St. Louis Jesuits, and the twenty-somethings want Gregorian chant. I’ve joked that we shouldn’t use the term “contemporary” for any music older than our youngest priest (who is in his mid-twenties). We have a traditional liturgy apostolate that prays Vespers and Compline from the Monastic Diurnal on Monday nights by phone conference, and we facetiously refer to it as our “youth ministry” because the twenty-somethings came up with the idea and implemented it (and I’m grateful they did).

  7. The Postulant

    Caelius: Here’s an exchange from choir rehearsal that I blogged about some time ago.

    Music director: “Are any of you familiar with material from the Oregon Catholic Press . . .”

    He is interrupted by an emphatic voice from the tenor section:

    “Over my dead body do we use music from the Oregon Catholic Press!”

    Music director: “But the psalm settings are very easy to learn.”

    Emphatic tenor: “Yes. That’s because they’re crap.”

  8. Derek the Ænglican

    The last contemporary worship service we went to, I noted to M the irony that the most recent piece was copyrighted when I was in elementary school.

    I’m ashamed to admit I made a little game of it–to see if I could translate the text into Latin before the chorus ended… ;-)

  9. Christopher

    My Roman parish did lots of Haugen. Can’t stand it. It reminds me of Kermit the Frog. Love Kermit. Don’t want the music in church. I know there’s worse though, having grown up Pentecostal.

    Give me chant or hymnody from 1982 anyday.

    As for Prayer C, after having experienced the “range” of present anaphorae, when our parish did Prayer C this summer, I was positively surprised at my liking. It seems downright traditional in comparison to some of the stuff floating out there.

  10. Brian M

    I would have just given you the number for Vespers but I think the facilitators would like people to read the description before signing on.

  11. LP

    This whole thread makes me want to break out into “Gather Us In”!

    Derek, the last contemporary service you attended wasn’t at my last parish, was it?

  12. Christopher


    NO. NO. NO. If I have to suffer through that “hymn” on more time, I will scream:

    Gather us in, it’s all about us and us and us…

    There’s another hymn in ELW similar to this that I hate, but can’t recall off hand…

  13. Annie

    Actually, there is a place for guitar in traditional Classical style. My son accompanied the bells on guitar last spring and it was beautiful–and everybody thought so. There is room for his trumpet, too, just as it is nice to be accompanied by a flute or an oboe.

    This begs the question: How old are your traditions? I saw a post the other day written by a monk that plays the psaltery or bow harp. Now, what would be more natural than a sound that Christ himself might have been familiar with? And flutes of the more basic variety like the recorder are among the oldest instruments on the face of this earth. OH! And guitar–how old is it? Ironically, these are the instruments that were once replaced in worship by a new-fangled invention: the pipe organ.

    I want my children to grow up with the hymns that have real theology to back them up and I want them to have a healthy appreciation for Classical music–but I want them to know what REAL folk music is, too! Where it comes from and its place in our lives.

    A couple of my favorite hymns are old negro spirituals. One that haunts me is, “Were you there?” and the other one I can’t find, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child …” So, in my mind the church should incorporate its own history from the very ancient to the present as it always has. Of course, an eye should always be fixed on what has lasting value.

    Sign me:

    Contrary in Oklahoma!

  14. David E

    Thanks, Derek, for responding to my question. I like the distinction betweeen ‘transcendent’ and ‘immanent’ as it applies to worship. Growing up as an evangelical, the immanent was the primary focus of my early formation, but it was encountering the ‘transcendent’ in liturgical worship in the 1980’s that led me to the Anglican Tradition and ordination as an Episcopal priest.
    While I have not had a lot of experiences of ‘high church’and ‘transcendent’ worship, I suspect that I am inclined that way. After all, it was trying to learn something about chant that led me to your blog. I am even thinking aobut starting a small ‘schola’ for working on chant in my parish.
    The difficulty I face is the “context” in which I work. The parish I serve as a part-time priest was at one time the most Anglo-Catholic parish in this diocese. Over the years that focus has waned, although there are still vestiges of that tradition. However, the surrounding community in which I serve is a very economically challenged, somewhat redneck, politically and socially challenged area. There are 60 fundamentalist/pentecostal churches in a city of 55,000. Only four mainline and one Missouri Cynod Lutheran congregation.
    I give this context, because I am concerned about the missional work of the church. Almost, as an Episcopalian, I feel like I am working in a ‘strange’ land, and I face the work of contextualizing the gospel. In other words, I am trying to think about what impact the style/flavor of our worship has on our mission in this community. Out of necessity, I have over the past year used a lot of guitar music in our worship. We had not other musician, and as I am the guitarist – the were stuck with me. I have also introduce chant, and song a lot of acapella hymns (which is a fine tradition, and sometimes I prefer some of the 1982 hymnal acapella).
    Enough of this long story. I just wanted to say that you have helped me think about this a lot over the last few months, and I appreicate it.

  15. Vicki McGrath


    Transcendence is something that’s been on my mind lately, also. I think, however, that there’s something more than a transcendence vs. immanence polarity in worship and spirituality. In the last 20-30 years I believe that many parishes have substituted a flat sort of communitarianism for real immanence. By this I mean that the good impulse to be open and inclusive and invite others into an accesible worship has translated into a flattening of real liturgy and spirituality so that there is neither depth (true immanence) nor height (true transcendance). Real immanence is not “all about God and me, and Jesus is my best buddy”). When that happens worship gets devalued and does not provide the spiritual nourishment that is needed for mission and ministry in the world.

    Instead, I see transcendance and immanence on a continuum, like a spinal cord. We are lifted out and up beyond ourselves into God’s presence. That, in turn, enables us to pray in the depths and know Christ at the center of our being. A short-hand way to say thhat is if you can’pray up, you won’t be able to pray down. If the misssion of the Church is to be reconciled to God in Christ and be restored to unity with God, we have to have that primary relationship and sense of being drawn into God’s reality that is so much greater than ourselves before we can ever invite someone else into it, or have sufficient Bread to offer to a hungry world. The spinal cord of true transcendance-immanence is what allows our mission/ministry skeleton to live and move and have its being.

    So I would argue for an increased emphasis on transcendence in worship, as well as time, opportunity and guidance about how to pray in the depth of our souls. And both of those things are hard to do when we’re trying to make it up by ourselves or accomodate to market tastes. Liturgy is hard work, but the most fulfilling work there is — but I don’t have to tell you that! :)


  16. Christopher


    One thing that struck me is that the way transcendance and immanence are set up in your post really doesn’t fit my experience. God is the among-us-Other is closer to my own experience, and it crosses the two categories as you set them up here.

  17. Derek the Ænglican

    Uh, Christopher, it’s an ad hoc model, not a grand unified field theory of spirituality…

    And if I remember right you’ve disagreed with every single spectrum, polarity, or binary put forth in the time I’ve known you… :-)

    I guess there really are two kinds of people in the world: those who separate everybody into two kinds of people, and those who argue that dualities are insufficiently nuanced to account for the complexities of reality. Guess which you and I are. :-D

    (Actually, it’s been proven that there are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don’t…)

  18. rick allen

    Very interesting discussion.

    I became a Catholic at 25, at a parish whose music director and organist studied under Karl Richter and who offered full choral polyphonic Latin settings of the ordinary at every ten a.m. Sunday mass. It was quite wonderful.

    Two years later I was transferred to a county with a single Catholic church, whose music program consisted of a single, very sincere young woman with a guitar. My assumption was that God was trying to make sure I didn’t convert just for the music.

    Over the decades I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate most of the “contemporary” music (though it’s hardly contemporary any more). It’s kind of hard to hear it week after week without finally developing some small attachment to it. My daughter, on the other hand, dislikes it and refuses to go to any mass where people might be caught clapping their hands. It’s not that she has any particular liking for older music. She’s just terribly embarrassed by old people getting into the music.

    I understand the sentiment about contemporary music not seeming “right” for mass, and I feel it somewhat myself. It’s just that I’ve also read the old accounts of people not liking Mozart’s masses because they made the sanctuary sound like an opera house. I’m glad he and his patrons persevered.

    We compare ourselves unfavorably to the past because most of their junk has been forgotten, whereas we have to sift the modern wheat from chaff ourselves. The unhappy fact is that no institution can produce only good art. Either you produce the good, the bad, and the kitsch, or you produce none at all. And I think there is some imperative for each age to try its hand at producing something worth keeping.

    And when the music is really bad–just offer it up with your other sufferings, and repeat to yourself, “I shouldn’t have come here for the music.”

  19. Tripp

    Great post. I think you summarize the argument fairly well. It’s about how we come to God. It’s that simple. Now, of course, issues of taste abound as well. I like folk music…well, new grass and that end of the spectrum. Peter, Paul and Mary (not the biblical) need never enter my liturgies musically. Oy. Veh.

    But there are liturgies that can be upheld by the “contemporary.” A revival, for example, that good old protestant tent revival needs more than chant to get it rolling.

    This is the thing…there are multiple liturgies available to the church…thus there can be more than one musical expression of the divine and transcendent.

  20. Derek the Ænglican

    Good points all.

    Rick, you named something that I had intended to put in but forgot to mention—the “theatre/opera music” complaint of classical days. I think that bit of data supports my theory. Again, the people then we’re going to church and looking for a substantially different sound from what they heard elsewhere. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t great music (which the *surviving* examples are as you rightly note); it’s that it didn’t sound like “church” to them.

    Of course, that raises issues of liturgical and/or cultural conservatism possibly unrelated to the transcendence point, but that’s for another post…

    Tripp, quite right. A classic come-to-Jesus revival with chant probably wouldn’t work so well…

    To reiterate, though, I’m talking about the kind of music that *I* want to hear in mass week after week. I don’t expect my preferences to be everybody’s (and I see that as a good thing). What I will protest against is a true or de facto hegemony of musical form foisted on us by official books or music publishers with a lion-sized market share. (I wouldn’t want my taste *imposed* on everyone either.) I don’t think we have either problem in the Episcopal Church, but I do think that chant options are sometimes given short shrift in local parishes.

    While some upper-middle class opponents of chant dismiss it as an elitist form of music, I wonder if that’s necessarily the case. I know some rural Southern parishes that seem to have no problems at all with Anglican chant…

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