… singing up Australia …

Copyright ©️ Elizabeth Sheppard 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Following media adulation of secular “star” singers, some Australian churches have jumped on to the Church Music Idol Bandwagon, and are eagerly promoting star singers trained in popular secular music genres. But according to more conservative Australian church hierarchies, Australian Church singers and musicians trained to perform in secularised music schools should not be admitted to church music ministry without accreditation in church music. Although musicians trained in secularised systems may still select music repertoire and deliver technically competent performances, in these conservative denominations, supervision of church music in praise of God is now more closely tied to pastoral care and church ministry training.

Less conservative churches are encouraging young parishioners to idolise the current church music star and the latest church music “hit song”. Churches that commodify and market their in-house church music, composers and performers, often attack rival church music as sinful, in lengthy articles detailing musical offences. These Purity Brigades attack their competitors not only by taking the high moral ground, but by accusing church music rivals of evil motives. Evangelical Christians are marketing films about devil-worship using Catholic Gregorian chant soundtracks, and requiring their members to repeat the myth that Catholics are not Christians. Catholic priests, totally ignoring the vast repertoire of Protestant church music honouring the dead (e.g. by Protestant composer Johann Sebastian Bach), are preaching the slander that no Protestant Christian ever prays for the dead. Every male church musician cultivates his fan club, and the majority are signed to international corporation that manages their church music career, income and output. Many contemporary Australian church musicians, following the example of their commercially successful secular contemporaries in the rock, pop, country and rhythm and blues genres, and abandoning long held church music traditions, have imposed secular compositional styles on church texts, to cater for commercial market demand. These factional music divisions seem to be tearing Australian churches apart.

Use of secular tunes is not a new thing in church music: secular themes have always been used by church musicians to attract congregations, but this tendency was previously regulated by central Church control. No longer. Today the scale and speed of the demise of church music traditions in Australia, facilitated by musically illiterate clergy and compliant church committees, has been startling.

In Australia, this enforced demise of traditional church music forms and their exponents has included severe censorship of the education, performances and new compositions of women church composers and musicians. The few women church musicians who briefly ascend to the heights of star church music performer status in Australia enjoy only momentary glory, before they are ungraciously booted out of the church music pantheon, or expire from overwork.

Sounds like sour grapes, I know, but I have experienced working in a fine church music system in the past, and today’s commodified church music is a travesty of what good, honest, heartfelt local church music can be. Even free-wheeling French Taize chants, which were composed as templates to be shaped and enhanced by local music styles through prayerful improvisation, have become poor shadows of themselves in many Australian churches, that have banned local creativity and congregational education in church music. So please excuse me for expressing my disgust at this anarchic church music mess, which could have easily been avoided by funding a strong inter-denominational National Centre for Australian Church Music. The Wesley Centre in Canberra was a good start, but it didn’t go far enough, and the culturally narrow repertoire it supports has not attracted sufficient government funding. But God still values and inspires sincere church singers, just as he values every tiny sparrow that sings God’s praise from its heart. So I’m still singing and composing for God.

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