Cover art for Mystic Chapel, by The Project (Michael Glen Bell, Duane Arnold, and others). Used by permission. Album available via iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and other online sources.
Introduction I've had hymns, hymnals and congregational singing on my mind a lot over this past year or two. We at Discipleship Ministries and the Publishing House had been in negotiations since 2014 about bringing a proposal for a new hymnal to General Conference this year. We've come to agree on a project for a new hymnal that opens new ground for what a hymnal can be for us.
The new hymnal isn't just a book, and it's not static. It's a core collection of ritual and hymns made available in every edition, plus a wider selection of resources congregations can choose to include in the books or electronic editions or downloadables they want to purchase.
And the process we propose for creating it involves more than just a revision committee. It also includes a standing committee of folks who will continue to vet and recommend new resources to be added to our official selection to each succeeding General Conference. So the new hymnal project, if General Conference approves what we bring, will be one that is ever refreshed over time.
As we were gearing up for the possibility of pursuing this hymnal project, it became clear to me we needed to start a parallel project now to develop sound Wesleyan, United Methodist and musical vetting criteria and then use them to vet the most widely used copyrighted songs in the United States, as measured by the CCLI Top 100. Many of these don't yet appear in any resource published by The United Methodist Publishing House, though some do.
I started that project last July by gathering a team of 10 folks from around the US who agreed on a set of common criteria and, with me, vetted every song in the 2015 Top 100. We finished our vetting work in early January, then held several conference calls to discuss each song, and announced the basic results of our findings and recommendations at Fusion 2016in February. Our web team at Discipleship Ministries is working now to get the full database of our comments onto our website, with a projected launch by the end of April.
So yes, hymns, hymnals and congregational singing have been very much on my mind and on my plate these days. And I expect they'll remain a significant part of my attention for the coming quadrennium and beyond, especially if General Conference approves our hymnal proposal.
A Gift on This Journey As all of this has been going on, a friend and colleague of mine, Michael Glen Bell, has been putting the finishing touches on a recording of new settings for a selection of songs from the Easter Vespers service of the Orthodox Church. He gave me a demo copy (before the cover art was finished) to start listening to. It's called Mystic Chapel.
He told me his hope for it was to provide a collection of music for folks who may have gotten disillusioned with the church but still held hope for what it could be. He wanted to provide music that was accessible to lyrics that were substantial. He wondered if I might review it.
Well, I don't do music reviews. But I've been doing a lot of reviewing of music for congregational singing as part of the CCLI Top 100 Project. I and our team have been trying to look at the theology of the lyrics in multiple dimensions (key Wesleyan ideas, appropriate use of language for God and humanity, images of God consistent with scripture and our doctrinal standards), how songs could work in different parts of a worship service, how singable they are, in what ways they are singable (an all congregation song, a "hybrid" song shared between band/ensemble and congregation, or a solo song) and what kind of instrumentation is needed to perform them well.
It was with that kind of thinking and work in the background that I started listening to Mystic Chapel.
So what I want to do here isn't an album review. It's what I might call a Ritual Use review. It's a description of how this album seems to want to be used as a kind of personal playlist for devotional use, and some suggestions for how the songs on it might be used in congregational worship in a variety of contexts.
As Personal Playlist: As a playlist, Mystic Chapel is a journey-- just as the service of Evening Prayer (vespers) from which it draws is a journey. It's a personal journey from solitude to community to worship to intercession and back into the world enriched and restored by what happened inside. The prelude, subtitled "Journey's End" concludes with sounds of people greeting each other, and leads straight into a call to worship, "Come, Let Us Worship the Lord." The call to worship moves into a recognition of the timing of this service, evening, with a new setting of the ancient Phos Hilaron called "Joyous Light."
What comes next may seem a bit odd. It's called "Hypachoi." In the Orthodox liturgy, the "hypachoi" or "hypakoe" (the word means "obedience" or "hearing" in Greek) is the term used to label a hymn that appears primarily during the first eight days of the Easter Season. Which text is used varies by day. In the structure of the service provided in the album, however, this hymn functions like the reading of the gospel. It's then followed by a choral or congregational response, "Death is Destroyed."
Then the tone completely changes, and the timeline seems to change as well. What comes next, "We Sing with Angels," is based on a hymn to the Theotokos (Mary, Bearer of God), rejoicing in the annunciation. My hunch is this works with its typical Marian readings for both Roman Catholic and Orthodox hearers. But for Protestants, it may seem entirely out of place. That is, unless we take Mary to be a symbol of the church, which has become, by Christ's resurrection, the body and therefore bearer of Christ in the world. I'd suggest in the course of the Vespers service as presented in this album, then, that this song functions as the sermon-- reminding the Church of its calling inviting the Church to rejoice in fulfilling its calling. I have no idea whether Michael and Duane intended this kind of use for this song. But I think it can work this way.
The response to this sermon is a confession of faith "From on High" and the Prayers of the People ("Holy Father"). With the Amen at the conclusion of the prayers, the service is completed, and the Journey begins again with the postlude.
As a personal playlist, then, this album enables individuals to enter into and participate in an Easter Season service of evening prayer wherever they are and then move back into whatever is next in their personal journey having joined in prayers offered by Christians for centuries, even if not in these musical forms. As Congregational Song When we were doing our vetting of the CCLI Top 100 around issues of singability, we took a number of factors into mind. We considered vocal range (typically, congregations can sing best within an octave stretching roughly between middle C and the C above middle C), melodic movement (does the melody move in predictable ways, or jump all over the place), rhythmic difficulty (is the rhythmic pattern fairly predictable and easy for a congregation to pick up), and the fit of text and tune (does tune drive the text, or is text supported by tune?). We also considered how the arrangement of the song or its place in the liturgy (based on its text) suggested it may be performed, whether by the whole congregation, a mix of congregation and band/ensemble, or as a solo piece.
Three songs in Mystic Chapel would clearly fit our criteria for congregational pieces. "Come, Let Us Worship," "Joyous Light," and "Death is Destroyed." "Come Let Us Worship" could work as a call to worship anytime during the year. Joyous Light, likewise, could work for any service of evening prayer throughout the year. "Death is Destroyed" could be either a congregational piece or a solo/ensemble piece not only during Easter as a Gospel Response, but anytime during the year at funerals or baptisms. The Hypachoi, which follows "Joyous Light" probably functions best as a solo piece. "We Sing with Angels," and "Holy Father" might be hybrids, with the ensemble or a soloist singing the "verse" (or in the latter case, the intercessions) and the congregation singing the "response." "From on High" (which here functions as a confession of faith) might be either hybrid or congregational. Prelude (Journey's End) and Postlude (Journey's Start) are both clearly designed as instrumental solos. They work as frames for the album as a personal playlist, and could work as arranged for a wide variety of services in a more contemplative mode.
So How Is This Not Another Album Review?
Album reviews typically try to assess the musical excellence or say something about the excellence of the performance within a particular style or genre. The aim is to help you determine whether to buy an album or particular tracks on it.
My aim here has been rather different. I've not described the musical style at all. I've not commended or critiqued the album or any particular track on it.
Instead, I've tried to describe how it seems to be designed to work as an aid to devotional practice (personal ritual) and how elements of it could be taken out and used within worship gatherings (corporate ritual) in a variety of ways.
Granted, this review may not make a lot of sense if you don't listen to the album along the way. You can do that for free on Spotify and other services online.
What I hope this does is help you look at musical collections or playlists you have, and imagine how they might work to structure and support both your own devotional practices (in this case Evening Prayer prayed solo or with a very small group of family or friends) and, where possible, be used in public worship.