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Musical Musings: Liturgy

Liturgical Manners

by Gary D. Penkala

Churches, these days, are full of bad manners. It seems that the front doorway, like a strange metal detector, pulls the last bit of etiquette and sensitivity from those who enter. The place where thoughtfulness, kindness, and charity should prevail is often the scene of rudeness and lack of concern. What is considered normal social etiquette is dropped, as so many coins in the poor box, on entering the church.

It would be considered very rude and awkward for a guest to arrive late to a dinner party or to leave before some after-dinner talk and appropriate thank-yous have been said. How unquestionably more important is the banquet our Lord has prepared for us and how little we concern ourselves when we arrive after the Gospel and leave upon receiving Communion. What poor manners!

While the guests (congregation) may exhibit bad etiquette, neither is the host (priest) immune. When hosting a dinner party, who would dare retire to his room, letting the guests chat among themselves after dinner? What celebrant would dare leave the altar at the very beginning of the closing song, letting the congregation to sing the remaining one, two or three verses of the hymn alone? Indeed, this all-too-common occurrence shows a lack of sensitivity to the role of music in worship; relegating what should be corporate prayer to the role of mechanical "walking Muzak." Too common are the priests who promote double standards by preaching against those who leave Mass early while they themselves do!

It would be unusual and perhaps awkward for a hostess to serve as a five-course dinner, five very spicy Mexican dishes in rapid succession, or five bland porridges and puddings at forty-five minute intervals. Yet some organists will, at times, speed through a hymn, whipping the congregation breathless, or play so loudly that it doesn't matter if anyone sings at all. More often, an organist will plod through a hymn without sufficient support and bore the congregation into silence.

Hosts that don't converse and celebrants that don't sing along with the people are rude. They say to their guests, "Your idle chatter does not interest me," and to their congregations, "Singing is beneath me." Nowhere in church documents does it say the celebrant shall remain silent while the People of God sing the Lord's praise. This is simply bad sign, bad liturgy, bad manners.

Guests at a party make every effort to talk to other guests, to participate, to socialize. Yet how amazingly often do we see people who do not even open their hymnals to the proper page for a hymn, and stand, mute, while their neighbors must pray in their stead. This is lax, rude, and very insulting to musicians who have spent time in preparing this liturgy.

A host would not impatiently drum his fingers on the table waiting for his guests to finish their salad. Yet how many choir directors and choir members thumb through their anthem during the sermon? Or how many priests nervously tap their foot waiting for the final chord of the offertory motet? It seems we need some mutual respect and sensitivity here.

Certainly the importance of a dinner party shrinks to nothing when compared to the sublime opportunity to worship God and be nourished in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. We find, however, better manners around the Jones' table than around the Lord's Table.

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