Mark Abernathy

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Thou Shalt Not Sing. Some Thoughts On Church Culture.

A little bit about my checkered past: I once sang--in church--a piano/vocal version of ‘Put Your Shoulder To The Wheel’ that may have contained some four-note chords.  I may have even included some tri-tones (yikes!!), and (brace yourself!) a flat 9 and an augmented fifth, all of which raised the ire of my then bishop--many, many years ago. The first counsellor said it brought his mind to a nightclub (yay!) About ten years ago I sang 'Ave Maria' in church--some folks didn’t like that, either.  One complained that it was too Catholic.  But otherwise, the devil’s advocate should know that I’ve mostly only performed very middle-friendly versions of tunes like ‘If You Could Hie To Kolob,’ ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints,’ ‘A Poor Wayfaring Man Of Grief,’ and the like, in a wholesome and reverent manner. I think almost all in attendance of musical numbers I've performed would attest to the same. And I've performed in dozens of wards all across the United States. New York, Dallas, Atlanta, San Diego, etc.--without any complaints that have come back to me.  So, let’s get that out of the way. I have tried to do right by folks and the feedback has been affirming and positive.  Sometimes the exchange has even been sublime, truly.  

I set up shop in Austin a few months ago, and shortly after settling into a new congregation in Austin, the church’s musical director asked me if I would perform a song for an upcoming church service.  To err on the safe side, I would sing a piano/vocal version of ‘If You Could Hie To Kolob,’ or ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints.’  However, Saturday night before the service where I was to sing, the music director called me and told me that the Bishop had asked her to rescind the invitation.  She didn’t know why, and could only say that the Bishop didn’t think it would be appropriate to have me sing. She was embarrassed. I was kind of embarrassed, too.  Apparently, he had heard my recording of ‘Kolob’ and didn’t think it appropriate.  This was how it was conveyed to me, without any extra nuance or explanation. Wow. What?

I arrived Sunday for church and my name was on the printed program, but a congregational hymn was announced at the spot in the meeting where I was to sing. It was our second week there, and, man, this was a massive, sad and painful culture shock coming from New York where we really felt a part of our church community. But this now felt like a cold welcome.  I can’t say I haven’t met wonderful people at church here and that even this bishop has otherwise been wonderfully kind and helpful. But this was really weird to me.  It felt bad and I told him after the meeting that I felt really badly about it.

The Bishop had approached me after the meeting to clarify and reiterate that he just didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to sing that day in sacrament.  That he felt prompted as such.  I hesitate to say it, but that really crossed me.  I worry about people feeling prompted to do things like that.  He was right that my song wouldn't have tied the meeting together, as it wasn't part of the theme of that meeting, but might he have suggested a song that might have matched his idea of the meeting's message?  Or he could've suggested to move the musical number to another meeting. No one had previously given a reason about canceling the number, other than it wasn't 'appropriate.'  

The Bishop offered that, perhaps, I could sing at a youth activity down the road instead but intimated that I wouldn't likely be invited to sing in regular Sunday worship service at any point in the future.  I have to say that under the circumstances, I'm not able to accept the well-intentioned offer.  This is a kind, warm-hearted man, and he wasn't being malicious, obviously. But, even if it was all simply inexpertly handled, I was certainly told that it was, foremost, a spiritual decision, and though I might be invited to sing in another format down the road, I would not sing in sacrament meeting.  

I understand that I don’t have a right to sing in church, but isn't just about everyone is invited to share their testimonies once a month if they want to?  It’s an open-mic for nearly everyone-- weirdos; long-winded weirdos; weirdos with confessions, etc.  And unless you say something truly freaked-up, you’re not going to get shut down or silenced.  An odd testimony-sharing might earn a few chuckles, a few raised eyebrows, and we all move on.  I told the Bishop that he lets the crazy man speak--while we collective share an awkward, maybe even amusing moment, but I am not permitted to sing. And so to spare the congregation, in his mind, a potentially outside-the-comfort-zone moment, I will feel awkward there for a very long time.  He insists that it was a spiritual decision.  What can I say to that?  I got trump carded.

As a brief aside, on a couple of cultural and historical points: did you know that in the early days of Mormonism, congregational singing was not the norm?  Mostly, the preacher opened a meeting with a solo hymn, a prayer and then sermonized.  While group singing existed, assembling choirs was controversial and was met with resistance.  Later in the 19th century, the church’s presiding officers gave a directive to missionaries traveling to Europe to convert and send to Salt Lake, musicians and composers-- that the church might be able to staff brass bands for worship services. My point is this: cultural differences and customs can factor heavily into what makes people comfortable or uncomfortable, and sometimes people just feel uncomfortable and that 'uncomfortableness' is not a spiritual warning.  Some folks just can’t feel the spirit when they are outside of their cultural comfort zone.  Once they are told to maintain, for example, a clean-shaven face, or wear only white shirts to church, they see that uniform as a symbol of godliness.  Those that are out of uniform are in error. Man, I don’t want to get started on culture, but this music issue is exactly a culture issue.  

Flash forward a few months. As I was leaving church last Sunday, a member of the bishopric pulled me aside. 'The Bishop wanted me to ask you if you would be willing to perform "How Great Thou Art" for a musical number sometime in the next few weeks?' For a brief moment i thought this was an awkward, but almost touching, goodwill gesture for asking me not to sing a few months prior. But he followed with this caveat, 'Just on the piano, though,' and with both hands mimed a pianist as he stipulated, 'He doesn't want you to sing it. Can you do that--perform a--like, a piano only version?'  'Like an instrumental?'  I asked, helpfully. 'Yes, exactly!' he replied.

I mumbled something about having to think about it.  This messenger is a nice man and I couldn't think of offending him.  It's not his fault.  

But, certainly, no. I cannot do a 'piano-only.'  For starters, I'm not sure what 'How Great Thou Art' is without the words, and I'm not an instrumentalist in that sense.  I self accompany. But also because, yet again, you are asking me not to sing. You are telling me, again, that my voice isn't appropriate for a house of worship; that, in my voice, an old hymn would detract from the spirit of the meeting.  It doesn't fit our brand and programming.  I've found that ecclesiastical leaders very rarely take the initiative to do anything different than what is perceived to be the norm.  I've heard bishops say that they were worried about the stake president 'coming down on them.' What is the worst thing that could happen if a musical number was unusual?  Is a bishop worried about getting fired?  What is everyone so afraid of?  How did this get so corporate?

I can't help but sense that the ideal musical number vocal style for church meetings are the like the voices of Disney princesses or the pop-operatic style of Josh Groban or Susan Boyle, performed as gentle ballads with just the right melodramatic crescendo at just the right moment. Maybe a pretty violin. But a wise friend reminded me recently that those sincere voices are as valid as any; that those singers are sharing their testimonies through song. And I agree completely--yes, they are and they have moved me. I am not disparaging anyone's musical tastes. 

However, I, too, would be raising my voice in a song of praise, in a song of worship; in commiseration or jubilation with those of us that might feel that conviction with me, in those old phrases and old melodies.  C'mon!


You might feel great looking out into that congregation and seeing all those clean-shaven faces, starched and pressed white shirts and, it feels like home. Like, 'What a great thing we got going on here.' But ask yourself why it feels good. Are there a lot of people missing from that congregation because they don’t feel welcome and they didn’t get the memo on the uniform?  Don’t let culture and cultural rules become your religion, I say.  What are you actually doing with your Christianity?  


I will probably delete this.


 

[Ed note:  This bishop and I spoke for at least a half an hour after the meeting that same day. I wasn't very clear about that.  But we did have a sit down discussion about it. Much of what I've written here, I shared with him in that conversation. He is a warm, sensitive individual who gives practically all of his spare time in service to others--as an unpaid volunteer.  He explained that he is trying to do what he thinks is best.  I do give him the benefit of the doubt.  I was stunned, though, when I was asked a second time to not sing.] 

©2016 Mark Abernathy.   All rights reserved.