Maybe it’s serendipity. Or maybe it’s because God has a wry sense of humor. But I’ve spent the past week reconnecting with the Anglican tradition in which I grew up. Not because of any discernment or intention on my part, but sheerly by coincidence. It just so happens my Lutheran parish book study group is covering a chapter on the Episcopal Church this week, and it coincides with the 150th birthday of the distinguished Anglican composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.
So through no fault of my own — nor to any credit of mine — I’ve been working up a lesson plan on the Episcopal Church while I was binge-watching videos of Vaughan Williams’ choral works all week. It couldn’t fit together any better if I’d planned it that way.
Ralph Vaughan Williams is best known for his symphonic works, his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and the Lark Ascending. But he edited an influential 1906 hymnal for the Church of England and wrote a variety of choral music, including a Mass in G Minor and liturgical settings for the C of E that were picked up by other churches of the Anglican Communion.
Vaughan Williams’ Magnificat in C, embedded above, is a good example. The 1928 Episcopal prayer book I grew up with called for the Magnificat to be sung at Evening Prayer. (The asterisks in the middle of each line below indicate a break in the melody, or psalm tone.) In language essentially unchanged from the England of Elizabeth I, it goes like this:
MY soul doth magnify the Lord, * and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded * the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth * all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me; * and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him * throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm; * he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, * and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; * and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel; * as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed, for ever.
To this, we added the Gloria patria (“Glory be to the father …”) at the end, as we did when we chanted the psalms. There were longer and shorter musical settings, with the same words sung, or chanted, to each. In my little church choir, we called the more elaborate version the “Magnificat” and the shorter version the “Magnifi-kitten.”
We didn’t sing Vaughan Williams’ Magnificat at the Episcopal church in my home town in East Tennessee, but several of his hymns were standards on Sunday morning, including “Hail, Thee Festival Day” and “For All the Saints.” I especially liked “For All the Saints” — the melody begins on the second beat of the measure, and we’d drill “REST for all the saints …” in choir practice so the kids in the youth choir would come in on time. Singing Vaughan Williams was as much a part of my growing up as high school band and listening to John R play rhythm-and-blues for Randy’s Record Shop on WLAC radio 1510 out of Nashville.
So when YouTube’s algorithms started serving up livestreamed videos celebrating the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ birth on Oct. 12, 1872, I had a field day. As I clicked on the videos (well, some of them I didn’t finish), the algorithms dutifully posted links to more Vaughan Williams. Including these (which I’m posting here so they don’t get lost in the dim recesses of my memory of things-I-think-I-saw-on-the-internet-once but can’t ever find again):
- A 150th-anniversary concert by the Prep, Junior, and Cathedral Choirs at St. John’s Cathedral in Spokane, Wash., Sunday, Oct. 9. (This is the one that first popped up on YouTube and started me binge-watching RVW’s videos.)
- A lovely selection of RVW’s choral works (and one for tuba and piano) performed by the collegiate Choir of Royal Holloway, part of the University of London, also in concert Oct. 9, 2022.
- A 26-minute orchestral suite, broadcast in 1943 for BBC Radio, and performed here during the 1979s by the BBC Northern Orchestra and Singers. A rare recording of selections from RVW’s much longer four-act opera Pilgrim’s Progress that popped up after I watched the anniversary concerts.
- On a secular note, “Sir John in Love,” RVW’s opera in four acts based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, performed in full (2:57:53) in 2017 by the Bronx Opera.
When I went off to college, I left the church. But Ralph Vaughan Williams was never entirely off my radar. From friends who had taken music appreciation courses at the University of Tennessee, I learned his first name wasn’t spelled “R-a-f-e,” and I loved his Tallis fantasia when I heard it played on WUOT-FM. Having grown up with the Magnificat and the “Magnifi-kitten,” I was swept away by the phrasing and modal harmonies I’d learned by singing Episcopal plainsong. He collected English folk songs, too, and the harmonies are the same as those of traditional Appalachian ballads I learned to play on the mountain dulcimer.
Later on I learned Vaughan Williams was an agnostic, in spite of his all the liturgical music he wrote, and when I was singing in a church choir again and slowly reconnecting with the church, I was struck by the “cheerful agnosticism” (his wife’s word for it) of a man who wrote so much inspiring religious music.
Vaughan Williams had a wry sense of humor, too. When “For all the Saints” was included in another Anglican hymnal, the way I heard the story, he was asked what the tune name was. He said it didn’t have a name, and the editors said no, it has to have a name. So he fired back a reply, saying the name was SINE NOMINE. (It means “without a name” in Latin.)
And he may well have mellowed with age, although it’s hard to tell about people with a certain wry sense of humor. I never knew this, until I saw it in the program notes from St. John’s Cathedral in Spokane, but he once said:
“I wish I didn’t dislike my own stuff so much when I hear it — it all sounds so incompetent … But in the next world I shan’t be doing music, with all the striving and disappointments. I shall be being it.” [Program notes appear from 4:11to 5:27. Elipsis in the original.]
Suffice it to say I sense that Ralph Vaughan Williams’ spiritual journey must have been something like my own, and his music brings back long-cherished memories of singing in a small-town Episcopal parish choir very much like the ones he wrote for in the 1906 hymnal and occasional choral pieces.
“He believed that music afforded an experience of spiritual transcendence,” as the Spokane program notes put it, “and that this should be open to all.” The notes continue:
For this reason, he composed music that anyone could sing, from the child in school to the community choral member to the hymn-singer in church. He conducted amateur choirs and orchestras throughout his career, even when a composer of international repute, because he believed the role of the amateur within musical culture to be as vital as that of the professional.
Largely for rather complcated family reasons, I wound up singing in a Lutheran choir when I returned to the church late in life, instead of an Episcopal parish. However, I found almost everything in the Lutheran service that I remembered — and valued — from growing up with the Episcopal liturgy. In time, I joined the church, too. It didn’t hurt that in the late 1990s, when my father died and my mother moved to Illinois where I live now (and more or less sandbagged me into joining the choir), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America entered into full communion with the Episcopal Church.
Nor did it hurt that the Lutherans have a rich musical heritage, and I am descended from at least three generations of pastors and musicians in the Lutheran Church of Norway. (More complex family there, too.) I already had a lifelong interest in liturgy and hymnody from growing up singing the “Magnificat” and “Magnifi-kitten,” and I happily set about learning about Luther, his kantor Johannes Walther (to whom I may be distantly related) and the Lutheran chorale tradition.
Like I said, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “cheerful agnosticism” and my own spiritual journey sound a chord.
Fast forward to this month: It came to pass, as they say, that while I was binge-watching Ralph Vaughan Williams’ memorial concerts on YouTube, the time came to draft a blast email to the folks in an adult faith formation discussion group that Debi and I co-facilitate. And this week’s chapter, by serendipity, is on the Episcopal Church and its Anglican heritage.
So, with memories of singing the Anglican liturgy dancing in my head, what did I turn to? A very different kind of memory, and a very different genre of music — a ditty I learned as a middle school kid going off to an Episcopal church camp. But it fit the lesson plan. And it was definitely Anglican. So I wrote:
Our next Sundays@6 meeting will be Sunday, Oct. 17, at 6 p.m. We’ll be discussing Chapter 5 of “Christianity’s Family Tree” by Adam Hamilton, on the Anglicans (aka the Episcopal Church). A Participant Handout is attached, and here’s the Zoom link from our announcement in News You Can Use [our parish newsletter]:
(If this one doesn’t work, you can go to Friday’s NYCU and click on the one there; and our phone number is xxx-xxx-xxxx if there are glitches.)
Since 1999, ELCA and the Episcopal Church have been in full communion. A joint statement on our agreement, “A Call to Common Mission,” explains:
“[…] Although the issues that gave rise to the Protestant Reformation in England and on the European continent were dissimilar in some respects, Anglicans and Lutherans have long recognized something of themselves in each other, and our churches have never issued condemnations against one another. Liturgical and sacramental worship has always figured largely in the identity and character of each tradition. Moreover, the architects of reformation, both in England and on the continent, were concerned to uphold the catholic faith. Thus it is no surprise that official ecumenical conversations between Lutherans and Anglicans date back to the late nineteenth century.
What does this mean in practice? Both Lutherans and Episcopalians honor the small-“c” catholic tradition, and our services “look Catholic” to other Protestants. Ever since the time of Elizabeth I, the Church of England and other Anglicans like to follow a “middle way,” or via media. Pete, who grew up in the Episcopal Church, remembers singing (to the tune of “God Bless America”) a song at church camp that went like this:
I am an Anglican, I am *P.E.,
Not a high church, Nor a low church,
But Catholic and Protestant and free.
[* short for “Protestant Episcopal”]
It ended with a chorus of “Via media, my home!” Not exactly high art, but it was as much fun to sing at camp as “Here we sit like birds in the wilderness,” and I think it conveyed something important about the Episcopalians. Do ELCA Lutherans, whose denominational history involves mergers and compromises between different ethnic synods, sometimes follow a middle way too? Last week we studied the Presbyterians, with whom we’re also in common communion. How do these ecumenical partnerships enrich our faith? How do we hang onto what makes us unique in a pluralistic society? What can we learn from the other faith traditions we study?
Celebrating 150 Years of Ralph Vaughan Williams, St. John’s Music Series, Oct. 9, 2022, St. John’s Cathedral, Spokane, Wash. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbt_QAxlTuE.
The Order for Evening Prayer: As Written in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer http://www.commonprayer.org/offices/evepry_n.cfm.
[Uplinked Oct. 15, 2022]