Row over Catholic Church music takes dramatic turn

James MacMillan has made repeated  attempts to join the NMAB. Picture: Donald MacLeod
James MacMillan has made repeated attempts to join the NMAB. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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There’s a musical stramash going on within the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland.

In popular parlance it has been described as a battle between the “post-Vatican II hippies and the right-wing traditionalists”.

More seriously, it’s about the difference between respecting, protecting and reinterpreting the centuries’ old tradition of people-friendly Gregorian Chant within the context of congregational participation in the liturgical mass, and the banal sentimental dirges that have infested Sunday worship in most Catholic churches since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s told its churches to open up to the modern world.

In Scotland in recent years, the battle over interpreting that edict has become political, between the insiders (those on message with the Scottish church’s National Music Advisory Board, in particular its chairman and Glasgow Archdiocese director of music, Monsignor Gerry Fitzpatrick, himself a composer/publisher), and the outsiders (among them leading composer James MacMillan, who is director of music at the Dominican-run St Columba’s Church in Glasgow, and heads up Musica Sacra Scotland, an initiative aimed at reviving chant-based worship in the Scottish Catholic Church).

Signs that the insiders are deeply self-protective surfaced during Pope Benedict’s visit to Scotland in 2010, with attempts by Mgr Fitzpatrick to pull a new mass setting MacMillan had composed for the Papal celebration at Bellahouston Park because it was “unsingable”. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, and a posting on the St Columba’s choir website, which claimed that MacMillan, despite repeated efforts to seek NMAB membership, had not only been excluded from joining, but that any enquiries asking for an explanation had been repeatedly ignored.

MacMillan is adamant this is not a one-man crusade to inflict his musical/spiritual views on the Catholic populace of Scotland. There are many top-level church musicians who are equally exasperated by the current banality of music which, they say, is unfit for spiritual purpose.

Among them is leading Aberdeen academic, university organist and music director of Aberdeen’s Catholic diocesan choir, Roger Williams. “Music in the Catholic Church at the moment is in a dreadful state,” he claims. “There is no need for that, because there is a very fine heritage of Catholic music, namely in Gregorian chant and in a lot of the music written by major composers, from Palestrina to Mozart and many more since. There is no shortage of material and most of it can be adapted and adopted to fit the precepts of Vatican II, especially when looked at in an unprejudiced way.”

The claim that MacMillan’s congregational mass settings are unsingable is utterly ridiculous. How ironic, for instance, that in Presbyterian Paisley Abbey once a month, his St Anne’s Mass is sung with great affection by the entire congregation?

The problem seems to lie in the vested interests of the NMAB, and a power base largely weighted towards the West of Scotland. Criticism is unwelcome, and when voiced tends to be veiled in cautious terms. The former convener of the Liturgy Commission Music Advisory Board for the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Dr Evelyn Stell, wrote recently: “Generally speaking, the music promoted [by the NMAB] is in the post-Vatican II West of Scotland style, mainly that written by Gerry Fitzpatrick and his colleagues, but mention has been made of other types. It would certainly seem logical and beneficial that an organisation such as Musica Sacra [Scotland] should be represented; it would greatly widen the range of music considered. I see no reason why James MacMillan’s enquiries about membership should not result in an invitation to him to send one or more delegates.”

Well, events have taken a sudden turn. When I approached the Scottish Catholic media office last week, I was informed that the current make-up of the NMAB committee and the whole question of its membershipwill shortly be reviewed.

MacMillan is clear what any newly formed NMAB’s priority should be. “It is to address the confusion over how we are meant to sing our prayers. The use of simple unadorned melodies from the Catholic treasury of tradition and its great reservoir of musical heritage is the most prayerful and respectful way a Catholic can raise his or her voice at the altar of God.”

Does he reckon Scotland’s Catholics would go along with this, or view it as elitism? “It’s hard to gauge,” he admits. “Many Catholics here have got used to the sense of drift over the years. Perhaps they have not been informed about what a truly beautiful sense of best practice could be like. But many of the 200 who attended the recent Musica Sacra Scotland Conference Mass in Glasgow, were moved and surprised by what they experienced. Some said they had not participated in a more beautiful liturgy, and that they sang everything. This is not elitism. This is Catholicism.”

And will MacMillan finally see the doors of the NMAB opened to him? Following my approach to the Catholic Church press office, the posting on the St Columba’s choir website was instantly removed. God moving in mysterious ways? A positive signal? Or just good old pressure politics? God knows.