Yesterday I went to the Royal Albert Hall for a ‘Grand Organ Gala’, a selection of pieces renowned for their dramatic use of the Hall’s magnificent pipe organ. Later that evening I was surfing on YouTube (as you do), and rediscovered some of the work of the amazing Gospel and Jazz Hammond organist Billy Preston. Jazz, of course, is all about making it up as you go along: you have a basic tune and chord structure, but then you’re on your own. Any jazz musician will tell you that you have both good and bad days. Your improvisation can be sublime, but it can also be pedestrian, or even just bad.
On the other hand, something like Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, or Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 in C minor are a bit more thought out. In awe as I am of JSB, even I can’t believe that he did that all in one go. The mathematical genius of Bach’s composition must have been sweated over for ages before it all came together. The Saint-Saens, too, is obviously a major piece of careful planning. At least that’s what the great man himself thought. “I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again” he wrote of the piece. If you know it, you probably know the finale, when the great theme rings out clearly (if you don’t, watch the film Babe.) But what is so clever about the piece is that if you go back and listen you can hear the theme being hinted at in earlier movements: little snatches, sometimes only of a couple of notes, pop in and out, so that when you hear the theme in all its glory you realise that you have already heard it, but only in bits. This is composition par excellence: there is real skill and art involved.
And yet in a very different way Billy Preston and his ilk are equally clever. I like JS Bach, but I also like Keith Emerson. So which is best … Only one way to find out …
It’s like that with prayer and worship. There is real value in fervent, heartfelt, spontaneous prayer. There is real power in hearing someone pouring our their adoration or petition to God. It might be raw, but it’s real. But there can also be exquisite beauty in something which I prepared earlier, something which has been sweated over, polished, probably scrapped and restarted a few times until it says what I want to say in the best possible way. In other words, liturgy.
A girl from the Anglican church where I was vicar left to work in a proudly non-liturgical New Church. I can remember her coming home for Christmas and telling her Mum how much she missed the familiar Anglican liturgy compared to her new diet: ‘Not once in the whole prayer book does it say “just really”, and each prayer only has the word “Lord” in it once’. That’s the great value of liturgy: the words we offer to God in worship have been polished and sweated over until they are the best they can be. Not everyone loves every prayer, of course, any more than everyone loves every piece of classical music. Otherwise Desert Island Discs would go on for ever. But liturgy is about offering to God poetry rather than mere words: a symphony, not just a ditty.
The problem is that we polarise the two. Spontaneous prayer is the only real sort, or liturgical prayer is the only kind God is interested in. One is dead, dry, and out of a book, the other is real and living: you know the sort of rhetoric. But to exist on a sole diet of the spontaneous can rob us of deep beauty, while only ever to pray out of a book can rob us of the real immediacy of God. What we actually need is liturgy and liberty, not merely one or the other.