June Boyce-Tillman asks why women have been excluded in name if not deed from church music.
AS a seven year old my favourite hymn was 0 Jesus I have promised. I had carefully learned how to sing it "with expression" and with breaths at appropriate places. It must have been a good performance as it was regularly part of concerts in the church hall.
I was never allowed to sing it in church. Only boys did that. As no one could give a better reason for this situation than that this was the way things were, I could only conclude with the logic of youth that it was understandable that a male God should prefer the sound of boys' voices.
My experience is not unique. For most Christian denominations music plays a significant part in the tradition, fulfilling many functions — to lift people from worldly thoughts, to unite them in song, to reinforce the traditional theological teaching through hymns and songs, to name but a few. As such, various denominations have set up musical groups, ranging from orchestras to choirs, from folk groups to Salvation Army bands.
Yet, despite the dominance of women in numerical terms in the church pews, few of these have been in the hands of women and many have deliberately excluded them. In fact, the control of music in our churches appears to have been more tightly in the control of men than even the liturgy; simply, often, because a larger group of people is involved.
All male choirs, and certainly male organists are still the order of the day in most significant churches and cathedrals. (Although recently in the Anglican communion, Bristol Cathedral has appointed a woman as assistant organist and Salisbury is starting a girls' choir to function alongside its boys!). And it is not only in the area of the skilled performer that men have dominated but also in the fields of composition and hymn writing. Yet if we look at less prestigious areas, it is often a woman (unpaid) who has maintained a musical presence at all in smaller churches and the last remains of a dying choir can often be a few faithful sopranos.
There were in the past reasons for this, often in the area of women's education,but there seems today to be no good reason for maintaining the status quo. Will the breaking down of this traditionally male preserve really be as devastating in its effect as the traditionalists fear?
It is often the distinctive cathedral choir boy sound that is lamented if girls enter the choral ranks. And yet I am not convinced that it is really the sound and not purely the sex that is at issue. Many girls can produce as pure, true, unvibrato-ridden sound as any boy and some boys can produce as warm and full a sound as a mature woman.
The truth is that we do not know what an all girls' or a mixed choir, given the sort of education available in choir schools and singing in cathedral acoustics, will sound like, because it has not been tried. It could sound identical, or even better.
In general, girls are intellectually more advanced than boys between seven and 14, and often more organised, disciplined and disciplinable. Superficially it looks as if the only effects would be beneficial.
I am more concerned at how psychologically and culturally girls could fit into or be able to be accommodated in what have been exclusively male structures for so long. The Anglican cathedral choir schools lament declining applications each year. The advent of girls might more than double those numbers at a stroke and end the period of immense educational privilege by means of sexual discrimination. Lead the way, Salisbury!
Yet, buried in our hymn writing tradition are women whose roles have varied from tune writers, arrangers, translaters, authors to composers. Like other women of their time, they often disguised their sex by using initials only.
Perhaps the greatest burying of their role was under the labels of "anon" and "trad".
Many hymnals include folk melodies among their tunes including one of the two possibles for All things bright and beautiful. In general the process of handing on folk tunes is very different from that of the written copy of the classical tradition. They were handed from one generation to another and changed in the process of handing them on. Mothers singing their children to sleep added their own bit of creativity, possibly when they couldn't remember it exactly.
Indeed, within that tradition, who can say what the "correct" version is? Many songs exist in different versions in different parts of the country. They are communal creations and within that process women have played a significant part — a greater part than in the world of classical music.
So within the labels of anonymous and traditional lie probably many women's creativity as they used music for various purposes — while washing, cleaning, grinding, quietening the baby and so on. It is like women's work in the area of the visual arts — in useful artefacts, knitted, woven, embroidered.
In the area of classical composition where people write their own name on compositions (despite the fact that along the way they have learned many turns of phrase from other people) women feature much less prominently. Recently women like Elizabeth Poston and her setting of Jesus Christ, the apple tree have made significant contributions. Few realise that The Lord's my shepherd and God is working his purpose out are also by women.
If we leave, however, the world of hymns for adults and enter that of songs for children, women are more prominent, writing both words and music. As ideas about appropriate educational material change more often than those for liturgical material many of these now appear dated. Indeed, often the only real area of influence for women in the church was with the children. My generation was brought up in Sunday school on:
Jesus bids us shine with a pure clear light, Like a little candle shining in the night.
In this world of darkness, so we must shine, You in your small corner and I in mine.
This is typical of its period and like so much of women's work it is transient, ephemeral but of great significance in its time. It was often women who created the religious popular songs that uplifted many above a round of drudgery in Victorian days.
It was Maude Craske Day's setting of this poem by Edward Lockton that inspired many an Edwardian drawing room. Here is the final verse:
Arise, 0 Sun, 0 Light of love, arise!
When to God's morning we shall raise our eyes, The long march ended, and the battle won, Arise, arise, 0 Sun!
Such songs offered hope in a world of pain. Maybe the women knew that best of all, while they carried not only their own but that of their menfolk. Many other subject groups (the Jews, the black slaves) have sung their way through situations they might otherwise have found intolerable. The singer/songwriter upsurge of the folk-in-worship trends of the sixties and seventies threw up several religious composers. Of these Joy and the Joystrings in the Salvation Army and Estelle White in Catholicism were typical.
All texts submitted in Britain for publication now must use all-inclusive language; pupils in schools are encouraged to address the issue. If the church fails to pay attention to it, it will be viewed by many as just another example of its in-built conservatism.
But we are still left with two further issues in this area. It is relatively simple to write new material that is all-inclusive but what do we do with the hymns of the past? There are few single-syllable words denoting men and women. "Folk" is really the only one, and poetically is often unacceptable, and yet the text must retain its original metre with the minimum of alteration.
It is interesting, as an exercise, to note what happens if you change non-inclusive language to the feminine e.g. a pronoun from "he" to 'she". "She who would valiant be" has caused many storms, and yet made some people feel more at home than ever before.
The issue of inclusive language for God is even more of a minefield. To try to reverse the traditional maleness of the trinity by the use of she for one person can cause a lot of unease despite the work of many theologians especially in the area of the Holy Spirit.
Yet for some people (men and women) it opens new doors of understanding and commitment. Again it is easier to side-step the problem when writing new material for communal use like hymns. It is only in the third person singular that the problem arises and the —,..ig1111111111111 avoidance of it can lead to a directness in addressing God as "you" or else as a title.
However, if we look at women hymn writers of history we see as much (and sometimes more) use of non-inclusive language and imagery than in the work of men. It is, however, interesting to compare the sort of texts men and women wrote. In a recent workshop addressing the issue I put side by side Charlotte Elliott's Just as I am with its verse:
Just as 1 am, poor wretched, blind, Sight riches, healing of the mind, Yea, all I need, in thee to find, 0 Lamb of God I come.
next door to Cardinal Newman's confidently triumphant Praise to the holiest in the height. We found ourselves asking whether each could or would have wanted to write the other's text.
Some women in the group felt that they could no longer bear to sing the Charlotte Elliott text because of its reflecting a certain attitude on the part of women and commoner amongst them than amongst men.
The issue of women's devotion to the Virgin Mary in hymns like 0 viridissima virga by Hidegard von Bingen can also throw interesting light on women and the feminine in God. Janet Wortton and I area in the process of putting together a collection of hymns in all-inclusive language and concentrating on women's contribution to hymnology to be published by Stainer and Bell and Women in Theology. This might illuminate this issue more clearly.
June Boyce-Tillman is based at King Alfred's College, Winchester.