A correspondent asked me about this dilemma:
I’d like to know your opinion about this latest thing that always seems to come up. Tomorrow we’re doing a nice Gospel piece. One of the high school students who sings with the adult choir can do these fantastic improvisations. Since we’re almost at the end of the year I wanted to get her in one more time before she’s finnished and goes off to college. So while the choir and congregation enjoy this stuff immensely, there’s one or two older ladies and a young guy in his 20’s who just find it positively repulsive. They say this music is irreverent and disrespectful to the Mass. I ask why and they say it’s “raucous” and doesn’t belong in the liturgy. I ask, what about in black churches where they do this stuff, or African villages where they have quite rhythmic music? They respond that’s fine, “they” have their music and “we” have ours.
This situation touches on a few points we might do well to remember. One is the question of being able to present such music with quality. A young singer who can pull off “fantastic improvisations” certainly qualifies as skillful. And I’m assuming the choir can add harmony in a stylistically authentic way. If a choir can do gospel music well, that’s the first hurdle.
Next comes the question of liturgical appropriateness. For a choir-only piece (I’m making that assumption here) one would look at the text, and if it was suitable for the Mass, the liturgical season, and for the moment of the Mass, we’re on solid ground. The complaint, after all, isn’t about the musical judgment or the liturgical judgment, but the pastoral one.
I’m generally skeptical about the notion of building a sacred music repertoire by subtraction. In other words, we start with a body of music, then we cut loose everything anybody dislikes. A pretty small hymnal results.
Three people in a large parish object to Gospel music. I feel badly for these people to a degree. But if one choral anthem with a teen soloist is the only speedbump in their Sunday spiritual experience, my inclination is to gently suggest they suck it up and take one for the team.
Unlike hip-hop or rock, Gospel music is an authentic style of sacred music. Like plainsong, it probably had some roots in secular music or incorporated non-sacred aspects as it developed. Like plainsong, it is identifiably a genre of sacred music, even if it lacks the centuries of pedigree of Gregorian chant.
The Church accepts the use of different languages within one liturgy. Liturgical Music Today suggests that along these lines, different musical idioms may be fruitfully used within a single celebration (14).
We can make this an armchair liturgist kind of thing, so if anyone else would care to jump in, feel free.