Has this happened to you? You have a song that fits the theme of a service perfectly, but a problem arises during rehearsal: someone objects to a phrase or a word. It doesn’t fit their theology, or it’s not inclusive in some way. They insist on changing the lyrics, or they refuse to sing it altogether.
Can you imagine someone saying “I have theological objections to major keys. I can’t sing this unless we change it to a minor key.” (Sound familiar? Remember that major keys were banned by the Catholic church in the 1300s.) But we do this with lyrics all the time.
I understand this. We UUs can be a testy lot, but it’s usually when we have our antennae out for injustice or oppression. This is clearly a good thing, and has brought about many good results.
But is it always a good thing? I don’t think so. At some point this insistence on every word being perfectly in line with our own (personal) theology becomes a credal test (“We can’t sing that because I don’t believe in _____”). That’s not who we are. It fails to honor “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”and it is not “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth”. (“We honor you, except that your theology doesn’t agree with the altos, so we’re going to put our own words in your mouth.”)
I have gotten more and more uncomfortable with this. Because we don’t have a common creed, we have to recognize that not every song is going to be a personal statement of faith for everyone singing it. But we are going to be singing music that has deep meaning for someone in the congregation, if not for us. And that is what our ministry as musicians should be about: bringing musical expression of everyone’s faith into worship, one song at a time.
For a long time, I was of the opinion that we would never be able to sing “Jesus is Just Alright” in a UU service. Then one day, it fit the service perfectly, so we scheduled it. We sang it absolutely straight; we did not try to adjust the theology, we did not try to make the language more inclusive, we just sang it, in honor of what the writer had to say about his own faith. It felt good to do this, and it was (mostly) accepted in the spirit in which it was created. Another time, we sang Meg Keene’s “Hymn to Her”, knowing that it would resonate deeply with some and totally fly by others in the congregation. Again, the respectful presentation of a particular theology was accepted as the gift it was, without controversy.
Why can’t we do this every time we sing?
Here’s my New Year Resolution (yes, it’s March, but I’m a slow decision-maker): I will sing every song we do with respect for the writer, without changing lyrics to fit someone else’s thoughts, sentiments or philosophy. I will not force my (or someone else’s) theology on anyone else by putting words they did not write into their mouths.
We may have to drop some music from our repertoire. That’s OK. If we feel strongly enough that a subject should be sung about, but in our own particular way, then we should write our own song about it. Which is a more desirable outcome in many ways.