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Pandemic Lesson from Hildegard

Guest Blogger Martha B. Alimi is a PhD candidate in theology at Boston University’s School of Theology, and the Music Director at Christ Episcopal Church in Middle Haddam, CT. She is currently writing a dissertation on Hildegard of Bingen’s theology and understanding of music, particularly as it appears in her treatise, Scivias.


New Job

This summer, I was blessed with a job as an organist and music director at a small Episcopal church in Connecticut. I reached out to this congregation, knowing that they had been without an organist for quite some time. Because of the pandemic, they were using Zoom for Sunday services. These were simple Morning Prayer services: no music, no Eucharist. In fact, they assumed that music was impossible over Zoom.

I explained that music is possible over Zoom! It’s not ideal for congregational singing, but the congregation can mute their microphones and sing along while I play and sing. This way, congregants hear at least two people singing at the same time. The priest was thrilled. She told me the congregation had been rather depressed lately. Without in-person worship, music, or Eucharist, they were chomping at the bit to go back to church. But the priest didn’t see an end to online worship in sight. Too many congregants are over 65. Too many have underlying conditions. She doesn’t want to return to the building until everyone is vaccinated. Life is too precious.


My Other Job

In my other job – writing my dissertation – I think about congregational singing alongside Hildegard’s writings. Her treatises contain powerful imagery from her visions of the triune God, as she describes God’s personal relationship with humanity and providential work of salvation. Her personal letters are driven by deep theological interests, applied to practical concerns. In these texts, Hildegard often emphasizes the importance of congregational singing – for her, singing the Divine Office. As a musician, she composed and sang liturgical chants with her fellow sisters. She had divine visions of the harmony of the cosmos. She believed that, through singing in worship, earthly choirs join their voices with heavenly choirs in praise of God — a musical foretaste of the feast to come. Inspired by the power of the Holy Spirit, she believed singing could also be prophetic and pedagogically effective.

Admittedly, there may appear to be a gulf between Hildegard, a 12th-century Roman Catholic nun, and the challenges of my little Episcopal parish in Connecticut. But as I began playing a service via Zoom in December, I suddenly saw Hildegard as a companion in these difficult times. Let me explain.


Hildegard’s Letter

In Hildegard’s 1178 letter to the Prelates of Mainz, she protested sanctions imposed on her convent by the Prelates because she allowed the Christian burial of an excommunicated nobleman. She maintained that he was reconciled to the Church before death and refused to exhume his body from consecrated ground. In response, the Prelates banned the sisters from hearing Mass, participating in the Eucharist, and singing the Divine Office. Hildegard and her fellow sisters observed the ban’s terms, but, “constricted by this heavy burden,” she vehemently argued with the powerful Prelates.[1] Inspired by her visions, Hildegard outlined the importance of the Eucharist, and then concentrated on the Prelates’ prohibition of singing. The result in the letter is a summary of Hildegard’s theology of music. Liturgical singing was fundamentally important to her life, and, she argued, to human life in general. She believed that failing to sing the Divine Office is not merely upsetting because she enjoyed singing. Rather, she argued, failing to sing the Divine Office is improper, incorrect worship. Proper worship requires singing. Ultimately, Hildegard persuaded the archbishop to vindicate her when he returned from Rome. In the meantime, however, Hildegard and her sisters suffered deeply from the loss of liturgical singing and the Eucharist.

Instead of a ban from Prelates, the pandemic caused my little Episcopal church to suffer from the lack of music and the Eucharist. In August, I started playing a prelude, postlude, and hymns for their Sunday Zoom services. The congregation was thrilled! They sang along, and often commented on the music. These musical Morning Prayer services continued until Advent. As the congregation prepared their hearts for the Incarnation, the priest decided to celebrate Spiritual Communion. This meant returning to a Eucharistic liturgy, complete with service music (Kyrie, Sanctus, and Fraction Anthem), hymns, prelude, postlude, and Communion. Since the congregation could not physically participate in Communion over Zoom, the priest buried the consecrated elements outside in the ground. Again, the difference in the congregation’s spirit was palpable! It still wasn’t in-person worship, but the Eucharistic liturgy, accompanied by music, reignited this congregation. The longer service did not affect attendance – this was something everyone wanted. More than that, it was something everyone needed.


What We Can Learn

Hildegard was right. Without the life-giving power of congregational music and the Eucharist, Christian communities can fade. These liturgical and sacramental activities are vital to maintaining a vibrant congregation. While our pandemic is not the same as her Prelates’ sanctions, we can learn from Hildegard. We can commit to sing and to partake of the body of Christ in whatever way possible because it is necessary for the life of our congregations. Let us remember these lessons when we return to in-person worship someday.


[1] Letter 23, Hildegard to the Prelates at Mainz. …magno tandem pondere compressa…


Author – Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.


I tried to pay attention to the music at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church this year, which took place in Austin. The worship planners did a good job of blending the old and the new, and of the new I noticed–by reading through the bulletins, which are available online– that the name Scott Chard came up several times. Much of the music was written by him and he was the artistic director for worship. A quick Google search reveals that Chard is the Praise Chorus Leader at St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, Oklahoma City. There is surprisingly little else to be found about Chard on the internet, except that he has one studio-length album that you can purchase online or stream for free on YouTube. The album, which was released in 2013, is called Sanctus and includes re-tuned hymns as well as fully original songs by Chard himself.


We haven’t talked about re-tuned hymns yet among these blog posts. In the church music world, a hymn is called “re-tuned” if it is an old text with a new, contemporary-style musical setting. Everyone knows the tune to “Amazing Grace,” for instance, but Chard has written a completely new tune to go with this text. Many listeners find it jarring at first to hear such a familiar text set to a new tune. The idea behind any new tune, though, is for the timeless words to hit the listener’s ear in a fresh way. Re-tuned hymns always use a modern, popular style of music, so as to appeal to listeners whose tastes tend more toward rock-n-roll than classic hymnody.


Chard’s re-tuning of Amazing Grace is reminiscent of the 90’s band Guster, with its light percussion, acoustic instruments, and relaxed pace. “Crown Him with Many Crowns” has acoustic guitar played with a Spanish flair, backed by Guster-like percussion. “God Himself is There” reminded me of Sixpence None the Richer, also a 90’s band.


Deliver My Soul” is my favorite track. It has a driving beat and highlights Chard’s gentle southern accent. The whole album is very gentle. I would even call it chill. CD Baby, Chard’s label, says you will like Chard’s music if you like James Taylor and I would agree with that. Now that I’ve heard the album a few times I would say it stands out mostly for its inoffensiveness. Like Guster or James Taylor, Chard is very relaxed. Relaxed is good. I enjoyed listening to the album and found myself humming the tunes throughout the day. Nothing really stood out to me, though. I was hoping to find something new and irresistible. I was hoping to be inspired, or at the very least, I thought I’d find something catchy. I didn’t find it on Sanctus.


Relaxed and Re-tuned: Scott Chard’s album, Sanctus

Album: Sanctus by Scott Chard

Label: CD Baby, released December 2013, produced by Erick Alexander


Author – Ginny Chilton is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

Welcome to the fourth entry in the Center for Congregational Song blog: Centered in Song. I’m Ginny, a 30-something organist and music minister living in Tidewater, Virginia. I’ve worked mostly for Episcopal Churches in my 13 years in church music, and I’m a cradle Episcopalian, so I was excited to be able to attend a conference at Virginia Theological Seminary two weekends ago, and I’m excited to share a few tidbits with you. The conference was called “The Once and Future Hymnal;” it was two days of lectures and conversations about the possibility of compiling a new hymnal for the Episcopal Church. Our current hymnal is from way back in 1982. “Was that a long time ago?” asks the girl who was born that year. Yes, yes it was.

Here are three takeaways from that conference that I want to talk about briefly: uncertainty, diversity, and community. Uncertainty was the word buzzing in my head after the first day of the conference. In 1982 we were coming out of the cold war and Vietnam War. The economy was recovering after a downturn in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Things were much more stable than they had been in 60 or 70 years. In contrast, things are vastly more uncertain in 2017. Globalization and rapid changes in technology have changed our world and our environment, such that, as we look ahead to the next 30 years, we are much less sure what to expect. That makes it difficult to compile a hymnal that we hope will last a long time!

Some of those gathered for the “Once and Future Hymnal Gathering”


Diversity and community are the other two subjects I have been mulling over since the conference. The Rev. Dr. Frank Wade made a wonderful point in his plenary lecture — and perhaps he’s not the first to say this — that diversity is the raw material, but the end goal is community. Currently, we are in a place as a church, and perhaps a society as a whole, that is more diverse than ever but has a crisis of community. That creates quite a challenge for us as we try to compile a hymnal, or simply lead a community in song each week. In a world that is so uncertain and diverse, how do we bring people together around shared song? What does that look like in 2017, as opposed to 1982, or 1882?

I can see how much things like uncertainty and diversity affect my work here in Virginia at my Episcopal parish. Many of us cherish our Episcopal hymnals because they formed us, while those who are new to the community bring songs from other cultures and denominations. Some want to delve into music that addresses imminent societal issues; others wish to anchor ourselves in the words that sustained our mothers and grandmothers. It sounds like a congregation in conflict, and we have our share of that. But really, all these things are good and we need them all as we work towards being God’s diverse community! We want to address hunger in our song while also singing songs that have knit us together for generations. We want to cherish our denominations’ hymns while also asking how we can reach out and include more.

As I reflect on it here, I realize my church’s diversity is beautiful, but the day-to-day work of planning worship is still really tough! How are all of you dealing with uncertainty and diversity as you lead your communities in song? Those of you who have been doing church music a long time — do you find you face more or fewer challenges now than in the beginning? Those of you who are new to song leadership — is it what you expected? What excites you about the next 30 years of congregational song? Share your ideas in the comments below. Let’s support and inspire one another as we sing our way into the future.


For more information on the gathering, you can see the Facebook page of The Center for Liturgy and Music at Virginia Theological Seminary, where they have posted some Facebook Live videos such as this: