UNDERGROUND movements are not unusual in the theatre or in war. But they are something new in church music. For ten years musicians and catechists in England have been experimenting with new ways of putting over the Christian message in song.
Some have worked together. others have gone it alone, but the results of them all are very much the same: a new music which involves everybody in some way or another.
To these pioneers the musical life of the worshipping Christian is no longer confined to being a dumb spectator to a Divine opera from the choir loft. He has a part to play: he can sing along beautifully, he can croak, or clap or shake a pair of maracas or bang woodblocks together.
"The great hymns of the past have a timeless quality, and we can go on singing them," says Sydney Carter, one of the leaders of the movement. "The new songs may look amateur beside them; but we have to write them. all the same. When we have nothing new to add to what Christians have sung or said before, Christianity will stop. The truth will still go running on. but we shall be standing still.
"To keep running with the truth—that is our destiny. It should be our joy as well. 'Thou hast made us for thyself,' wrote Saint Augustine. 'And our hearts are restless till they rest in thee.' But rest in God is not a dead or static state: it is a running, dancing, living thing. We are called to be creators, Sons
The music of the underground movement stubbornly refuses to fit into any convenient category. It certainly is not 'pop' but it does have affinities with folk music. The minimum required for an effective performance is a guitar, and in theory you can go on adding until you have something approaching an orchestra. But the result is the same: there's something for everyone to do.
Tbis music is now emerging from its secret hideouts: a secrecy forced on it by those who wished to kill it at birth. Today's climate of liberal experimentation in the liturgy favours its growth. You can find it used openly in schools, colleges, clubs and even in a few churches.
Peter Aime Duval started the ball rolling in the 1950s when he sat alone on the stage of the Albert Hall and held a capacity audience with his simple, catchy songs about Christian truths.
Duval and the Psalms of another French Jesuit, Joseph Gelineau, set off a chain reaction in England. Priests and lay people all over the place started penning their own songs. Some were good, others were not so good.
Malcolm Stewart was among the pioneers and now he leads the field, regularly broadcasting and performing a large repertoire of songs which draw their inspiration from the Bible.
"People," he says, "sing about what seems important, about love, death. fighting, eating and drinking. If you believe in the Gospel and enjoy singing, I suppose its natural to want to sing Gospel songs.
"There are plenty of
good hymns. and even more awful ones, but these usually reflect the official, public joys and trials of the Christian. They are almost uniformly solemn and resounding in atmosphere.
"But there are lots of other moods and emotions involved in belief. One has one's own personal associations with events from the Bible and the way Christianity touches one's life. I try to catch some of these things in song."
Sydney Carter and Malcolm Stewart have made their mark on radio. television and in the concert hall. But most of the experimenters have worked in educational fields.
Sister Mary Oswin teaches at the Holy Child Convent, Preston. Later this month her book Let God's Children Sing will be published by Geoffrey Chapman. It is a collection of biblical songs which can be sung by almost any age of child.
Like so many teachers, Sister Mary Oswin has found that there is little or no material suitable for young children. "This," she says, "is mainly because most teachers have never considered the possibility of turning stories into songs and might even doubt the propriety of introducing any kind of music, other than hymns into their R.I. period.
"The criterion for determining whether or not such songs should be used is, surely, not our reaction to them but that of our children. Pop songs and nursery rhymes take on an evergreen quality in the child's mind. This is rarely true of hymns, even of those more enlightened hymns written to accord with the infant mentality."
Sister Mary Oswin's answer is to write songs with a strong rhythm, good tune and straightforward lyric. With these ingredients the child will become involved by clapping, stamping, dancing, conducting or playing some instrument, real or imaginary.
Compare the words of just the first verse of her song "Samuel" with any conventional hymn and ponder the impact each would have on a child's mind.
Samuel lay asleep in bed When someone beside him clearly said: "Samuel!"
Up he got like a shot and ran To Eli who was God's holy man And said: "Here 1 am!" But Eli said: "1 didn't call; My son, you must have dreamt it all.
Go back to bed."
In universities the new music has really got off the ground and many chaplains think that this, coupled with an interest in the liturgy, is one of the more hopeful signs among the present generation of students.
Fr. Nigel CoRingwood. Chaplain to Essex University, is involved in the movement: he plays the guitar and writes his own religious songs.
"Where this kind of music is done with enthusiasm," he says, "it goes down very well. People are able to relax. Somehow, with the old metrical hymn tunes it was all a bit stiff and starchy."
It is more difficult to track down parishes where they are experimenting with the new music. Some are still a little fearful of the bishop breathing down their necks. But where it has been tried it has been a roaring success. One South of England parish found that its congregation at Sung Mass doubled.
The pioneers of the new music have had more than their share of mud thrown at them. "The Church doesn't allow guitars," says one objector. "It's all a gimmick," says another.
But the experiment has been working for too long to be called a gimmick. "Writing Gospel Songs is not a gimmick any more than writing a theological treatise is a gimmick," Malcolm Stewart says. "It's simply another way of saying what one believes."
And. in fact, the Church is pretty liberal when it comes to the use of guitars. Certainly the Council Document which dealt with music did not ban their use.
Fr. Hubert Richards, Principal of Corpus Christi Catechetical College, London, and another pioneer of the movement, says: "I personally don't see why it should not be used to lead people to prayer and union with God just as the organ or harmonium is used. When one thinks of the ecclesiastical concerts put On in the name of worship in the 17th and 18th centuries they were far more extraordinary than our own use of the guitar."
It is the positive results of this bright, new, swinging music that are its most powerful recommendations. After a couple of generations of almost static church music we are once more on the move.
The Church is bursting with talent and religious songs are being churned out at a fantastic rate. "There is so much stuff being written," Fr. Richards says. "I think we will go through a decade of all this activity. Some of the songs will be shoddy, some will be good and some will be magnificent."
And as the movement gains impetus it will gather everyone with it. Nobody who has seen a churchful of people come alive at the sound of the first guitar chords can doubt that.