The Musicality of Wesleyan Catechesis

Leicester R. Longden

My last essay on “The Musicality of Catechesis” led me to further reflections on how crucial the recognition of musicality is to teaching the faith. It brought me all the way back to my first essay on Catalyst Resources in which I appealed to J.I. Packer’s definition of catechesis as “the church’s ministry of grounding and growing God’s people in the Gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty and delight.” Delight seems to imply musicality. Without it we can rightly speak of the “lost art” of catechesis.

Going back even further, one can find the tonality of delight in the very word “catechesis.” The Greek verb katēcheō has as its root the word echō (“to sound”, “to ring out”). Thus the word catechesis and its verb form “to catechize” (from kata + echō = “to sound from above”) has come to mean “to teach,” or “to instruct.” But the words suggest more than simple oral instruction.

For example, here is how Cyril of Jerusalem spoke to catechumens who had signed up at the beginning of Lent to take the final steps of preparation for baptism at the Easter Vigil:

You used to be called a catechumen, when the truth was being dinned into you from without: hearing about the Christian hope without understanding it; hearing about the Mysteries without having a spiritual perception of them; hearing the Scriptures but not sounding their depths. No longer in your ears now but in your hearts is that ringing: for the indwelling Spirit henceforth makes your soul the house of God. (Procatechesis 6, in The Works of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, vol. 1, in The Fathers of the Church [Catholic University of America Press, 1969], 75)

Cyril is making a wordplay between “catechumen” and catēcheō (“dinned into you from without”). The seekers are now echoing in their thought and conduct what were previously only words of teaching. The seeker is now becoming “attuned” and “sounding with” the Spirit and the church.

A contemporary Orthodox educator, Daniel J. Sahas, writes of the church’s catechesis as the “tuning together of the members of the Body … the thorough learning and practicing of the ‘tone’ according to which the Church ‘chants,’ that is, believes, worships, and expresses herself — these three together” (Catechesis: The Maturation of the Body [Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1984], 16, 17)

This confirms my thesis that the ministry of Charles Wesley is an example of the musicality of catechesis and that his hymnody is one of the pillars of Wesleyan catechesis. By means of his poetic imagination and lyrical genius Charles transformed creed and catechesis into songs of worship. Learning “sound” doctrine in our tradition thus means that it must sound on our lips and echo in our hearts and actions. The early Methodist societies sang their theology. After all, the first hymn in our hymnal declares

O, for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise….

What is not as commonly noticed is the strong Christological interpretation Charles gives to singing and music in the church. He identifies the very name of Jesus with music and salvation.

Jesus! The name that charms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease;
‘tis music in the sinner’s ears,
‘tis life, and health, and peace!

Over and over again Charles’s hymns call attention to the power of the human voice as an instrument of praise when indwelt by Christ. In his 1749 hymn, “Jesus, Thou Soul of All Our Joys,” numerous lines sound this note. The first stanza sings:

Jesus, thou soul of all our joys,
For whom we now lift up our voice,
. . . .
Compose into a thankful frame,
And tune thy people’s heart.

The fourth stanza sings let us our voices raise in order that our souls and bodies’ powers unite. The sixth and seventh stanzas call for a similar healing and harmonizing of human faculties by means of praise when Christ is present:

The joy from out our heart arise,
And speak, and sparkle in our eyes,
And vibrate on our tongue.

Jesus, thyself in us reveal,
And all our faculties shall feel
Thy harmonizing name.

Yet, it is clear in the fifth stanza, that singing and music in themselves, unless enabled and renewed by the indwelling Spirit, are mere fallen human powers.

Still let us on our guard be found,
And watch against the power of sound
With sacred jealousy;
Lest haply sense should damp our zeal,
And music’s charms bewitch and steal
Our heart away from thee.

Charles Wesley theologically interprets singing and music as powers that are redeemed by Christ and therefore sounds reverberating from the new creation. Take, for example, another 1749 hymn, “Thou, Jesus, Thou My Breast Inspire”:

Thou, Jesus, Thou my breast inspire,
And touch my lips with hallowed fire,
     And loose a stammering infant’s tongue;
Prepare the vessel of thy grace,
Adorn me with the robes of praise,
     And mercy shall be all my song.

All of the action here comes first from Christ, who inspires, touches, looses, prepares, and adorns; after that, “all” of our song is about his mercy! As the final stanza of the previous hymn puts it, Christ’s work in us calls forth a song that not only employs all our earthly powers, but is “endless,” the song of a new heaven and new earth.

With calmly reverential joy,
Oh, let us all our lives employ
     In setting forth thy love;
And raise in death our triumph higher,
And sing, with all the heavenly choir,
     That endless song above.

Posted Dec 07, 2015

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