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Paul Westermeyer's Rise, O Church:
Reflections on the Church, It's Music, and Empire
Morningstar Music, 2008
Neil Elliott

One doesn’t have to be an Episcopalian to love this little book, but it doesn’t hurt. Westermeyer refers to the Anglican principle of lex orandi to describe “how in fact the whole church proceeds.” “Christianity is to be prayed before it is to be thought” (34). The church prays and worships preeminently in song and so, in a model of liturgical theology, Westermeyer draws not only from Scripture but from a particularly rich vein of the church’s hymnody to explicate our experience of God and our vocation to bear witness to God’s love in the world.

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These succinct chapters draw on prior lectures, workshops, and sermons and the repeated use of that material with various groups has made for a finely tuned result. Every phrase is well shaped, the same clear theological themes rise up throughout, and Westermeyer strikes never a false note. Though the title refers to three topics, the first two are clearly primary here. The author’s wisdom and skill are obvious as he draws bedrock truths from the church’s singing and liturgy about Communion, Baptism, the relation of preaching to the Word among us, and the relation between the call to worship and the broader vocation to serve the world. That the broader vocation never recedes from view is one of this book’s great strengths. This is a book that reminds all who read it that through our worship, God always calls us beyond our worship.

The lucid writing makes this a versatile resource. It is easy to imagine this book at the center of a staff retreat for clergy, musicians, and other ministers, calling everyone to reflect on the common commitment that draws disparate personalities together for a larger and weightier purpose. Or it could be required reading in a senior seminar for students preparing for ordination, challenging them to distill their learning into a succinct, coherent vision for ministry. Or the book might simply be kept on the music director’s or pastor’s desk or bedside table, to dip into it again and again. One can read any of the chapters in just a few minutes, but the truths will linger in the mind and heart, and hours later one may find a hymn tune to which Westermeyer has appealed still running through one’s head.

There are no false notes here, but one voice in the chorus is weaker than the others. Westermeyer admits in his preface that his use of the term empire (the third term in his subtitle) is “swampy.” It crops up occasionally when he wants to refer to the pressures mainstream clergy and church musicians alike feel on their work in late capitalist America, but its use is a rhetorical gesture that must stand in for analysis—or even a succinct identification—of those pressures. Thus the empire is the place “where, in the interest of acquisitive power and control, avoiding or bending or even denying the truth is to be expected” (13); but that also happens in households, so it is not clear what makes the phenomenon “imperial.” In another place there is a brief, stirring exhortation to “courage as close and continual as our daily breath,” the breath that “goes into choir rehearsals” and “into challenging the emperor” (20); “the two are closely related,” Westermeyer affirms, but doesn’t spend much time telling us just how. Further, since most of us have never met an actual “emperor,” the language seems extravagant, with just a whiff of the (comfortably distant) fairy tale to it.

Again, we read that “the empire around us” militates against the church’s singing of a “new song” unless it can be commercialized to turn a profit (23–24). Here “empire” seems clearly to stand in for late capitalism. Against that ever-corrosive drive for the technically “new,” Westermeyer poses the church’s “unusual” habit of remembering a particular past and a specific future at once. These are riffs of a profound liturgical theology for the twenty-first century, but they never quite carry the tune here.

The issue is important. Surely mainstream church leaders in the US are ready, eager, for hard-headed analysis—however succinctly presented—of the cultural, economic, and political forces constraining the church’s life and mission. Many of these leaders harbor deep concerns about the rise of a peculiarly virulent brand of imperialism—a toxic mix of militarism, sheer avarice, and American exceptionalism, all infused with a heady fog of civil religion—whether or not they take these themes on directly from the pulpit. Such readers might be led by Westermeyer’s subtitle to expect more sustained engagement of those challenges here.

Just what do our choir rehearsals and our Sunday morning liturgies have to do with “challenging the emperor” about military adventurism or “extraordinary rendition” or any of the other realities that the term “imperialism” evokes today? Does “the empire” really care what we sing about, so long as we confine our singing to the sanctuary? Does our hymnody in any way compel us to stretch ourselves in some less-than-churchly form of protest? Other theologians have written quite explicitly of the “liturgies” and “choreography” in which “the empire” seeks routinely to rehearse us. How does, or how might, the church’s liturgy resist that choreography? Are the church’s liturgy and the empire’s choreography in fact in contact at all? If so, where, and what can we learn from the skirmishes? If not, has the church’s liturgy become so domesticated that it is irrelevant to the empire’s forward press?

Those are questions beyond the purview of Rise, O Church, but one is left wondering why. These pages give every reason to suspect that Paul Westermeyer can answer them quite capably and to hope that he will return to these themes, with greater amplitude, in the near future.

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