Homily given at the weekday Service at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY, November 21, 2019, commemorating the musicians Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, and John Merbecke: Revelation 15:1-4
The visions of the future offered in the Book of Revelation are mostly remembered for their terrifying detail of war and judgment and the end of the world. What is not so much remembered is how important music plays in the revelations of John.
Through the entirety of Revelation I count no less than a dozen songs that are sung, including that mentioned in this morning’s reading: “The Song of Moses . . . and the Lamb. This song is the basis for Canticle 19 in the Prayer Book, with which we began the Service.
Music is very much the norm in the Bible’s vision of the praise of God. We often think we have Services in the Prayer Book which may include music, when actually what is true is that we have Services in the Prayer Book, which may include no music.
Music is so important in our tradition that it is sometimes said that we Anglicans have three theological sources: the Bible, the Prayer Book, and the Hymnal. It is why we have always taken great care with our hymnals and have always scrutinized the texts of hymns for their theology.
We remember today three men who were in many ways the fathers of English church music.
Thomas Tallis spent most of his life as musician to the Royal Chapels. He was so talented that he survived in this position through the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward IV, Mary I and Elizabeth I, an almost singular achievement.
William Byrd was his pupil and successor who likewise had the ability to survive religious turmoil, although he was once convicted of heresy, but was saved from burning at the stake by Bishop Stephen Gardiner, who argued that the loss of his talents would be immeasurable.
John Merbecke is best known for his Service music, originally written for the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, which can still be found in our current hymnal for use with Rite I.
Many of us find the poetry and music of our hymnals an important part of our spirituality. St. Augustine famously said that “They who sing, pray twice.” That is born out in my experience. There is something about music which vitally assists the spiritual truth of the word to sink more deeply into my soul, and to remain there as a source of praise I can call upon at a moment’s notice. Indeed, I often do not need to call upon it. It just comes when it is needed, like the love and grace of our good God.