In 1963 my church community (St Theodore’s Anglican Church, Elizabeth South, South Australia) purchased a large, cumbersome Phillips tape recorder for our parish. Despite listening to the radio every day, no member of our urban church had ever seen or heard how taped sounds were recorded, before this event. The reason for this was prevalent conservative prejudice against “devilish” secular music, that cocooned church youth of my generation from moral contamination. My church youth group tried the miraculous tape recorder out, supervised by our parish priest, Fr. Norman Kempson. We were amazed to hear our recorded voices singing back at us. The Phillips tape recorder served our parish well, but we never thought to use it to replace our valued church organist, or our singing voices. Our worship was off limits to technology. Worship was not worship, unless it was enacted by live, physically present, musically competent human people, in real time. We used the tape recorder to produce plays and concerts, entertain at social events, and raise money.
Over the last twenty years, with digital technology ever present, many Australian churches have relaxed previously strict rules banning recorded music and audiovisuals during Church worship services. The digital church has now come to stay, whether technology-phobic older parishioners like it, or not. There is a sensible way of using recorded music and audiovisuals, but sadly, in some churches, nonsensical practices that are killing off congregational performance skills, have taken over. Sensible, moderate inclusion of recorded and enhanced music can help churches to teach and promote sung and instrumental worship.
Some church communities have gone too far, and have totally replaced live congregational singing with recorded music and recorded singers. Some communities, who are unwilling or unable to provide music instruction, music staff, and equipment, teach that total silence is always superior to sung worship. Of course silence has always had an honoured place in liturgy, but authentic Christian worship requires that intervals of silent prayer and worship are preceded by well ordered, harmonious, sung worship, readings, preaching and rituals accompanied by music. I am one of many actively worshipping Christians who love to hear human voices raised in well ordered audible worship of God, well balanced within liturgical rites, prayer and silence. I deplore the suppression of audible musical Christian worship, by parsimonious clergy and committees who refuse to provide adequate musical resources and experience for their congregations. There is no contest between silent worship and sung worship: each has its place in different stages of worship. God is present with us in both silent prayer, and also when we sing with heart as well as voice. In all human faiths, worship has always included both silence and song: why should Christian worship be downgraded, corrupted or silenced? Church singing, that is still valued and taught in many Christian churches overseas, is an important and effective way to proclaim our Christian faith publicly, and to introduce new members and children to doctrine, prayer and worship.
Recorded church music, when used correctly, supports sung worship, and should never totally supplant it. Using recorded accompaniments for some services can quickly reduce parish music budgets stretched by weekly organist fees and organ maintenance. But churches who value their music heritage adequately will always make room for skilled organists and choristers, and firmly connect recorded music with sound church music teaching and practice.
Recorded accompaniments and electronic music for churches has pitfalls, some of these being the cost of a good sound amplification system, digital organ maintenance, and sound technicians’ fees. Reliable and skilled recorded audiovisual curation and synchronisation during worship is just as important as real time music rehearsal and performance supervision. A blaring and blurting sound system, uncoordinated hymn lyric slides, or selecting detested recorded songs sung by non-local performers in non-local accents, is a sure way to drive a congregation away to a more musical parish that welcomes and promotes local church musicians and composers..