Be Still My Soul

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 interior of Hungarian State Opera House
By Rowan Gill

Two years ago in these columns I said I would study Italian opera to see if we could learn some models of worship for Christian hymnody, etc.

Since then I have lived every evening with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, Mario Lanza, Guiseppe De Stefano, Janos Kaufmann, Richard Tauber, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Dame Janet Baker, Jessye Norman, Marian Anderson, Lauris Elms, Greta Bradman, etc. I am also indebted to ABC Classic FM radio.  And 3MBS.

Last year I saw the Bell production of Tosca in Melbourne.

I even attempted to learn Italian, to add to my French and German.

I ranged from Mozart to Verdi and Puccini (the last two being the masters of Italian opera; I well remember reading a biography of Puccini in my last year of college. He died of throat cancer which is why Turandot was not finished: that’s why Pavarotti is so overwhelmed when he sings Nessun Dorma. I recently heard a tenor say that he sang Nessum Dorma lying down because it was the only posture Pavarotti could not sing it in. I heard the singer sing it lying down too).

  1. Opera is performance, entertainment and repetition.

Worship is partly performative and entertaining, or should be. There is no mumbling in opera, although in church there sometimes is in the reading of Scriptures and the prayers of the people. If a tenor or soprano does the low notes they can be heard throughout the auditorium. If a tenor or soprano hits the high notes the audience is in raptures and is enthralled.

Every note and word of an opera is known before you enter the auditorium. It is just a matter of how well the singers can pull it off, e.g. compare Pavarotti and Domingo in the DVD The Original Three Tenors. Worship also has its repetitions, e.g. the three year lectionary, the hymn book.  The sermon is the breaking through of God’s word. Even here there can be repetition. For example, a minister can preach the first three years of the lectionary and then repeat these sermons in the second triennium.

Choruses. Verdi was known for his choruses in his operas. Note carefully the Hebrew Slaves Chorus in Nabucco.(Nebuchadnezzar) staged in 1843 when Garibaldi was liberating Italy and was sung by the multitude in the streets) and the Anvil chorus in Il Trovatore, starring Joan Sutherland. These can be models for how the singing group tackles the task of taking the Gospel to the people in the worship service.


  1. Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci (The Clowns) is about two clowns, one who has taken the wife of the other and the wronged one’s reaction to it. He must go out and make the people happy and laugh in his clown costume when he is so distraught.   In Pavarotti’s performance he shrieks out his despair and comes down to expressing his grief. Do we present the suffering Jesus in our liturgies, the pain of God, or do we simply make a statement?

How does opera differ from oratoria? It is acted out. When Handel was in England in the early seventeenth century he poured out many Italian operas, but found it very hard to stage his oratoria, even The Messiah.


  1. St Thomas’ Anglican Church, Werribee.

Every Advent and Christmas time St Thomas’ church is lit up like a battleship, both inside the church and throughout the grounds, with pictures and images of Advent tide and the Nativity, Jesus and the Holy Family. You just step into the Gospel, because here and there and everywhere are pictures you can appreciate. In the Orthodox Church there are no pews,  people stand at the high points of the Gospel. With the example of St Thomas’ in mind, we could get rid of the clutter of pews by stepping into the Gospel.

The sermon could be a dialogue between the people and the minister, who would not stand three feet above contradiction but would be in the midst of the people dialoguing with them. Pews could be available for those who want to be seated.

There is colour at St Thomas’. There are stained glass windows in my home church but I have never heard the preacher preach on them.  Before people could read the priest used pictures of stained glass and paintings to teach the people the Gospel. This constituted a good Christian education. A good example of stained glass windows is in St Michael’s Uniting Church, Melbourne where the minister has preached on them all. I well remember Peter Matheson when he became principal of the Theological Hall giving a lecture on the Reformation by the use of a whole host of pictures of the Reformation figures. The lesson was well learnt.  Paintings could be used too.


  1. Sister Miriam’s church at Belmont, Victoria.

Sister Miriam is the well-respected minister of Belmont Uniting Church. She lives in community at Teasdale. As I entered the church I saw the usual serried rows of people before me. But they were all quiet. There was no talking. Each person was engaged in his or her private devotions because they had come to the holy place. There was also a period during the service when there was a two-minute silence when people could reflect.

At the appropriate time Sister Miriam, who was dressed in white, rose from her seat and announced that, it being the 38th anniversary of the Uniting Church, Dr Warren Bartlett would preach the sermon. The Bible reading was three verses of Scripture from St John’s Gospel and Warren Bartlett gave a beautiful cameo comforting sermon. Various people had their say in readings and prayers in a succinct and clipped way. The offering was deftly taken up and offered. The hymns were on the overhead which was set in the wall at the front of the church in no way hindering people’s view of what was happening. I did not know any of the hymns. Hymn books were not necessary. With the end of the fourth and final hymn there was the Benediction and then the church erupted as the 150 people shared the peace, etc.

This was the traditionalist model at its best. Anybody who has been to a Catholic funeral Mass will have seen impeccable liturgy and fine singing.

At my church the preacher supplies a piece of classical music upon which the people might reflect and meditate on the sermon.


  1. St Michael’s Uniting Church, Melbourne.

Dr Francis McNab has been the minister for many moons. He likes to wear three or four coloured gowns at the same time to impress. There is beautiful music from either a string quartet, a gaggle of violins or a beautiful organ. Most of the service is taken by the Associate Minister who is an American; Dr McNab gets his associates from America because he doesn’t think we can train them in Australia. The sermon, and Dr McNab is a psychiatrist, is highly psychological and he is virtually saying “Get up and do it. You can go it”. One wonders where God is. Recently the congregation promulgated ‘A new Christianity’ but it is doubtful whether it would meet the criteria of what true Christianity is.

This is the radical liberal model.

  1. Uniting Church experiences.

The Eucharist: I well remember in my first church I poured the wine as well as broke the bread. I have never seen anyone else try this since. In one church where I was associated the congregation met at 8.00 a.m. on Sunday for breakfast, with bread and wine. What a pity we don’t have a common cup, which is such a beautiful symbol of the unity of the church.

Baptism is a particular drama in the Uniting Church. The Baptistery should be near the front door because Baptism is the joining of the church of the person who is baptised. In the Orthodox Church this is so. They even immerse a baby. There is a Baptistery for total immersion in St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne.

What about the use of a rude cross brought into the sanctuary for Good Friday? I remember Wes Campbell doing so at St Johns, Essendon. I remember it well because Alistair Macrae was sitting down the front close to it deeply in prayer.

What about the epiclesis? (epi=on, clesis=to call) The epiclesis is at the heart of the Communion service. When Robert Gribben left the Theological Hall he left behind him a book of The Great Prayers of Thanksgiving (of which the epiclesis is the heart).  Every minister should read it. The epiclesis is the work of the officiating minister when he calls the Spirit upon the bread and wine so that the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – may commune with the people and they with God.

All the above indicates the possibilities for realistic and real liturgy in the Uniting Church.

  1. I am well aware that with opera we have an ethical problem and much paganism and fripperies. That infects the words but not really the music from which we are free to learn.

(All the above is an addendum to my book Worship in the Shapes and Forms of Popular Culture 2010, 176 pages).



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