This afternoon, I drove to Providence to the monthly Sacred Harp singing. Sacred Harp is one branch of an American shape note singing tradition which dates back to the Boston composer William Billings in the late 18th C.; it is an indigenous polyphonic sacred choral music tradition that left New England in the 19th C., migrated to the Appalachians, survived into the 20th C. in the deep South, whence it migrated back to New England in the 1970s.
A dozen of us sat around singing our hearts out for three hours. In Sacred Harp singings, the people who are singing choose the songs to sing. It was time to end; what should the last song be? Someone suggested we sing number 183, “Greenwich”:
Lord, what a thoughtless wretch was I,
To mourn and murmur and repine,
To see the wicked placed on high,
In pride of honor shine.
But oh, their end, their dreadful end,
Thy sanctuary taught me so,
On slipp’ry rocks I see them stand,
And fiery billows roll below.
It’s a lovely song to sing, but one of the tenors said it should not be our last song. Smiling, I said, “You don’t want to be left with that last vivid image as you drive home?” and she replied, “Well, that’s what I believe in, but we really should sing a different song for a closing.” Still smiling, I decided that it was not a good time to reveal that theologically I am a post-Christian Universalist. Then someone suggested that we close with “Christian’s Farewell,” which is slow and easy to sing, and which has words that were altogether more appropriate for a closing song:
Brethren, farewell, I do you tell,
I’m sorry to leave, I love you so well.
Now I must go, where I don’t know,
Wherever Christ leads me,
The trumpet to blow….
While singing this, it occurred to me that there are some Unitarian Universalists who would refuse to sing any of these Sacred Harp songs, because they would object to the theology. But that would be like refusing to go into Notre Dame in Paris, because it is a Papist abomination. I sang my heart out, and loved every minute of it, theology notwithstanding:
Here I have worked, labored a while,
But labor is sweet if Jesus doth smile.
When I am done, I will go home,
Where Jesus is smiling,
And bids me to come.
Sometimes you do theology, and sometimes you just sing.