St Gregory the Great: Sermon

A sermon preached by Mgr Andrew Burnham at the Oxford Ordinariate Group’s Mass on the Feast of St Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Church:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.  Col. 3:17

ON MY bathroom wall, nearly forty years ago, was a large mural of St Gregory the Great.  It was beautifully done and the legend was something like Abyssus abyssum invocat, in voce cataractarum tuarum: one deep calleth another because of the noise of the water-pipes.  The mural, a copy of a mediaeval original had St Gregory, in pallium and pontificals, with the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove perched on his right shoulder, whispering into his ear the sacred melodies of plainsong.  So deeply associated are they with Gregory, that these melodies collectively are often referred to as Gregorian chant, though some of them are from before Gregory’s time and, inevitably, most of them are of more recent origin.  Also in the picture is a monastic scribe writing it all down.  When I moved house, someone took a colour photograph of the mural – a slide – and then meticulously copied it as a permanent, portable painting, which I still have.  Unfortunately the slide was viewed from the wrong side and not only is the scribe now left handed – a sinister development – but, equally maladroitly, the Holy Spirit is now on Gregory’s left shoulder, whispering into his left ear.

On St Gregory the Great’s day we could ponder many things.  We could ponder the outreach of Gregory towards our own country and the mission of St Augustine.  ‘Not Angles but Anglicans’, as 1066 and All That records Gregory as saying when he saw some fair-headed slave boys in the market place.  We have the Chorus Anglorum singing for us today and their name captures that famous pun, for we could be forgiven for thinking that they are a chorus angelorum, a chorus of angels.  Equally we could reflect on Gregory’s contribution to monasticism.  In 573, at the age of about 33, he was Prefect of Rome but the following year gave it all up and transformed his family palace on the Caelian Hill into a monastic community.  He was a monk and then abbot of St Andrew’s Monastery.  He worked hard at developing the Benedictine monastic tradition, and would probably be remembered if that was all he had done.  Then there is his work as Pope.  He was elected in 590 and left a rich, fourteen-year legacy.  He is famous for his Book of Pastoral Rule, a handy guide for bishops even today.  He is known  for his liturgical work: the Gregorian Sacramentary is ascribed to him, though it is a somewhat later compilation in the form we find it, but the tradition, at any rate, is that Gregory established and settled the Roman Rite in more or less the way we now know it, at any rate in its pre-conciliar form.  One of the ways of referring to the Extraordinary Form is to call it the Gregorian Rite.

I think we can see, by now, why he was called ‘the Great’.   We could go on and remark about his preference for the contemplative life.  He was a mystic as well as someone who achieved massively.  He was the first pope to be called servus servorum Dei, servant of the servants of God.   But today, because we are celebrating his feast with a feast of Gregorian chant, we return to what this chant represents in the liturgy of the Church.  It is monody – a single melodic line – and not harmony.  It is vocal and not instrumental.  It is affective – speaking to and expressive of our feelings – and not purely narrative.  There is a vast range in this music: there are melodies simple enough for every one to join in; there are complex, melismatic chants which demand considerable vocal expertise, with good breath control and the ability to negotiate complex patterns of notes.   In the New Oxford History of Music Vol. II, originally published in 1954, but still at the cutting edge when I was studying music here more than a decade later, Egon Wellesz, Reader in Byzantine Music, took the three sorts of music mentioned in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:9 as the three-fold division of chant in the ancient world.   Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs: psalms, that form of incantation, still used for psalms, where most of the verse is on a single note and there is then a cadence or ending; hymns, those simple strophic compositions where the same melody is repeated several times to different words; spiritual songs, in Wellesz’s words ‘alleluias and other chants of a jubilant or ecstatic character, richly ornamented’.

Nowadays, I’m told, this interpretation of Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:9 is no longer thought to be accurate but, whatever its biblical or musicological value, the division into psalm singing, hymn singing and the singing of elaborate spiritual songs is clear to see.  Here is music for the cultus – incantation.  Here is music for solidarity – hymn singing.  Here is music to express the beauty of holiness – spiritual songs.

But my final thought is this: rather than go off into a more detailed discussion of the chant we have inherited from Gregory the Great, with questions of how these melodies were sung, whether they used to be sung with rhythm and whether the way the modern plainsong canon is performed is largely a nineteenth century invention of the monks of the Abbaye de Solesmnes, I want to leave you with this thought.  Not only has much of what Gregory the Great knew as church music in the sixth century come down to us in the present day, but quite a bit of what Gregory knew as church music in the sixth century the Lord Jesus himself knew as the music of temple and synagogue six centuries before that.   At the end of the Last Supper, St Matthew tells us that ‘when they had sung a hymn’, Jesus and the eleven ‘went out to the Mount of Olives’.  We know that this hymn would have been the Hallel, the psalm sung at the Passover, and we not only know the words – ‘When Israel came out of Egypt’ – but we have strong reason to believe that the pilgrim tone, the Tonus peregrinus, which we still use, was the tune that the Lord and his disciples sang that night.  In short, this mysterious chant stuff plunges us much more deeply into the business of the tradition – the handing over and the handing down – than we might at first suspect.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 

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