Dancing and Fluting in Faith


Dancing and Fluting in Faith

Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30

Gordon plays “Lord of the Dance” on the Flute.

“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance”

That of course was the now famous hymn by Sydney Carter, which we will in fact sing a bit later. Carter died ten years ago and the hymn has become something of a classic. And dancing was an important expression of the joy of faith for him – he uses it again in his other famous song, ‘One more step along the world I go’, in which there is the invitation to ‘leap and sing’. And in this morning’s gospel we have Jesus talking about dance as something to be encouraged. So, you might not be surprised to learn that this morning’s reading got me thinking about flute playing – something I often do, but don’t often think about! – and also about dancing. Dancing, I never think about either – nor to I ever, ever do it.

So what does Jesus mean when he talks about flute playing and dancing? Well, the key to it is John the Baptist. It was he who came before Jesus, ‘crying in the wilderness’ –wailing if you like, exhorting the people of God to take notice of the fact that the Messiah was coming. But no-one listened: they thought he was weird, and Herod – who did listen to his criticisms of his personal life, locked him up and then had his head chopped off in order to not have to listen any more to his most inconvenient message. John’s message, to be fair, was a bit bleak: repent – don camel’s hair, get ready for the Lord is coming, and when he does there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Prepare the way of the Lord, he cried, for he will raise up every valley and make the distressed and downtrodden joyful.

So it is perhaps no surprise people didn’t pay much attention – they thought of him as at worst a weirdo, at best another of those prophets telling us we’re not behaving right and trouble is coming.

So what happens next - well, Jesus comes along – the promised Messiah, and he doesn’t preach doom and gloom, but rather brings Good News. Rather than a dirge, he brings a dance. He compares himself to the flute, or pipe players who lead dancing, who bring jollity and respite from the drudgery of daily existence. I rather like the idea of Jesus comparing himself to a flute player – but we should not overlook why he does so. For what he is saying is, no matter how much fun faith is, folk don’t listen. What is it about people that they aren’t interested in faith, in doing the right thing, in helping others, in not being so self-absorbed in whatever is going around them as to take no interest in the big picture: as to take no interest in either music, or faith. So whether it is the dirge or the dance, all we see is a sulky refusal to engage and join in:

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

It would be tempting to say that some things don’t change – some things don’t change! – and there is far more to lure people away from caring, moral, spiritual, reflective behaviour now than there was 2000 years ago, I guess.

Indeed I read only yesterday that apparently, not only are churches finding it harder to persuade folk to come with any regularity, our concert halls are struggling too. It is not just organized religion that is taking a hit, but organized culture too. So, do come to the orchestral concert here in church this evening – buck the trend! For there is no substitute for live music – and no substitute for the worship of the living Lord in the House of God.

Which brings me to ‘Lord of the Dance’. Perhaps you will know something of its fascinating pedigree as a hymn. It began life as a Shaker song, written in 1848 by one Joseph Brackett, who was then living in Alfred, Maine, in the USA. The words were as follows:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.

Although the denomination of Christians known as Shakers originated in Manchester in the eighteenth century, they have become almost exclusively associated with New England in the USA. In 1774, Mother Ann Lee, the leader of what was then a nine-person group, moved everyone to New York. The Community focused their spiritual lives on attaining holiness, which they felt was partly achieved by a spiritual process of ridding the body of sin by way of convulsions, which earned them the name ‘shaking quakers’. For them the shaking engendered purification by the Holy Spirit. The Shakers lived in a celibate community segregating men and women, who had different staircases in houses, and who sat on opposite sides of a room when together. Communities grew up elsewhere and by the mid-nineteenth century there were some 6,000 members, in eighteen separate communities across eight American states. Shaker life was characterized by prayer and work: Women wore headscarves and men had ponytails. Shaker style chairs – now highly sought after - were made with great care and skill, and with a philosophy not unlike a Benedictine approach: something well made is an expression of prayer.

Worship took place in meeting-houses, where singing and music were very important, as were dancing, twitching and shouting. While some of these practices caused consternation among their neighbours, the Shakers nevertheless produced a great deal of singable, delightful tunes, some of which used texts which drew on experiences of glossolalia (speaking in tongues): in Shaker theology, music could be a spiritual gift and was encouraged as such. One of the Shaker tunes, ‘Simple Gifts’ has become extremely famous, not only in its own right, but in virtue of the use to which it has been put by other composers.

‘Simple gifts’ is not a hymn, but is a Shaker dance song. In the Shaker context the distinction is straightforward: hymns have more than one verse. The last three lines of the single verse ‘Simple gifts’ refer to moves made in the dance, which obviously involved turning ‘again and again’.

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.

The reference to bowing and bending may well also have had an instructional purpose in terms of the way the music was danced. The song itself has travelled widely, most importantly through the hands of Aaron Copland, who first used it at the end of his Ballet ‘Appalachian Spring’ written in 1944, on which he collaborated with the choreographer Martha Graham (1894-1991). It was very successful: he was awarded a Pulizer Prize for it in 1945, and in the same year he made an orchestral suite of the music which has become even more popular. The ballet is ostensibly about a spring celebration of nineteenth century American pioneers who have built a new farmhouse in Pennsylvania. The main characters include a newlywed couple and a revivalist preacher: it has nothing to do with the Appalachian mountains at all!

On the other side of the Atlantic ‘Simple Gifts’ caught the attention of Sydney Carter (1915-2004), who worked for the British Council and BBC World Service. His hymn, known universally as ‘The Lord of the Dance’, was written in 1966 and is entirely based on the melody. Carter’s adaptation is catchy, with words that tell the story of salvation, from creation to Good Friday, beginning: “I danced in the morning when the world was begun”. The refrain reminds us of the eternal dance of salvation:

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance said he,
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.

In the history of the Church, the medium of dance has had a chequered history, during which it has often been alienated, proscribed or at best ignored. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s 1559 Prayer Book contained illustrations of the ‘Dance of Death’ and in another picture, “The New-Married Lady” the character of Death insidiously dances before the bride and groom beating a tambour. Old St Paul’s Cathedral, destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, had similarly macabre carvings lining the cloisters, illustrating sinister verses written by the poet John Lydgate, who was a contemporary of Chaucer. The idea of portraying the dance of death probably originated in France, where the earliest known depiction of such a dance was in the Cimetière des Innocents in Paris, painted in 1424, but later destroyed. And you may know that the composer and organist Saint Saens wrote his Danse Macabre in 1874, in which an off-tune violin sets the weird pace as xylophones clatter out the sound of rattling bones. Fans of the TV sleuth Jonathan Creek will know the music.

That said, Copland and Carter, following the Shaker Tradition of ‘Simple Gifts’, point us towards a joyful spiritual dance, not of death but of resurrection life. For while the relationship between dance and faith has not always been prominent, liturgical dance is becoming more mainstream in worship, and it would appear that the artform is at last gaining a position of respectability and value as an expression of faith. Indeed, it is the writer of Ecclesiastes who reminds us that:

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: … a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance...” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4).

So let us listen out for the Lord’s music – for his invitation to dance and sing – his call to be positive and open, reflective and responsive to his call of grace and mercy, for he is gentle and humble in heart, and in him we find activity for our bodies and rest for our souls.

For his yoke is easy, and his burden is light.

And he truly is, the Lord of the Dance.


The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 06/07/14