You’ve no doubt seen the video or heard the story about the priest who sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah!” at a wedding.
On Facebook, I have many friends who are liturgists, music ministers, youth ministers, and clergy. There, I’ve noticed that those who are liturgists mostly cannot stand what this priest did in the video. Those who are youth ministers tend to be much more enthusiastic about this. Music ministers and clergy seem to be on both sides. Yet most all agree that the priest has a lovely voice and sang this song very well. And almost everyone I know loves the original song by Leonard Cohen.
I’ve already tried to explain to my Facebook friends why this is not an example of good liturgy. But the arguments I hear back from those who are overjoyed at what this priest did are not about what constitutes good liturgy but about what brings joy to the assembly. I lament that we’ve gotten to the point where for some, “good liturgy” equals joyless liturgy.
The social media conversation around this video is very telling. Liturgists (myself included) have not done ourselves or others any good by beating people over the head with rubrics. Yet rubrics do have value, as does human emotion. How can we bridge the divide?
So, without recourse to “It’s against the rules,” what is a helpful way of explaining why this is so inappropriate?
Well- I think you have to toss out all the liturgical explanations, and questions of style, or even questions about secular music in church in order to get at the root of it. Those things are all important, but the atrocity being committed here is much deeper than that, I think.
Let’s even lay aside questions about the theology of the song (which is a bit sketchy), since people don’t tend to care about that sort of thing (and God can withstand stupid things being said about Him).
The first big problem is that the wedding liturgy is about the couple, not the priest. (It’s about God, first. But, whatever, right?) The singing drew attention away from the couple and directed it toward the priest. This is selfish and narcissistic, and robbed the couple of what is rightfully theirs.
Priests tend to forget how a wedding functions in the life of the couple. For a priest – he may preside at hundreds or possibly thousands of weddings in his lifetime. A couple gets married only once. It doesn’t matter if the priest is bored, or has heard all the prayers before, or has to do this same thing again tomorrow. Each wedding is a unique event in the life of a couple, and a priest should not impose his own personality onto that.
Which brings me to the second point, the really disturbing one.
In singing this song in particular, the priest is not just intruding on the wedding celebration, but is intruding on the couple’s relationship. If the song has little meaning for them, the intrusion is only annoying. If it has real meaning to them (which, according to the social media advocates of this nonsense, it does for many many people), the intrusion is profoundly disturbing, even creepy.
Does anyone listen to lyrics anymore?!
It’s really a profoundly moving song, but its not even remotely appropriate to a wedding. It’s about the ways that lovers hurt each other and the glory that can be found even in that pain.
Love is a lot of things, including sometimes a cold and broken “hallelujah.” But a wedding is specifically about the “victory march” of love.
Because of its focus on the private aspect of love (hidden pain and secret joy), and not the public aspect (celebration) it is a remarkably intimate song, with the speaker of the song addressing it to his (or her, I guess) lover.
From a liturgical standpoint, you could fault the lyrics for their vagueness. But that misses the point. The mystifying and pseudo-biblical imagery allows any couple with a shared history to write their own meaning into it, to put fleshy details into the cosmic and romantic poetry. Any couple who finds this song specifically meaningful has a meaning in it that is unique to them.
It is really beyond inappropriate for a priest to publicly insert himself that way into a couple’s private story, taking on the vocal role of one of the lovers. Honestly, it creeps me out a bit, and makes me wonder about that priest’s personal life and his own private longings and struggles in a way that the public should not ever be privy to.
More than a violation of rubrics or good taste or even theology, it is a violation of the sacred rites and private stories that bind lovers together, like a confused idiot stumbling unaware upon two people sharing their first kiss, and not knowing enough that he should turn back around and let them be.
EDITThe priest apparently did not sing the original text of the song. I didn’t know this because I honestly could not bring myself to listen to it.
The problem with that is that everyone already knows the original lyrics. The song is embedded into our culture, and the story that we each associate with it- whatever that story is – cannot be separated out just by making it more “optimistic.”
Either the song is meaningless to the couple, in which case there’s no point in doing it, or the song has meaning to them, in which case this is an intrusion into their story. Changing the lyrics just makes it worse. And, since the priest didn’t ask the couple ahead of time, or give them any indication it was going to happen, he had NO IDEA whether the song was meaningful or not to them, no sense of whether he may have been intruding.
The people who advocate a “liberal/progressive” (for lack of a better term – I know it’s not a good term) liturgical paradigm, and/or the people who promote creative adaptations to liturgy and bemoan adherence to rubrics, those people tend to scream about sensitivity, about personalization, about the needs and longings of the individuals. This event, and all events like it, are contrary to all those values. It is ham-handed and awkward. The couple in the video may have been delighted, but the next couple may be appalled, embarrassed, hurt, or just annoyed.
It isn’t the violation of rubrics and theology that primarily bothers me. It is the potential violation of the couple’s relationship that I find so appalling.