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Ripon College Conference Report

Posted in: Christianity,News Items,Practices by Andy Edwards on September 10, 2011

Ripon College Cuddesdon

Last week I posted that I was on my way to present a paper at a conference in Oxford on Christian Congregational Music. I’m happy to report that this was among the best conferences I’ve ever attended, in terms of an instant collegiality and the discovery of a confluence of interests among so many scholars who, until this past weekend, were strangers to one another. Some of them, I gather, are a part of a special interest group of the Society for Ethnomusicology devoted to “Sacred/Religious Music,” but there were many participants who, like me, came out of our own niche interests, whether academic or practical (or both). Fifty papers were delivered over the course of three days, ranging from Hungarian CCM (a distinctively counter-cultural & Catholic version of Christian pop/rock) to the corporate branding of Hillsong, from multicultural parades in Toronto to the theopolitics of Pentecostalist music in Haiti.

In the final “Looking Forward” roundtable, I was pleased that someone (and not me!) brought up this blog—and, in particular, the Somatica Divina series—as a helpful resource for reflecting upon the theme of embodiment in musical practices, a theme that emerged as predominant across many of our discussions.

Many presentations included video, often taken from fieldwork in congregations around the world. We discussed the varieties of gesture and what Barthes called “the grain of the voice,” as well as how congregations or various Christian subcultures employ musical practices to assert their (social, theological, political) identities both internally and externally.

Notable papers included the following:

  • Monique Ingalls (University of Cambridge) and Gesa Hartje (Leuphana Universität Lüneberg) both pointed to Benedict Anderson’s theory of “imagined communities” as a helpful tool in interpreting the function of musical practices within Christian communities, particularly evangelical “praise & worship” music.
  • Clive Marsh (University of Leicester) presented the results of a survey into how congregations listen to music—not just the words, but the actual physicality of various soundscapes—and how they might learn to listen better.
  • Anna Nekola (Denison University) presented a fascinating look at the print ads that emerged in the mid-90s for praise & worship music CDs, and how that marketing reflected and reinforced a hyper-Protestant bias toward the privatization of religion: they usually depict young women with headphones and eyes closed in bliss, or a serenely dark cockpit of a luxury car, with captions describing how one may be transported to heaven from anywhere on earth.
  • Deborah Smith Pollard (University of Michigan-Dearborn) traced an illuminating genealogy of contemporary “praise & worship” music to its roots in distinctive practices within Black Churches, deconstructing several assumptions about that genre.
  • Kinga Povedák (University of Szeged) presented her study of Contemporary Catholic Music as it emerged in communist Hungary as a counter-cultural voice of gypsies and youth. This subculture fought on two fronts, against both political powers and the Catholic hierarchy.
Final Roundtable (from left to right: Mark Evans, Macquarrie Univ.; Deborah Smith Pollard, Univ. of Michigan-Dearborn; Monique Ingalls,  Univ. of Cambridge; June Boyce-Tillman, Univ. of Winchester; Martyn Percy, Ripon College Cuddesdon)

Of course this is just a sampling as I review my notes after returning home. With so many fine papers and subsequent discussion, it is difficult to truncate their collective value. I think of Kierkegaard’s cartographical argument against historicism here: the only accurate portrayal would be a map the size of the world, or a history that takes millenia to read! Indeed, it would take another three days to fully represent this event.

Finally, however, I must share two humorous comments that made a lasting impression:

  • Britney Spears is a perfect anagram of Presbyterian; think about it. (Martyn Percy, Ripon College Cuddeson)
  • King’s College Cambridge Choir has done for parish choirs what Barbie has done for women. (June Boyce-Tillmann, University of Winchester)

I hope to further explore this latter comment, however, as the question of musical “perfection” is an issue of particular interest.

Andy Edwards

Collegeville, MN



  1. Andy, thanks for sharing your report. It sounds like a rich conference, and how nice that R&T was mentioned. When given a thoughtful look, I think our “Somatica Divina” series presents an interesting angle on theology and popular music. I hope someone might be able to develop the ideas further.

    Comment by T Beaudoin — September 12, 2011 @ 11:15 am

  2. Hi Andy,

    I was the one at the Conference who remarked on the R&T website and somatica divina. In forthcoming article in the journal Ethnomusicology (Fall Issue 2011) on Pentecostal music in Papua New Guinea I “borrow” the concept of somatica divina, which I think has a lot of scope for theorization – through which you guys on the website seem to draw on/in proxemics, senses of communality, uses of performance space, perceived interaction between divine and human performers etc in music making situations and how such interaction is registered bodily. Many thanks for the concept, and many thanks for the website and all I am learning.

    Michael Webb (The University of Sydney, Australia)

    Comment by Michael Webb — September 16, 2011 @ 4:30 am

  3. Andy, thanks so much for the helpful synopsis and endorsement! Here’s a bit more info regarding the Sacred/Religious Music Special Interest Group: we are affiliated with the Society for Ethnomusicology, but we’re aiming for broader, interdisciplinary dialogue. Quite a few of us focus on religious dimensions of popular music (or popular dimensions of religious music!), and we welcome readers of the Rock & Theology blog to join our Google Group listserv (search for SRM-SIG) for information on conferences of mutual interest, research networks, resource suggestions, etc.

    Comment by Monique Ingalls — September 16, 2011 @ 7:38 am

  4. I wasn’t at the conference but was asked on a local uni radio station whether the ‘techguys’ and the ‘musicians’ at ‘my church’ get too bothered about performing well and about perfecting the music, ad whether this interferes with worship. I laughed because we have no techguys and our organist isn’t perfect. However it’s a good question and makes me realise that the enthusiasm and commitment to our singing is more important that the ‘quality’ of the music…. whatever the style of music we use.

    Comment by Jill Marsh — March 20, 2012 @ 11:19 am

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