The Church is a Symphony

The other evening I went to the symphony. While enjoying the music immensely (an all Beethoven program), I was also enjoying watching the conductor. He was quite animated, looking at the different sections of the orchestra, giving them their cues, leading the whole orchestra, counting the time, and of course, the stops and the starts. At one point, when the entire orchestra was playing in unison, I thought to myself, “That looks like the easiest part of his job.” Which made me think about the Church.

St. Ignatius of Antioch in the second century wrote, “For your honorable presbytery, which is worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop, even as its strings to a lyre. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love Jesus Christ is sung.” This line is often quoted. The next line though is more reminiscent of my experience of the symphony orchestra. Ignatius continued, “And do you, each and all, form yourselves into a chorus, that being harmonious in concord and taking the key note of God you may in unison sing with one voice through Jesus Christ…”

In many respects, the Church is more like a symphony orchestra or a chorus than a single lyre or instrument. The Church is comprised of many different members – men, women, children, clergy, teachers, missionaries, etc.; the orchestra has sections – violins, horns, percussion, etc. In the orchestra, each member of a section is are each unique and distinct. Each contributes his or her unique gifts and abilities to the whole. Within each symphony section each musician is unique. There is also a hierarchy, a “first violin,” “second violin,” and so forth. The Church is comprised of many ministries. Each ministry has its individual members, who provide their time, talents and treasure to the whole. Within each ministry there could be a hierarchy of more experienced members to the novices. Of course, within the hierarchy and clergy there is the more official hierarchy of seniority.

In the symphony orchestra, the conductor is the leader. The conductor’s job is to interpret the score (more on that below), and then lead the orchestra in such a way as to perform the piece. The conductor’s job looks the easiest when every one is playing at the same time and hardest when sections go in and out of the score (a conductor friend of mine confirmed this for me too), since the conductor must bring them in or lead them out just at the right moment. The conductor also needs to make sure that each section is playing the music according to his interpretation of the score.

In the Church, bishops and presbyters serve as the conductor, depending on whether we are talking about a diocese or a parish. For the purposes of ease of discussion, I’ll focus on the diocese level. The job of the bishop is to interpret and teach the Faith of the Church, knowing what the Church has taught through time and trying to discern what needs to be emphasized at a particular moment. The bishop tries to lead the various ministries to do their best. It appears (although I’m sure it’s not) easy when everyone is working towards the same thing or is in agreement. It’s probably most difficult when everyone is “doing their own thing” and not even observing the leader.

In the symphony, a composer has written a score for the piece to be played. The composer arranged the score for each instrument in the orchestra. The composer also left marks on the score, with the time, the speed (allegro, vivace, etc.), and the dynamics – from very soft to very loud. The composer had a vision of how the piece was to be played and what the audience would experience. But even with that, the conductor determines how to understand the composer’s instructions.

This is more complicated for the Church. In the Church, the “composer” is Christ Himself. His teachings were recorded by His first disciples. These are in the Gospels. Other early disciples, like St. Paul, left us their teachings. The Church gathered them into the Bible, determining which books hey had inherited from Judaism would be called the Old Testament and then which books would comprise the New Testament. Unlike a composer of a symphony, Jesus left no instructions about which teachings of His were more important than others, which parts to emphasize more loudly than others. The Tradition of the Church is a Tradition of interpretation of these biblically inspired writers (at least these are the ones we’ve saved) written over the centuries, with each new generation adding to what had come before. Each generation and writer has emphasized something significant. The contemporary task is to become as familiar as possible with these, knowing that each of us will still have a particular emphasis, something that “grabs us” more than something else when we read the older material. We also have our own challenges, issues that the past didn’t have to wrestle with or could not have foreseen. On these topics, we have to do what the earlier writers did: search the Scriptures. We do this so that our “symphony orchestra,” the Church can bear witness or “perform” to Christ in the world today.