Ecclesiastical Orphism

Last night, my wife and I had a delightful evening out at an orchestra concert, but the object of our evening outage was no ordinary orchestra.

The fare for the evening was the world-renowned Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which happened to be visiting the Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda, MD, where Heidi often freelances with the National Philharmonic Orchestra.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

This was a very special night, shared with a very special group of people. Orpheus is, quite simply, a joy to watch. Their philosophy of music and of life is evident with every note.

You see, unlike the vast majority of “normal orchestras” – even world-famous ones – Orpheus has no conductor. There is no “leader” standing up at the front of the stage waving a stick, giving orders to the performers on stage, and taking responsibility if something goes wrong.

Rather, this group operates by what it calls “The Orpheus Process,” described on their website thus:

“Instead of one person taking on the orchestra’s artistic responsibility and leadership, we share leadership throughout the membership of the orchestra. Each piece sees a different concertmaster, rotating principle musician chairs, and a sharing of ideas and inspirations. This empowering formula creates a dynamic setting where each musician takes artistic ownership of the performance, not just his or her own part. When we feel personally connected to the music, we know you will too.”

Indeed, that connection was obvious – inescapable, even. Each musician was personally invested in every note, every movement, every breath that escaped the stage.

As an amateur musician myself, I’ve performed in a number of low-level orchestras. As a professional violinist, my wife has performed in more advanced settings. I’ve never experienced anything close to what I saw on that stage, and according to her, neither has she.

Normally, the conductor chooses the music, interprets it, and then coaches the orchestra into performing his interpretation. Normally the orchestra members have a responsibility to follow him, and to pay attention to their section leader and their stand partner. Normally the section leaders have the responsiblity for coordinating and leading the other members of their sections.

That framework means nothing in Orpheus. Yes, there are section leaders, but they rotate for each piece. Yes, there is even a concertmaster (The section leader of the First Violin section in a traditional orchestra, arguably the “lead musician” on the stage, underneath the conductor.) But when it comes time to prepare for a performance, each musician is fully invested in the art the group is crafting. The section leaders are rotated for each piece. A violinist might be the concertmaster for one piece, sit near the back of the section for another, and watch a third from off-stage if it calls for a smaller number of violins. The music is interpreted, not by one person, but by the whole ensemble, through a collaborative rehearsal process that gives each musician a chance to examine the piece from both inside and out, and to provide input to the group.

Similarly, where a normal orchestra receives its cues from the conductor – starting and stopping based on the movement of his baton – Orpheus might take its cues from the concertmaster, or the oboe, or the section leader of the string bass section . . . all in the same piece of music, depending on where the melody is at any given point in time. The music is almost organic – cues come from the people responsible for the particular phrase of music being played at that point in time, and each musician is keenly aware of the other 40 or so musicians on stage at every point in the piece. They have to be, or the whole enterprise would collapse.

I found myself musing, as I watched them play, “This is what the church should look like . . . “

The traditional, institutional church has followed a very similar path as the traditional, institutional orchestra. In the beginning, neither had a “conductor” in the true sense. The early church was led by learned men who agonized over the interpretations of what they perceived to be the words of God. Similarly, early orchestras were led – if not by the composer of a given work himself – by the concertmaster . . . the most learned and experienced musician among them.

Over time, both institutions began to travel a different path. Rather than a musician being both a part of the orchestra, in addition to being its leader, the role of “conductor” became a “special” function – set apart from the rest of the people on stage. It became the conductor who solely interpreted the music, who solely took responsibility for its successes and failures, and who solely accepted the applause of appreciative crowds.

Similarly, in the church, the “vicar class” was born. Bishops, Priests, Pastors, and other roles were invested with meaning well beyond that found in scripture, or invented from whole cloth – meaning that set them apart from “normal” members of the flock – the “laymen.”

Where the conductor was responsible for interpreting the intent of the composer, these “pastors” became responsible for the interpretation of God’s intent. Where the conductor’s shoulders bore the weight of the orchestra’s success or failure, the pastor’s shoulders bore the responsibility for the eternal souls of his parishoners. Where the conductor was glorified when “his” orchestra performed well, the pastor became the object of special status – including promotion in the new ecclesiastical hierarchy – depending on the “performance” of “his” church.

Orpheus, to me, is a symbol of where the church is going. I cannot speak for all believers, but I can speak for a small but growing portion of us. We are steadily wearying of the so-called “experts” who impress upon us their interpretations of God’s will with less and less justification. Instead, we are turning to relationships – the same sort of relationships that I saw on that stage last night.

Think of the incredible amount of trust those musicians must have in one another. If a single person falters, the whole performance suffers. If a single person even fails to communicate – fails to cue the others when beginning a new phrase, fails to hear or see what another part of the ensemble is doing, fails in any way to either understand the other musicians, or to make him or herself understood in turn – what was a glorious piece of music a moment before is suddenly a cacophany of mere noise.

In the same way, believers should be able to trust one another. If we all have the same goal in common – the joy of a life lived with Christ – I should trust that my fellow travellers on this journey are living that life as best they know how, and I should expect them to trust me the same way. None of us should be due any individual credit for any “kingdom” successes – the reward belongs to the body of Christ. The tapestry that is created when the body of Christ lives and works as an organic entity – all parts in relationship with one another and working in their unique and separate ways toward the common goal of seeking to know God – is truly a work of art . . . one even more stunning than that created when 40 musicians trust each other enough to get out on stage and create something beautiful together.

Just like the Orpheus process, participation in the body of Christ should be, and is, an empowering process. It does require an incredible amount of investment. In a traditional church setting, I could sit back and let some pastor tell me what to think. Outside of the traditional church framework, I cannot do that. I am responsible, any and every day, to truly “give a reason for the hope that is within me.”

I can’t just regurgitate some talking points or a list of scripture verses. In the same way each member of Orpheus has to know what they think of the piece being played, I have to know what I believe about the God I walk with.

It is a big responsibility – and one I don’t always live up to. There are too many questions I continue to ask myself, and to which I don’t know the answer. There are too many times when I still find myself reciting a party line, rather than giving coherent thought to a question.

I want more for myself – demand more from myself.

I want a life – a faith – that looks like Orpheus.

6 Comments

Filed under Ideas I stole from somebody else, but improved on, Things most people will disagree with, Things that will convince you I'm a godless heathen, Things that will get me excommunicated, Things that will piss somebody off

6 Responses to Ecclesiastical Orphism

  1. Okay, haven’t blogged for a while, but this looks good. Nice changes! I promise to think later…

  2. Dave

    Nicely done with the Orpheus comparison! It’s true-we get so much freedom following Him relationally, but our personal responsibility seems to increase tenfold.

  3. Dave

    It is a big resonsibility and like you Copernicus, all too often, I forget that transformation is a life-long process and I tend to want all the answers now because I’m not living up to that responsibility when that happens. Often I need to remind myself He may show me something two days from now I’ve been completely unaware of. It’s easy to talk about putting our trust in Him, but doing so daily gets tested often.

  4. That’s a beautiful analogy and a wonderful example of how we are to be looking for God’s revelation of Himself.

    I wish I could see a performance!

  5. Pingback: Lifestream Blog » Blog Archive » Wayne to Appear on Drew Marshall Tomorrow

  6. Pingback: The Thin Edge - Orchestras Without Conductors

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