“Christians have recognized since ancient times that God is neither male nor female,” the Church of England said in an email statement. “Yet the variety of ways of addressing and describing God found in scripture has not always been reflected in our worship.”
– The New York Times, February 9, 2023
In the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we examine our failings and take an unvarnished look at how our practice has fallen short of our theoretical Christian teachings. This statement by the Church of England strikes me as a similar exercise. They never intended to make God out to be a man, but, well, maybe in fact it happened. As a woman church musician, I have often felt like an outsider to the central mysteries of the church. The ordination of women brought a tremendous shift, but still there was practically (in practice) no music by women composers. Why does it matter? Because I knew that gifts were being denied. That the divinity of God was being short-changed, heavily weighted towards a macho God of power and privilege. The mystery of a God born in weakness, a refugee, an outsider, the one that I needed, was less visible. The poets and composers who could speak to a more dimensional, complex God were missing.
March 5 is Women Composer Sunday, a “holiday” started three years ago in England to augment International Women’s Day for musicians and to draw attention to the many gifted composers overlooked by the church’s male-dominated culture. Their astonishing, against-all-odds stories read like fiction. Consider these two women who composed voluntaries to be played this coming Sunday.
Mary Howe (1882-1964) grew up at 1722 I Street NW in Washington D.C. She always wanted to be a composer, but she was born at the end of the Victorian era into a family of wealth, and her life’s work was predetermined: get married, have children, and take up a worthy (unpaid) cause. She did these things, but with a twist. In 1912, she married Walter Bruce Howe at our own St. John’s Church. Then at age 40 (now with three children) Howe attended the Peabody Conservatory and received a diploma in composition. For the next 40 years she wrote over 200 works, including many sacred choral pieces and two works for organ. In 1951, an entire concert by the National Symphony Orchestra was devoted to her symphonic music.
In addition to composing, Howe used her social status and wealth to promote the civic institutions of Washington: she and her husband were among the founders of the National Symphony; she formed the Friends of Music of the Library of Congress, which purchased new scores and sponsored public concerts; and the National Cultural Center, later renamed the Kennedy Center. In 1961, she received an honorary doctorate from George Washington University, “In recognition of her musical artistry, her creative genius as a composer, and her distinguished leadership as a patron of the arts.” Howe’s “Ceciliana: For a Wedding” was written in 1940 but never published. Indeed, her music was all but forgotten, erased, as it were.
Swedish organist Elfrida Andrée (1841-1929) always wanted to be an organist, but Swedish law prohibited women to hold that occupation. She and her father succeeded in changing the law so that single women over the age of 25 could serve as organists. Andrée became the first woman organist, conductor, cathedral organist, and telegraph operator! The first to write an organ symphony! Only one of her many compositions was published, and that was because she submitted it anonymously. It would take another 120 years for another woman to be a cathedral organist. The Finale from her Symphony No. 1 is Sunday’s postlude.
The music of these gifted women has helped me find my place in the church. Lent is a time to practice what we preach, building a more welcoming church where God is neither man nor woman, but beyond comprehension, full of mystery and grace.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
Lyn Loewi, Associate Organist
Links to the appointed readings and prayer for today: