Anneli Loepp Thiessen Gender and Worship ing podcast

“Gender and Worshiping” with Anneli Loepp Thiessen

~ing podcast Season 2 Episode 11
Full Episode Transcript

Season 2 Episode 11: “Gender and Worshiping”, with Anneli Loepp Thiessen was released on March 22, 2022. The audio recording is available on all major podcasting platforms. More information is available here.

Episode Description:

In season 1, we sat down with a group of folks on the committee who put together the Voices Together Worship and Song Collection (Episode 20 “Worshiping). Anneli Loepp Thiessen was another person who helped with that project, and now she’s also an author of a children’s book about women in music! In this week’s episode, ~ing Producer Ben Wideman sits down with Anneli to hear more about her background and what drew her to this work, as well as exploring what her research in gender and worship through her PhD in Interdisciplinary Music Research. Her new children’s book, The ABCs of Women in Music, is available for pre-order now. 

Betty Pries, Anneli Loepp Thiessen, Ben Wideman

Ben Wideman  00:00
Welcome to Season Two of ~ing Podcast, a production of MennoMedia’s Leader Magazine.  What does it mean to authentically follow Jesus? Each week ~ing Podcast invites you to join us on a journey. Join us as we talk with people of faith who are creatively thinking, growing and being people who are reimagining and exploring what it means to enrich faith in a complex world.

Anneli Loepp Thiessen  00:27
Voices Together has so influenced my academic work. Trying to break down a classical popular hierarchy… Something we see so often in academic circles in any circle where music is present. This is kind of “classical is best” mindset, four-part harmonies are best… we are four-part singers. That’s the kind of the “true Mennonite song.” And with Voices Together, we wanted to break that down and include a whole range of popular idioms including contemporary worship, music, gospel, jazz, camp songs, folk music, etc.

Ben Wideman  01:02
Our conversation begins now. Join us as we journey together.  Friends, Welcome back to ~ing Podcast. We’re so glad that you are here with us today. I have a guest here with me today – Anneli Loepp Thiessen, who is really someone who has a lot of different aspects of who they are, I’m learning as we were talking off mic. And I’m excited to have this person here with us today. Anneli was one of the folks who helped put together the incredible Voices Together hymnal project and is a person who is really interested in the intersection of gender and music, and worship music and how that all fits together. We’ve got a lot of good stuff to talk about here on this episode. And I’m really excited to have you here with us. Anneli, thanks so much for joining us.

Anneli Loepp Thiessen  01:53
Thank you so much for having me. This is great.

Ben Wideman  01:56
For those who don’t know you, I’m excited to have a fellow Canadian on the podcast. But how do you introduce yourself to folks who you might be meeting?

Anneli Loepp Thiessen  02:06
Sure, yeah, I am currently coming to you from Ottawa, Ontario, where I’m doing my PhD in Interdisciplinary Music Research, really looking at music and gender and worship, and how those interact. Specifically looking at contemporary worship music, as an industry and what woman’s roles in that industry are and how they are thriving and limited in that in that space. Before this, I was living in Winnipeg, doing my undergrad at Canadian Mennonite University. So I have a soft spot for the prairies. And I’m originally from Kitchener, Waterloo, Ontario. So again, hitting up some good Canadian Mennonite hubs. And yeah, I had an amazing… I always say working on Voices Together was the most formative life experience I’ve ever had. And, and so happy to talk about that for the rest of my life. And lots of lots of important work that went into that collection that’s worth kind of unpacking.

Ben Wideman  03:08
If you haven’t listened yet, I would really encourage us all to go back and check out the episode that we did during season one of ing Podcast with a couple of the folks, collaborators who helped put together the Voices Together project. We’ll talk a little bit about that here now as well. How did you get connected with Voices Together? And what did that experience look like for you?

Anneli Loepp Thiessen  03:31
Yeah, I applied like most of us did, they opened applications in… it must have been 2016 or in that zone. And so I still have it on my computer. And it’s kind of funny to look back at what I I said, going into the project and how what I would say now about the product really kind of was so transformative. Yeah, so my role on the committee was I was co-chair of the Popular Idioms Committee, which is essentially co-chair for group that was looking at things like contemporary worship music. And that was a really, really awesome experience to go through such high quantities of contemporary worship music and look at the congregational lens and say like how would this look on the page? How would this fit in a in a congregation theologically, how does this fit with our Anabaptist thinking and, and so that was that was really, really valuable. I also was on the Worship Resources Committee and the Tune and Accompaniment Committee so had my fingers in a couple different areas of the collection, which was which was really great to kind of get the big picture. And then I have a few compositions in it. I especially love working with expansive images of God which is good for women’s history month so one of them is a collaboration with another committee member that really looks at called God like the lamp and the parable of the woman in the last coin and and I know portraying goddess as the woman looking for the coin. Anyways, so lots of different areas, lament and experiences and it was just so so life giving it kind of kick started my interest in women in music because can we continue to notice a lack of women who are especially writing tunes, there were more women who wrote texts for hymns, than there were women who wrote tunes. And so that was really interesting to kind of need to be intentional about looking at women’s compositions and wanting to make sure that we had especially Anabaptist women, but really any women who have written hymn tunes, making sure that they got a fair shot at being considered for Voices Together. Yeah.

Ben Wideman  05:44
I want to talk more about the inclusion of women in this project. But I, I’m struck too with this inclusion of contemporary worship music in in a hymnal project. I think when our minds think of worship hymnals, we often… especially those of us, who are a part of the Mennonite tradition would probably immediately assume it’s going to be mostly four part harmony, Swiss-German hymns, right, or hymns that have come from other traditions, but sung primarily with those four parts. Our previous iterations of the hymnal would have some international flavor as well, but but relatively little music that would be considered contemporary worship music. But I do remember the voices together folks that I spoke with last year talking about as they surveyed the landscape of Mennonite Church, USA and Canada. They realized just how diverse our music had become since the last hymnal project and this inclusion, I’m curious how it felt for you to be sort of tasked with bringing something in that really hadn’t existed in in the way that it’s featured in voices together, did it feel was there some nervousness from your part of being tasked with that knowing that it’s not been something we’ve done really in this way before?

Anneli Loepp Thiessen  07:07
Yeah, honestly, it was such a life giving task to receive because I one of the church that I grew up at was a church plant that did primarily contemporary worship music. And so I learned early on how to have that that became a kind of heart song for me, like the songs that were life giving. For me, we’re contemporary worship music. And so that felt just really energizing to be able to get to bring into the hymnal. I think one of the things that we see is that, you know, it hasn’t been in previous hymnals. But that doesn’t mean that Mennonites have just started singing contemporary worship music, right? And so, you know, one of the tasks of Voices Together was to try to really accurately, as much as possible, reflect the the Mennonite musical landscape around us. And in doing that, we see that congregations have been singing contemporary worship, congregations worshiping in other languages, have been singing contemporary worship music. And so it’s, it’s only fitting that we would include that as like a major expression of song in the hymnal. And that was… that was… we were pretty much mandated with that from the beginning. And so that felt like a natural, a natural process to include, and it’s been really, really exciting to work with congregations, in adopting Voices Together. Those who are excited to see that songs they’ve been singing forever are included in the hymnal is contemporary worship songs, and those that are excited to try something new. And so we’re just yeah, we’re really glad that it’s reflecting what folks are saying and that it’s offering a way for for people for whom this is new to try something to try something new.

Ben Wideman  08:45
I love that. Yeah, so shifting now a little bit to this idea of being more inclusive from a gender standpoint. Not only is that a powerful posture to begin with, but the time over which you put together the Voices Together project featured things like the #MeToo movement and and even even more relevantly to religious music, a few significant scandals featuring abuse by music creators and, and some intentional decisions to take music out that had been selected when certain things… certain moments came to light. Can you talk about the experience of all of that, that just feels like a lot to carry? As you’re putting together that massive project to also be having this heightened awareness?

Anneli Loepp Thiessen  09:40
Yeah, it was certainly complicated and needed a lot of attention and care to think about how we, how we navigate what goes on when a song that’s implicated in in a situation of abuse was slated to be in Voices Together and I I would just so intensely credit our editors with the care that went into that process, and that was something that certainly the whole committee carried, but they really did the hard work of, of navigating that situation. And they did it so, so well, and consulted so effectively, and, and considered so many perspectives. And so just, you know, a massive thank you to our editors for the way that they handle these situations. But for all of us, it’s it was tough. Like in the months before, we were pretty much getting ready to send Voices Together to print it came to light that one of the composers who songwriters who is really well represented, had been involved in sexual abuse throughout his whole ministry had been an abuser had been. And so it was really complicated to figure out what to do with that, because these were songs that were so loved by the church. And that’s something that we take really seriously like, we talk a lot about “heart songs.” And in our whole Voices Together process if a song was really, really well loved by the church, that was kind of like a, like you didn’t question that like that probably should go in the collection. And so it was hard when we found out that those songs were implicated and, and this really awful behavior, and experience. And so but we had really, really awesome people that we consulted with. And ultimately, I think we knew that, that these things make a difference. Like, when we’re publishing voices together, we’re choosing to amplify certain voices. And those voices need to be ones that we can stand behind. And, and we of course, cannot stand behind someone whose ministry has been, has been full of, of this awful behavior. Yeah. And we then need to align ourselves with survivors of abuse. And that that was really intentional. And if we’re choosing someone to align ourselves with, it’s going to be survivors. And so that that came together. And I was really pleased with how that process came together. As difficult in the heart wrenching as it was that we were able to remove these songs, and include some others that are really wonderful replacements, and, and not perpetuate the inclusion of songs that that we don’t want to we don’t want to be elevating the voice of the other composer or songwriter. So it was super-tough. But, and, I know a lot of congregations are continuing to wrestle with this, can we sing these songs or can not sing these songs? And I just think it’s complicated. And it’s worth wrestling with. There are… I point to the Voices Together website where there’s a document called “Show Strength,” and how to respond when worship resources are implicated in abuse. And you can you can find that, and that is a really helpful kind of discussion guide for considering what to do about these songs. So definitely recommend checking that out.

Ben Wideman  13:02
Some of it has to do with awareness. But, you know, I would, I would imagine, there are churches out there still singing the songs, totally oblivious to the stories behind them. And, and yet, I really love and think it’s so commendable to be survivor centered in the posture that was chosen. And yeah, it seems, seems very significant.  So maybe this is an unfair question for someone who’s been a part of a project this large, but I, I recognize that you’re in a unique spot, studying music, while having already completed a project like this. And I’m wondering, as you continue your studies in this very important field, are there things that you wish you would have done differently or notes that you’ve made for the next time perhaps, that you’re invited to be a part of a project like this, given the the research and the work that you are involved with?

Anneli Loepp Thiessen  14:05
Well, one of the reasons I mean, Voices Together, has so influenced my academic work in many, many ways. One of the things that’s been energizing and this kind of goes back to a conversation around the inclusion of contemporary worship music has been trying to break down a classical popular hierarchy. And this is something we see so often in academic circles in any circle where music is present. This is kind of classical as best mindset. And I think Mennonites are not exempt from this… We have this, “four-part harmony is best.” We are four-part singers. That’s the kind of the true Mennonite song. And and with Voices Together, we wanted to break that down and include a range of popular idioms including contemporary worship music, gospel, jazz, camp songs, folk music, etc. And so being able to say like, yes, we sing four part harmony, and it’s beautiful. But we also sing songs in many languages. And we also sing contemporary worship music, and etc, etc. And so that’s been a really exciting intersection with my other work. And I think that’s kind of a thread that goes throughout that was really kind of started for me with Voices Together around just thinking about who’s who are we claiming to be the kind of authoritative musical voice. And is that accurate? And is that fair? And, and likely, we need to be more expansive, we only need to be more expansive about that. I mean, yeah, we look at university music departments that are also classical oriented, and many popular styles that don’t get the time of day. And there’s, there’s messaging in that, that classical music that’s worth studying, and popular music is a hobby. And that’s a similar messaging that we can see. And a handle that doesn’t include a diversity of styles is that hymnody is that the the kind of music that’s worth studying, which is also, you know, European, um, you know, historically white kind of culture, and popular music styles, which originate from many parts of the world, and with many different, you know, a diversity of, of participation in terms of race and ethnicity and those things is, is a hobby, and that’s not what we’re what we’re really oriented towards. And so that messaging is so damaging, and something that I continue to come up against. And so I’m excited that my dissertation looks at contemporary worship music as one way of kind of dismantling that hierarchy and in a very small way, but it’s also been a really kind of fascinating intersection with voices together, which, you know, that whole committee really solidified that we need a diversity of voices and perspectives in the collection. And so that that was planted early on, and I’m really grateful for that. And so I definitely see that as as one crossover. And I there are things you know, kind of going on that half, sometimes I wonder if we could have been even more expansive about some of the inclusions. We talked briefly at one point about including a rap, and I think that would have been so cool. We didn’t do that. But things like that, that it would have been fun to explore a little bit more. But no, in general, I mean, I, I think that final product is is is ministering to a diversity of people. And that’s what it was intended to do. And so just really grateful to be able to stand behind that.

Ben Wideman  17:37
It shouldn’t surprise us, I guess that different people in different congregations would have different preferences. But it was enlightening for me to learn that, you know, even in the same geographic area, looking at two churches with similar theological preferences and similar cultural backgrounds and identities that they would sing different songs, different selections from the hymnal on a Sunday morning, and, and to try and have this new project be more aware of that diversity. I think it’s just really powerful, and says a lot about the intentionality and the posture that you all had when, when exploring this. It strikes me too, as someone who has done some worship planning with this new volume, that while it feels familiar in its size and shape and, and page numbering and things like that… It also is put together with the inclusion of art with the inclusion of different kinds of resources than perhaps what we expect from a hymnal project. It’s, it’s also got this incredible, expansive amount of resources, one of which you referenced is this explanation of why music from an abuser from a known abuser was taken out. It really seems like, even though there was this commitment to creating a hymnal like there was a really strong effort to make it much more than just a book.

Anneli Loepp Thiessen  19:10
Absolutely. Yeah, no, that’s exactly that’s exactly it. I mean, hymnal, you’re right has so many connotations, people don’t expect to find visual art, they don’t expect to contemporary worship music. And there’s there’s just a wealth of resources at the back of the book, in the worship resources section, that are so, so gorgeous, and speak to a whole range of circumstances and events. And I was a little bit involved with ones for things like community crisis and prayer for our healthcare community. And just some of these things that we don’t necessarily expect are in a hymnal but they are and such a gift to have that. And so, yeah, there’s there’s just so much to unpack and I think even myself, I’m still discovering some of the things that are in voices together and I hope that communities We’ll take the time to do a little scavenger hunt in the hymnal and find something that they didn’t expect to see or they didn’t know was in there. Because there there really is so much to uncover.

Ben Wideman  20:11
Before we began, you talked just a little bit about a new project that you have on the horizon, a children’s book, and can you tell us just a little bit about that project and what’s gone into it?

Anneli Loepp Thiessen  20:21
Yeah, my my first picture book, The ABCs of Women in Music, it’s going to be… it’s available for pre order now. And it’s going to be in all your major booksellers on May 1. It’s, it walks through 26 women who, either presently or in the past have been involved in music. So ranging from Beyonce to Clara Schumann, to Alexina Louie, Canadian composer to Valerie Cooper, who’s a really brilliant jazz educator. Liza was in there, and just the whole whole range of women and their contributions. And so it’s meant for kids kind of ages five to eight, roughly. And it goes through introducing them to these 26 women. And one of the things that again, I mentioned earlier, it’s this breakdown of kind of classical popular hierarchy. And that’s something that was really, really intentional about in the book, like, putting Beyonce and Clara – she went on facing pages was a very intentional move, in order to just minimize any kind of hierarchy that we have, you know, there’s resources to like, we have a lot of work to do around women in music, but there are a few resources around limiting classical music. And there’s more, but not tons of around women in popular music, but they still tend to be pretty divided. And I know for myself as a kid who took piano lessons, and did all of the kind of conservatory education but loved listening to popular music, resources that broke down that divide would have been really valuable, just to show me that, that women in music are women in music, and there’s not one kind of more that should be more elevated than another. And so I hope that it’s helpful for girls who are, you know, love music and don’t know what a career in music would look like to be, you know, to see what women have done historically, and are doing today. They could be a DJ, or they could be a, you know, pop star or whatever it would be. And it’s also got less than half of the women in it are white women, and there’s disabled women and it and a whole range of diversity in that regard to which is just so important, and in education right now, as we know. And so I hope it’s hope it’s a valuable resource for kids. And also anyone who reads it, I imagine we’ll learn something new. And so hopefully, it helps teach people about women in music and and just elevate the voices that have long been kind of not talked about or forgotten in some cases. And a fun little Voices Together crossover is that it includes Hildegard of Bingen and Kassia, who are both women from hundreds of years ago who have tunes or songs in Voices Together that we’ve kind of revamped for Voices Together and ate just for Hildegard of Bingen and Ks for Kassia. And so that’s kind of a fun little connection too.

Ben Wideman  23:14
Oh, that’s awesome. I, in another podcasting life, co-host a podcast with a good friend of mine where we are reviewing all the albums on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the Greatest Albums of All Time. They recently republished that in 2020, with an effort to do something similar to make sure that a more diverse list of albums was included and that means more albums by women. And we felt this, you know, even looking at the older lists, but if you only listen in a vacuum, you don’t really realize what music is building on and especially powerful female artists. If you don’t know what came before or came after, you’re sort of missing so much more of the picture of what it can be. I’m excited as kids of a music podcaster I need to have this book on my shelf and make sure that they are that they are reading and aware of, of how music has been built over over time.

Anneli Loepp Thiessen  24:21
I hope you love it.

Ben Wideman  24:22
The book is incredible. At least the little glimmers that I get online… beautifully illustrated and I’m excited to to have a copy in our home. Anneli for those who are really inspired by the work that you’re doing, where can people follow along with with what you’re involved with?

Anneli Loepp Thiessen  24:41
I love meeting new friends on Twitter and Instagram Those are both platforms that I share on if you’re interested in kind of the worship music Voices Together, contemporary worship music sphere of my work that’s especially on Twitter at @AnneliLoeppThiessen. And if you’re interested in learning more about the music picture book I just have a new Instagram for that @AnnaleeLTauthor on Instagram. And you can follow along there for updates on the book and just general updates on women in music and some of my favorite picture books on women in music. So those are kind of two places to connect on. And I love I love meeting new folks there. So definitely introduce yourself, and we can chat more.

Ben Wideman  25:25
Thank you so much for being with us here today on ~ing Podcast. It’s been a pleasure. And thank you so much for all that you have given us.

Anneli Loepp Thiessen  25:32
Thank you so much for having me. This has been great.

Ben Wideman  25:36
This year, this season of Lent corresponds with Women’s History Month. Next week on ink podcast, we sit down with Betty Preis, author of The Space Between Us: Conversations about Transforming Conflict.

Betty Pries  25:49
I have found it helpful to differentiate between outcome hope and existential quote, or what is sometimes called mystical hope. An outcome hope is “I need tomorrow to be this way.” And a more existential hope is “I can be in the world that I’m in right now.” And I can find moments of beauty and wonder and joy in this very moment, even as the external context is not.

Ben Wideman  26:21
As always, we’d like to thank our guests and all who support ~ing Podcast. Thank you for joining us on the journey. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review in your favorite podcasting app. And if you have something to share, send us a message at [email protected] or by leaving us a voicemail. ~ing Podcast is hosted by Reverend Allison Maus and Reverend Dr. Dennis Edwards. And produced by me, Ben Wideman. Views and opinions expressed on ~ing Podcast are those of our hosts and guests and may not represent that of Leader Magazine or MennoMedia. ~ing Podcast is a production of MennoMedia, a nonprofit publisher that creates thoughtful Anabaptist resources to enrich faith in a complex world. To find out more, visit us online at