The joy of congregational singing

Christian worship, declared Karl Barth, “is the most momentous, the most urgent, the most glorious action that can take place in life”. Worship is the occasion when we men and women become truly alive; when we humans made in the image of God begin to fulfil the very purpose of our existence by relating to the God who made us. It is the moment when we are caught up into heaven and anticipate the day when, in the words of Augustine, “we shall do nothing other than ceaselessly repeat Amen and Alleluia, with insatiable satisfaction. It is in worship the heaven invades our world, and we discover ourselves in the presence of Almighty God. What an experience! What a privilege!

I can think of a host of occasions when heaven itself was open for me and when, with Isaiah of old, I saw the Lord on a throne high and lifted up. A very traditional Baptist Union Assembly of Wales meeting, singing the praises of God in minor key; a Spring Harvest celebration, charismatic in flavour, with brass sounding and drums rolling; a celebration of the Lord’s Supper in a remote Lake District chapel with just one guitarist and a congregation of only a dozen or so people in a remote Lake District chapel; an overflowing expectant congregation celebrating God’s praise in the context of a baptismal service.

There is no one way in which God breaks into our worship. However, in these days of Covid-19, Sunday worship has been an incredibly dissatisfying experience. Indeed, it has been a frustrating experience: I long to sing his praises, but I am prevented, but until a vaccine is found congregational singing is forbidden. True, I can declare God’s praises as I say the words of the Gloria – but saying something is a totally different experience from singing something. Singing reaches the parts of us that words alone cannot reach. The Shema exhorts us “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6.5): in other words, we are called to love God with all that we are. That is where singing comes in. Singing is an affair of the whole person, in which not just the voice and body, but also the mind and the heart are involved.

What is more, singing needs to be a congregational experience. Singing at home along to a hymn sung on the radio or streamed on the internet is not the same thing. I have tried it – but it has left me unmoved. Singing God’s praises is a corporate exercise in which we play an active part.

Clearly there is more to worship than singing. However, without the opportunity to sing, worship is limited experience. As Frank Colqhoun, a former Vice-Dean of Norwich Cathedral, wrote his preface to Hymns That Live: Let the clergy preach their sermons and the choirs render their anthems; the people sing their hymns, and in their hymns they find a medium for expressing their faith”.

Singing is an essential part of Christian worship. I find it significant that when Paul describes what happens when Christians come together, it is the singing of “a hymn” (literally a ‘psalm’) which heads the list of activities (1 Cor 14.26). In the words of the Jewish Talmud: “Man should always first utter praise and then prayer”.

Interestingly, it is clear that from very early on the first Christians enjoyed a variety of worship styles. We see this in Paul’s instructions to the churches of Colossae and Ephesus: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly… and with gratitude in your heart sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God”; “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sings psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 5.18b-20).  Early Christian hymnody appears to have been Trinitarian reference in structure: for “psalms” are expressions of praise to God the Father drawn from the Old Testament; “hymns” are distinctively Christian compositions in which the community confesses its faith in the lordship of Christ (see Phil 2.6-11; Col 1.15-20; 1 Tim 3.16); and “songs” may well have been spontaneous forms of praise prompted by the Spirit.

Singing clearly played an important role in the life of the early church. In the words of Ralph Martin, a New Testament scholar who encouraged me in my research into pre-Pauline hymns and confessions of faith:

The life of praise is the hallmark of Christian existence, since it demonstrates that the believing community has already anticipated the last day of God’s final victory and is stretching out to share in its glories, even if the end is not yet attained… Praise acts as the litmus test to decide whether or not men are on God’s side.

I look forward to the day when we can all tear off our masks and fulfil the injunction of James “Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise” (James 5.13). To adapt the words of Charles Wesley’s dedication of his original collection of hymns, congregational singing ‘raises or quickens our spirit of devotion, it confirms our faith, and it kindles and increases our love to God and to others’.

One comment

  1. Paul, what you say is all true – but I sometimes wonder if singing has sometimes assumed too prominent a part in our worship? And I’m not just thinking of modern services with a string of worship songs rising to a climax and then falling to a quiet prayerful intensity, but also of a traditional hymn sing (or Cymanfa Ganu) which sends the endorphins whooshing around the system, or even the quiet ethereal beauty of a Tallis motet sung in the darkening twilight in a historic cathedral.

    Yes; singing “touches parts of us” that mere speech does not – but may we sometimes be feeling that “God is here” when in fact what we are experiencing is the emotional or aesthetic uplift which music can offer? Obviously the current lack of music in worship gives us a genuine sense of loss and bereavement. Yet I wonder if it is also making the church traditions which rely heavily on music ask some searching questions about what worship really is? After all, there are many Christians (the Anglican 8am people come first to mind, but there must be others!) who do not in fact use music in their worship; and it could be that the saying of the words focusses their minds more acutely than singing can ever do. Nevertheless I’m definitely looking forward to the day when singing will again be allowed!

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