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Why do We Sing what We Sing in Church?

Photo: David Beale

I love music. I particularly love hymns ‒ at least most hymns. Ancient office hymns and gospel hymns each have their niche. I love what we call “praise music” as well. I like to think that each person who sits in the choir or in a pew is open to receiving the message in the music. As Christians we rejoice in music that brings glory, praise, thanksgiving, and prayer to God. We take solace in songs that tend to the injured soul and respond to themes that give hope and call us to action and justice.

So, why do we sing what we do during Sunday service?

It has a lot to do with who we are as a Christian community, as well as where we are in the liturgical calendar. The preparation of the music for a particular service starts with the readings assigned to that day in the Christian year. We are led through the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time in a journey laid out in the Common Lectionary. The music is chosen primarily to support and reflect on the texts for the day. As we are part of both a Christian and a secular community, we also attempt, through our music choices, to respond to issues and concerns in our church, country, and the larger world. Justice and peace are major themes which echo throughout the year.

At St. Chad’s, I am the person who selects the music for our services. I first sit down with the scriptures and read. I contemplate. I take notes. I read again. Then I pray. I find this dedicated time with God a cherished part of my devotional life. I simply take time to dwell in God’s presence and still the thoughts of the day so that I can hear the music that is hidden in the silence. It is the most important part of the process.

Then I get to work. I consult McCausland’s Order of Divine Service, which is the “master guide” to all things in the liturgical calendar for the Anglican Church in Canada. McCausland gives suggestions for suitable hymns taken from the Common Praise hymnals.

I also often take to the web, visiting some of the dozens of websites I have bookmarked where I can find inspiration. Two of my favourites are Gordon Johnston, Organist and Choirmaster at the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Ottawa and Director of Music in the Anglican Studies Program at Saint Paul University, and Natalie Simms, an Australian church music leader who has an amazing amount to offer each week in terms of music insight and breadth of resources.

I find it exciting to think that I am part of a huge global community of Christians who are searching, at that very moment, for ways to bring the message of the scriptures that week alive for their congregants. It humbles me, while at the same time giving me great joy in a sense of shared purpose in bringing glory to God through sound and voice.

Sunday service in the Anglican Church is all about the liturgy: the order of service, words of praise and love, the prayers, the petitions, the Eucharist. Things that are written, in black and white, for every occasion. We are a people who follow a form of corporate worship that has been written for the ages and will speak to ages to come. We can modernize the liturgy, but we choose not to change the essence of what we do when we meet as a congregation before God.

A former priest of mine was once confronted by a parishioner who wanted to know why people smiled and let their children run ahead when they came forward to receive the Eucharist. He replied, “Because it is a family meal.” They complained that there was not enough time set aside for much silent prayer and quiet contemplation. He answered, “This is the family gathering to give praise to God and to learn about Christ’s teachings. Silent prayer is something between you and the Creator. It is private, and is most properly accomplished during your daily time alone with God.” Liturgy is akin to the rules for the preparation of a meal: Who does what, and when. It prevents us from getting distracted by the table decorations and keeps us focused on the substance of the nourishment set before us.

When I select music, I plan for flow and continuity in the service. At St. Chad’s we start the service with a Prelude, followed by a time of silence during which the body and mind prepare for the journey ahead. The Processional music should be a welcome, setting the mood for the day while lifting voices in praise, and reminding us why we are there. We choose to sing “Glory to God” each appropriate week of the year. On weeks when we observe Morning Prayer, we sing the canticles and rest in the knowledge that the words and the tunes are ancient and connect us to the past where beauty is also present.

The Gradual hymn calls us to listen attentively to the Word. We have a tradition of using a hymn that reminds us of the importance of the words of the Gospel. We usually divide it, singing one or two verses before the Gospel reading and another one or two after. We will stay with the same hymn for a season at a time so that the words sink in, week by week bracketing and uplifting the importance of the Gospel spoken.

The Offertory hymn fits with the readings and, well, offering. This is the opportunity to let the congregation lift their voices together and it must be a hymn which is familiar and full of meaning. If there is a time to make an offering to the Lord this is it.

There is much beautiful Eucharistic music, but we often choose to sit and listen to an instrumental. The music which accompanies the Holy Eucharist is often contemplative and full of awe. It needs to reflect the most sacred meaning of the occasion as we are led through the liturgy but should not ever be so bold as to draw the focus from the celebration taking place at the table.

The Recessional hymn is often referred to in other churches as the “Sending Hymn” and should inspire the people to go out into the world with purpose. “Go into the world to love and serve the Lord.” Following the Recessional is a carefully chosen instrumental postlude, which provides a few moments at the end of the service to allow one to absorb fully the blessing of the time spent together in the presence of God.

Denise Fortier has enjoyed a lifelong love affair with music, word, and art. She and her daughter are active members of St. Chad’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg.

As Anglicans we choose to be led through the days, and through the years, using a template which keeps us on track, just like a daily planner for study or work. The liturgy is a useful tool to ensure that the jobs all get done, and we keep our eye on the target. It allows us to forget all the busy-ness of putting together new words which will communicate the essence of the corporate worship service, and especially the magnificence of the Eucharist. We rest in the beauty and the sure truth of the past, while connecting it to our modern needs and issues.

Music is the companion which elevates our worship beyond mere words. It is a most precious and powerful gift and gives life and light to both praise and prayers.

I say: Rejoice, give thanks, and sing!

2 Comments

  1. As a life long Anglican, this is refreshing to read. Sometimes I feel we’ve deviated from the richness of our Anglican Communion/Tradition and Liturgy in an attempt to “get with the times” and become more “socially relevant”.

    • Thank you for the comment Marlene. I love our tradition of liturgical worship, while still welcoming opportunities to explore new music and use the best and most inspiring ideas from other faiths. Sometimes even while exploring exciting new territory we can appreciate the value of having a map.