“ ‘Sing and make melody in your heart to the Lord’ (Eph. 5:19). …
‘Because it is bound wholly to the Word, the singing of the congregation, especially of the family congregation, is essentially singing in unison. Here words and music combine in a unique way. The soaring tone of unison singing finds its sole and essential support in the words that are sung and therefore does not need the musical support of other voices. …
‘Unison singing, difficult as it is, is less of a musical than a spiritual matter. Only where everybody in the group is disposed to an attitude of worship and discipleship can unison singing, even though it may lack much musically, give us the joy which is peculiar to it alone.’ ”
from Life Together, The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
It is only with the greatest trepidation that I would dare to dissent from such a saint as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but this section of “Life Together” has bothered me since I first read it over thirty years ago. The ideas have nagged at me as I have seen changes in congregational singing between parishes, and even in the way congregational music is published. My renewed time and extended visitation among the folk of Houston’s Church of the Redeemer (Episcopal) has both confirmed and solidified my objections. It is time I gave them voice.
As readers may know, I have been spending time on Sunday afternoons worshiping with the remnant of the Church of the Redeemer in Houston (between June and December of 2011), a congregation of which I was a part from roughly 1977 to 1996. Among the many extraordinary things about Redeemer was the emphasis on “The Body of Christ,” on what it meant for us, as the Bible says, to be one body, particularly the Body of Christ.
Yes, we were, and are a Charismatic congregation, in the capital C version, but that was not the distinctive feature of Redeemer. There are many churches with a doctrine and worship style that makes great reference to the work of God the Holy Spirit. Although that may have been rare in its day, particularly in the Episcopal Church, it is by no means unique. The emphasis on, as Bonhoeffer put it, “Faith in Community” (as ministered by God the Holy Spirit) was the larger, deeper and more important message. We did that very well. And we did that very badly. But the centrality of that message, that the life of New Birth, centered on Bethlehem, Calvary, Gethsemane and Pentecost, was *of the essence* corporate; that central message was right, and remains right.
One of the other distinctive characteristics was worship. On the one hand, there was nothing new (Thank God!) It was intensely Biblical and creedal, and intensely Book of Common Prayer. But on the other hand, almost everything was new. For many of us, these elements were pumped as full of life, and as unexpectedly so, as were the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision. One of these elements was that Redeemer was a singing congregation. We sang everything. We sang ditties, we sang Catholic folk renewal music, we sang Bach, Tallis and Hassler; Wesley and Vaughn Williams; we chanted the psalms, properly pointed, and we sang plainsong. And we sang the new music pouring out through such gifts as Betty Pulkingham, Mimi Armstrong Farra, Kathleen Thomerson, and others. What we (the congregation) didn’t know in repertoire or technique, which was plenty!, we were taught. We were taught, not how to read, but how to *listen*, which is more important. Now, I had long been a chorister, both at Church and in school, and had been instructed well in the fundamentals of ensemble singing. Perhaps because of this, I failed to realize what a gift we were being given, or of its ‘extra-musical’ significance.
I arrived at Redeemer in the time of George Mims as Organist and Choirmaster, and continued through the service of Nancy Newman in that same role. I distinctly remember George “rehearsing” the congregation, teaching us that if you cannot hear the people around you, you are too loud; that the structure of a song was important, save the soaring descant for the end, let the thing build; the organist often re-harmonizes the third verse of four verse hymns, etc. The point was that how we sang was also part of our worship. Just as it was possible for not only the pulpit, but also the congregation, to be well instructed doctrinally, so that we be properly equipped as 2 Timothy 3:17 says; but we, and not only the choir, could be well equipped to worship musically.
OK. you may be excused for asking
“What does this trip down memory lane, and how “things were better back in the old days” have to do with Bonhoeffer, or modern congregational singing?”
Well, Bonhoeffer tells his objections to parts-singing; to summarize, it is often badly done, and can be puffed-up in pride by singers so that it is no longer about the Word, about our Lord, but it is about me, the Tenor. And he makes a valid point. I have seen it so, and what is worse, I have been guilty. But the cure for doing something badly is to learn to do it well. The cure for doing something in sin is to repent, and reform so as to do better, especially if the thing is worth doing, and here is where the point is missed. That point permeated Redeemer, and me, even though I could not have articulated it. I missed it intellectually, Bonhoeffer seems to have missed it, and the churches of my recent experiences miss it still.
That purpose hit my ears, and my consciousness like a thunder-clap when I again began to worship with Redeemer in July, and once again heard the congregation singing with me in worship and in harmony. That purpose is that singing in harmony is a sign, an “outward and visible sign”(for us old Episcopalians), of our life before the Lord. The corresponding “inward and spiritual grace” is the blending of our lives into one song, one Body of Christ. As we are not all elbows, we are not all sopranos, we are not all tenors. To go a little deeper, the errors concerning the Holy Trinity are to fail to see the uniqueness of each person, or to fail to see the unity in essence of those Three persons. There is One God, but in a way that does not disturb the full uniqueness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is three, but not in a way as to deny “Hear oh Israel, the Lord your God is One.”
Part-singing, for well or ill, reflects our understanding of this fundamental nature of God. Done well, we learn to listen for the unity in the midst of our different parts; I learn to subject my desire to “do that tenor thing” to the whole of the piece, that as a congregation we glorify God; not just by the music, but by reflecting the nature of His Triune glory back to Him.
Today, many congregations have abandoned the use of hymnal or song book as cumbersome. Juggling more than one or two is indeed a pain! In return, everything needed is made more conveniently available by either printing everything in an Order of Service, or by projecting what is needed on a screen.
Unfortunately, space limitations almost never allow more than a single melody line to be written out, if even that. Often, only the text is provided. This leaves the congregation only a few choices: sing what may be remembered of harmonies from the past, or improvise, which is even more prone to Bonheoffer’s objections. Failing that, unison is the only option, with perhaps a choir adding.
Either of these choices is a diminution of our corporate worship, and I have found it common that churches using this method are not “singing congregations.” Which is ‘chicken’ and which is ‘egg’ is a mystery to ponder.