O SING unto the Lord a new song : for he hath done marvellous things (Ps. 98:1)
I have always loved the psalms. For me, they are the most expressive, and arguably the most honest, part of the Bible. When I was going through the discernment process in the Diocese of Oxford, in early discussions with my Vocations Advisor (the process in the Church of England is very different from that here) it transpired that I didn’t really have a meaningful prayer life that I could potentially discuss with future selection committees. To deal with this I started singing the appointed psalms for morning and evening prayer, often making up the chants and pointing as I went, each day for quite some time, a practice and exercise that proved most enriching, even if it eventually confirmed to me that I had already found my vocation.
Within these 150 songs you can find practically every human emotion conceivable: joy and elation, sadness and despair, anger, fear, loneliness, abandonment, and rage so extreme that you literally want to smash the heads of children against the rocks (even if those more objectionable verses tend to be edited out these days). The psalms have formed the backbone of worship for thousands of years, long before Christianity was on the distant horizon. In ancient monastic communities some communities would recite all 150 in a week. Cranmer, in his attempt to make ‘prayer unceasing’ more practical, by sixteenth-century standards anyway, instead divided these into a thirty-day cycle. While there are few religious institutions that still maintain this daily pattern of psalm recitation and singing, they still continue to sit at the heart of any worship service, and even though the look forwards through to the events of Jesus’ life, they still have much to say about the Christian faith and, in many cases, have an at times spookily modern relevance.
The psalm appointed for today’s Eucharistic celebration is similarly apposite given the point we have reached in our ever-changing global saga: ‘O sing unto the Lord a new song’. As governments and legislatures slowly edge towards revealing ways in which they plan to ease restrictions, juggling an unpredictable and at times questionable collection of priorities, the mantra that we are all being taught to recite is that there will be a new normal – there is no going back to the old ways and that we have accept that life, even if for a while is going to look very different. Within the musical community brews an increasingly ferocious debate about how safe live music-making really is or isn’t, citing medical experts of increasingly differing opinions and viewpoints, with some saying there is basically much less risk than we thought, to others saying that communal singing is basically going to be impossible perhaps for years, or at least until a combination of vaccination, treatment, and effective testing all line up harmoniously. I don’t personally think that this heralds the end of church music. The reality with much of this situation is that we simply don’t know. While the absence of knowledge doesn’t de facto mean we have nothing to worry about, nor that we should simply accept that life comes with risk and so we should just plod on irrespective, we should try to find a way of exercising as much patience and restraint as we can before we start making difficult decisions about the path we hope to follow out of the shadow of COVID-19.
But what if we do have to find a new song to sing to the Lord? What if the music programme that we all love and cherish, one that has been nurtured and loved by successive musicians for over 150 years now, can’t come back in its traditional form, at least for now? More worrying, what if none of us is allowed to sing even when we can reopen the doors of our beloved cathedral church? We have already adapted to a new form of (temporary) worship with surprising ease and willingness. While Christ Church does not have the technological resources that other churches do that might enable us to broadcast in a much more sophisticated manner, at the heart of our worship is the one constant we would never want to change – a shared and strong sense of community binding us, knitted together across cyber-space and an ever-increasing global distance. Of course, amazing though this is, Christian worship and liturgical music are very physical things, and human beings are very sociable beings. Furthermore, beyond the splendour of a choral programme, singing of itself is one of the most expressive human acts. In it, we literally use the breath of life to send our soul into the world in sonic form. It is deeply saddening as a musician, whose very spirit is nourished by the presence of other people all adding their own individual parts to a greater whole, to think that it will definitely be months and perhaps even longer before able to do that once more. At the start of this crisis when we were still able to do evensong with just one singer and myself at the organ, even then my emotions almost got the better of me on more than one occasion as I both cherished the opportunity to do that even in a reduced form and yet couldn’t help but notice the obvious gap of the many singers I normally see smiling back at me (depending on the choice of music anyway!).
And yet, despite all this, I am confident that there is a path both through and out of this, even if right now we don’t know what that is. Singing a new song doesn’t mean we get rid of the old, but we might have to reimagine it in a new context, whatever that might be. But that’s what we do every week anyway when we perform – the notes on the page only provide the starting point for an activity that breathes life again and again into music both old and new. Music will continue to form the backbone not only of our worship, but also the wider life of the cathedral through this crisis and beyond. Whatever government guidelines and restrictions there might continue to be to hamper worship in the way it ‘used to be’ we should treat these likewise, as our blueprint for moving forwards, and not as a barrier to the enriching life of prayer and praise that defines what Christ Church’s liturgy is all about.
Shew yourselves joyful unto the Lord, all ye lands : sing, rejoice, and give thanks.
— Jonathan White
Image: Detail from Monks Singing the Office; Olivetan Master and the Maestri del Corali di Lodi, illuminated manuscript on parchment, Italy, Lombardy (c. 1439-1447)
Diana Bouchard says:May 11, 2020 at 1:38 PM
I certainly hope that singing together in worship is not forever banned. To me, a lifelong singer, that would be like worshipping in black and white. Being forbidden to sing would be like having a body part cut off. Singing is such a natural expression of joy and praise, and I cannot believe that it will not return to our worship. Moreover, as Anglicans, we have had music woven into our worship tradition for hundreds of years. If for now that music must be recorded and replayed, so be it, but I still long for the real thing.
Beth says:May 12, 2020 at 9:51 AM
Jonathan, thank you for this personal reflection on something that’s so universal and central to our worship and to many of our lives. I too have faith that we’ll find new ways through this enforced time of no communal singing, and sad as it makes me not to be making music in real time with others, I’m also convinced we’ll come out on the other side appreciating it even more.