(1) The Role of the Precentor. For a small Anglican church that does not have a choir, a precentor is a must irrespective of whether the church has an keyboard accompanist or uses a digital hymnal player, worship tracks, or a CD hymnal. In a small Baptist church this music minister would have the title of song leader or music director. In a small Anglican church precentor is the more appropriate title. A precentor is typically a volunteer and may be musically trained or untrained.
A precentor has a number of responsibilities. The precentor plans the music of the service in consultation with the keyboard accompanist if the church has one. He leads the congregation in its singing; works to expand the congregation’s repertoire, selecting new hymns, worship songs, and service music and teaching them to the congregation; conducts congregational rehearsals; invites soloists, small vocal groups, and instrumentalists to perform special music; organizes hymn sings; and does whatever else he can to elevate the quality of worship.
A precentor should a good ear and a strong pleasant voice. He should be able to carry a tune, to follow the notes of a melody in a hymnal or songbook or on sheet music, and to sing in key and on pitch. He should be comfortable at singing unaccompanied or to a keyboard or electronically recorded accompaniment, and should have mastered the basic techniques of teaching new music to a congregation.
A precentor should be knowledgeable about worship, liturgy, and the Book of Common Prayer, the proper use of music in Prayer Book services and special or occasional services, and the general principles of hymn selection.
A precentor should be familiar with a wide variety of music styles and a broad selection of hymnals, songbooks, and musical collections.
A precentor should have strong commitment to the role of the congregation as the principal music makers in the church and to the vision of the local church as a singing church.
A precentor should also know his limitations.
This description of the ministry and qualifications of a precentor is based upon what I learned from workshops, my reading, and my own experiences as the worship leader on a church plant launch team, unofficial music co-director, chorister, cantor, song leader, and worship leadership team member.
(2) The Role of the Ministers. When a small church does not have a choir, the weight of the responsibility for leading the congregational singing naturally shifts to the ministers at the service. Lay readers, lectors, precentors, and servers all fall into the category of ministers, not just clergy. Even when a small church has a choir, the ministers normally share this responsibility with the choir. It is important that the ministers sing in key, sing loud enough to be heard, and do not wander off the tune. If they sing off key or wander off the tune, the congregation may follow them. Or the congregation may stop singing altogether.
The precentor and all the ministers who live within reasonable driving distance of the church should practice the hymns and service music for a particular Sunday beforehand. This includes the ministers that may not be serving that Sunday but will be singing in the congregation. When and wherever they practice, they might invite the stronger voices in the congregation to join them. They could invite the entire congregation as far as that goes. The absence of the visiting priest who presides at the church’s celebrations of Holy Communion is not sufficient reason to dispense with practicing the music for Communion Sunday.
A good choir director will have the choir practice familiar hymns and service music at choir rehearsals, knowing that this practice will make a difference in how the hymns and service music is sung on Sunday morning. This attention to the quality of all the music in the service and not just the anthem or other special music is one of the things that the unchurched person notices when visiting the church for the first time and which leads him or her to draw the conclusion that the church takes the worship of God seriously.
The same attention should be given to the quality of the music in the service when the ministers lead the congregational singing. It is application of the principle expressed in the adage, “What is worth doing is worth doing well.” If hymns are worth singing, then they are worth singing well. If we love God, we owe him our best effort. Even if our singing may fall short of that of a professional vocalist, we are seeking to honor God with the best that we can do.
(3) The Selection of Music. In planning the music for a celebration of Holy Communion, it is best to begin with the selection of the gospel acclamation, hymn, or anthem to be sung between the Epistle and the Gospel, and then move onto the selection of the music for the other parts of the service in this order: the hymn or anthem to be sung at the ingathering of the Alms and Oblations, the doxology to sung at the presentation of the Alms and Oblations, the hymn to be sung after the Prayer of Humble Access, the hymn or anthem to be sung or the instrumental music to be played during the distribution of the elements, the Gloria in excelsis version or hymn to be sung after the Post-Communion Prayer, and the hymn to be sung and instrumental music to be played after the Blessing.
This order does not have to be followed rigidly. I have on occasions first selected the gospel acclamation, hymn, or anthem between the Epistle and the Gospel, gone onto to select the music for the Liturgy of the Table, the post-communion hymn, and the final hymn and the postlude, and then selected the hymn or anthem and doxology for the Offertory.
In selecting a hymn, anthem or other special music—solo, small group vocal, instrumental music—careful attention should be given to its suitability to the place in the service where it will be used and how it will contribute to the flow of the service and the overall worship experience. This includes the words of the song as well as its length, mood, tempo, and melody.
It is of crucial importance to view the music used in a service not as an adornment to the service but as an integral part of the people’s common prayer. The primary consideration in selecting a song for a particular place in the service is that it fits that place in the service and that its words make sense at that juncture.
Its length, mood, tempo, and melody are also important considerations. A song may have the right words for a particular moment in the service but its length, mood, tempo, or melody may be wrong.
When editing a hymn to shorten it, care should be taken not to mutilate the sense of the hymn. Hymns should NOT be abruptly ended after the third stanza. This deplorable practice is a serious abuse of Christian hymnody and shows no regard for hymns as a part of the people’s common prayer.
Some hymns must be sung in their entirety They cannot be edited to shorten them. Any attempt to shorten them will result in the congregation singing nonsense or worse. For example, if the last stanza of “A mighty fortress is our God” is omitted, the devil is left in charge!
The chief purpose of hymns is to help the congregation give voice to their prayer. Hymns are also teaching tools. They instruct and reinforce what they instruct. As Paul pointed to the attention of the Corinthians, everything that Christians do when they meet together must be done for the edification—the building up—of the body of Christ, his gathered Church.
Other hymns may be judiciously edited. One or more stanzas may be omitted without affecting the meaning of the hymn. A number of hymnals put an asterisk next to the stanzas that may be safely omitted. Or the meaning of the hymn may be altered but the words of the shortened version of the hymn are appropriate for a particular juncture in the service.
While attention should be given to the season, the appointed Scripture readings, and the occasion in selecting the hymns, anthems, and other special music for a celebration of Holy Communion, it is not necessary to relate every song and piece of music to the theme for the day. Whether the song or piece of music is suited to the place that is used is most important consideration. While the singing of a Christmas carol in July should be avoided so should the singing of a hymn sending the congregation forth into the world at beginning of the service or a hymn inviting the people to come and worship at the conclusion of the service.
The selection of the music to be used before the service—any special music, the prelude, and the introit hymn—should always be saved to last.