By Robin G. Jordan
In many small Anglican churches in which Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer is the principal service on most Sundays, it is often impossible for the congregation to chant the psalms and canticles for one or more of the following reasons. The room in which the congregation gathers to worship on Sundays does not have the right kind of acoustics for chanting. The church does not have an accompanist who can support chanting on the organ or piano. The church lacks the strong music leadership of a choir, small choral ensemble, or cantor for chanting. The congregation lacks confidence in its ability to sing the Psalms and canticles. The congregation has no acquaintance with the best form of chanting for the congregational singing of psalms and canticles, which is plainsong. As a result the congregation finds itself stuck in the rut of reciting the psalms and canticles in the same way every Sunday with little or no variation in the way that they are said. Typically the psalms will be recited responsively between the service leader and the congregation and the canticles will be said in unison.
For first time guests the recitation of the psalms and canticles is experienced as a tedious, uninspiring exercise. The psalms and canticles are often said in a perfunctory manner, in a toneless voice, with negligible feeling. There is nothing to suggest that what we are saying comes from the heart.
The recitation of the psalms and canticles is made even more wearisome for first-time guests as they are required to stand throughout the exercise without any inkling of why they need to do so. Members of the congregation may have a vague idea that standing is customary but first time guests are completely mystified.
I have posted several recent articles about the “curse of knowledge” on Anglicans Ablaze. Because we are acquainted with something or accustomed to it, we erroneously assume others are too. But the truth is that first-time guests do not understand why we do things the way we do them nor do they see the logic of doing them that way. Telling them that that is the way Anglicans do things does not increase their understanding of what we are doing nor is it a convincing argument for accepting the way we do them.
What makes matters worse is that what we are doing actually may be of fairly recent origin and may be a something that a past service leader introduced by accident or out of ignorance. While bad habits form easily, they are not easy to change once they are formed.
Take, for instance, standing to recite or sing the psalms. Percy Dearmer and others have pointed out that this practice can be traced to the mid-nineteenth century when it was introduced in imitation of a practice of the monks in medieval times. The monks who sang the psalms in this manner stood in wooden stalls which, unlike chairs and pews, provided them with a measure of support while they chanted. Singing the psalms in this fashion was also considered a way of disciplining the flesh.
Before this practice was introduced in the Anglican Church, Anglicans sat for the recitation or singing of the psalms. They did not stand. Sitting for the psalms is an ancient practice, which can be traced to the practices of the earliest monks, to the Desert Fathers. They sat while a cantor said or sung each psalm, mediating on the words of the psalm. After each psalm they prayed, first standing and then prostrating themselves.
While it may be argued that we stand to praise, many psalms are not psalms of praise. They are psalms of penitence or psalms of lament. Then there are, of course, the imprecatory psalms.
Percy Dearmer in The Art of Public Worship champions sitting for the psalms on the grounds that it would not only make the experience less wearisome for the congregation but it would also help the congregation to the focus on the words of the psalms.* I would add that it also makes the experience less exhausting for first-time guests who are unaccustomed to what may be described as the gymnastics of Anglican worship.
We need to keep in mind that first-time guests do not experience our services as we do. They not only do not understand what we are doing and why we are doing it but they also experience the services quite differently from the way we do.
We forget that our services are in a form of English which contains many words and phrases that are strange or unfamiliar to first-time guests. The Scripture readings are often as not from a translation that contains grammatical structures as well as words and phrases that are incomprehensible to them.
There are also lengthy parts of the service in which the congregation is kneeling and says nothing except for “amen.” As a teenager these parts of the service were the parts of the service that I liked the least. My church had hard, narrow kneelers and kneeling for any length of time was painful. (I always fancied that the uncomfortable box pews and the hard, narrow kneelers was one way the slaves who built the church exacted revenge on their masters.) First-time guests experience these parts of the service in much the same way.
We may not notice the frantic pace of our services but first-time guests do. They notice when we are simply mouthing the words, when we are not putting our hearts into them.
How first-time guests experience our services is major determining factor in whether they return another time and what they tell their friends, relatives, and co-workers about our church. If we make a poor impression upon them, they are not only going to not return but they are also going to tell these folks about their negative experience.
It should be mentioned that even small Anglican churches that cannot chant the psalms and canticles of the Daily Offices can sing the invitatory psalm and the canticles of Morning Prayer and the canticles of Evening Prayer, using metrical versions of these songs.
Before the Oxford Movement sought to replicate in the parish church the worship of the medieval cathedral and the medieval monastery, it was not an uncommon practice for parish church congregations to sing metrical versions of the psalms and canticles in their Sunday worship. With a few exceptions, the practice of chanting the Prayer Book versions of the psalms and canticles was largely confined to cathedral and college chapels.
The Oxford Movement would introduce organs and boys choirs into the parish church and would suppress the village quire, a small ensemble of local musicians and singers that led the congregational singing and performed special music in most parish churches. A large part of the village quire’s repertoire and that of the congregation itself was metrical versions of the psalms and canticles.
In an age in which choirs are disappearing and competent organists are becoming rarer than hen’s teeth, circumstances which are beyond the control of the small Anglican church, the Oxford Movement’s penchant for medieval church music and its view that such music was the only music suitable for public worship has not served the Anglican Church well. Most small Anglican churches cannot pull off this kind of music and are located in communities in which such music has a very small following. Rather they should focus on what they can do well and for most congregations that is to sing hymns. This means that they are already singing some metrical versions of the psalms and canticles.
Small Anglican churches have a wealth of metrical versions of the psalms and canticles from which they can choose, not only from the past five hundred years but also from more recent times. Almost all of these songs may be sung to familiar hymn tunes. A number of new tunes have also been composed for use with these songs. The use of these songs in their worship on Sundays and at other times is an option that they do well to explore. I plan to examine this option in a separate article.
What can a small Anglican church do to improve how its congregation recites the psalms and canticles on Sundays and at other times? The answer is quite a lot.
The late Eric Routley in his book, Music Leadership in the Church, makes the following observation about the public reading of the psalms:
“This, in order really to make its effect, has to be a kind of unrehearsed choral speech and is best performed antiphonally. In order to reflect the poetic structure of the psalms the change of voice must come at the half-verse, and this has the added advantage that a half-verse is normally brief enough to make for a disciplined reading, such as dissipates itself in the course of even so short an utterance as a whole psalm verse. Where people are used to talking in church, as they are in a country parish church in England where responses and even canticles may be chorally read, psalm-reading can be a means of grace; where the custom is not followed in the other parts of the service, reading becomes a rather melancholy substitute for singing. The one question that psalm-reading raises is—If we are going to read the psalms and the canticles in our worship on Sundays and at other times, we need to be able to respond to Routley’s question with an emphatic yes! We need to be prepared to take what we are doing seriously. This means taking greater care in deciding what we are going to ask the congregation to read and how we are going ask them to read it. It also entails teaching the congregation the best way to read the psalms and canticles and giving them an opportunity to practice and master what they have been taught.
Are you prepared to take choral speech seriously?”
Just as we conduct occasional congregational rehearsals when we are seeking to improve the quality of the congregational singing in our worship and teach new hymns and service music, it is also a good idea to conduct similar rehearsals to improve the quality of choral speaking in our worship. At these rehearsals we can model for the congregation how the psalms and the canticles should be read. They also provide an opportunity to explain archaic and obscure words and phrases. Such rehearsals can be combined with a meal and other activities to which church members can invite non-churchgoing friends, relatives, and coworkers. They can serve as a way of introducing these folks to the way our church worships. Videos of the rehearsal might be made and posted on the church website with a brief explanation of what is happening and how it fits into Anglican worship. Both the choral speaking rehearsals and the videos help convey to non-churchgoers that we take the worship of God with the seriousness that it deserves.
The 1928 Book of Common Prayer has two lectionaries for Daily Offices, one published in 1928 and the other in 1945. These two lectionaries are one of the recognized weaknesses of the 1928 Prayer Book (See Rev. Gavin Dunbar’s “Reading the Bible as a Church,” Anglican Way Magazine, October 20, 2013). They do, however, suggest suitable psalms for Sundays and other feast days. The rubrics do not require the use of all the psalms suggested for a particular Sunday or feast day. They also permit the use of other suitable psalms.
An important liturgical principle is that less is more. We should keep this principle foremost in our minds in our planning of the different parts of the services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. One psalm read slowly and meditatively is better than two or three psalms read hastily with little attention to what we are saying.
The psalms, after all, are prayers taken from God’s Word. We should not only offer them prayerfully but also reflect upon them as we would the Scripture readings.
As well as helping us to put into words our devotion to God, through them God shapes and transforms us just as he does through the Scripture readings. He renews our minds.
When we read a psalm, God’s Word should be allowed to do its work. God meets us in his Word. We should not be in a hurry to rush on to the next part of the service. We are in God’s presence and we are on God’s time. We should not treat the psalm as if it is a kind of magic formula that we must recite to win God’s favor or a kind of duty that we are obliged to perform. Treating a psalm in this way does not honor God.
We should read a psalm in our natural voice, allowing any feelings toward God to show in our reading—our love and reverence for him, our sorrow at our sins, our joy at the opportunity to join our fellow Christians in worshiping him, and so on. The psalm should give expression to the voice of our heart, our innermost self. Praying a psalm is a time to drop our masks and to pray naked so to speak before God. Our devotion should be real, not feigned. This may be difficult for some folks at least initially but if we work at it, praying the psalms in this way will transform our worship.
As the compilers of Celebrating Common Prayer point to our attention, “some psalms, such as the more personal and penitential ones, are perhaps best spoken by a single voice.” They also note that other psalms may be recited in unison.
The preferred method of reciting most psalms is antiphonally (with the two sides of the congregation or men and women reciting alternate half verses.) It is appropriate to pause at the asterisk (*) at the half-way point between the two verse halves.
The least desirable method of reading the psalms, which unfortunately has become the default method in many small Anglican churches, is responsively, with a service leader and the congregation reciting alternate half verses. It is the most boring and uninteresting method of reading the psalms. Most congregations that recite the psalms in this manner are not familiar with the other methods of psalm-reading. They have never been exposed to these methods.
A few psalms lend themselves to responsorial recitation. An example is Psalm 136. The second half of each verse of these psalms consists of a regularly recurring phrase. One or two or more voices read the first half of each verse and the entire congregation reads the second half of each verse. If two or more voices read the first half of each verse, they may read the half-verse together or take turns reading the half-verse.
While the Venite is ordinarily recited in unison, it may also be read responsorially with the congregation reciting the optional antiphon appointed for the feast day or season after each verse. Although it is sometimes described as a canticle, the Veniteis actually an invitatory psalm – a call to worship. Its words make little sense when the psalm or psalms which follow it are not sung: “O come, let us sing unto the LORD; let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation….”
As Percy Dearmer and others have shown, an office hymn originally followed the Venite in the office of Matins. It would relieve what is a long segment of Morning Prayer if the first hymn of the day was sung immediately after the Venite instead at the beginning of the service.
Beginning the service with a procession with candles and a processional cross is a practice borrowed from the service of Holy Communion. It does not really have a place in the Daily Offices, even on a Sunday or feast day. Both the congregation and the ministers should quietly take their places before the beginning of the service and the service should begin with a suitable opening sentence and the exhortation or the shorter invitation to confession.
We should read the canticles in the same way that we read the psalms—prayerfully and reflecting on what we are reading. Like the psalms, the canticles should never be rushed.
While it is particularly appropriate to recite most of the canticles in unison, the Benedicite Omnia Opera and the Benedictus es, Domine are best read responsorially. Both are segments of the same hymn of praise, an expanded version of Psalm 148, found in the Apocrypha. Together they were a fixed part of the ancient cathedral (or popular) morning office of Lauds, and were sung throughout the year. They followed the laudate psalms, Psalms 148-150, which were also a fixed part of the service.
It is noteworthy that the 1928 Prayer Book has returned to the ancient practice and permits the singing or recitation of the Benedicite year-round. While the Benedicite is lengthy, it is a wonderful hymn of praise. If the first half of each verse is sung or recited by multiple voices with the entire congregation joining in on the second half of each verse and perhaps accompanied by hand bells, the Benedicite is a most fitting response to God’s Word.
The 1926 Irish Prayer Book, the 2004 Irish Prayer Book, and 1956 Free Church of England Prayer Book permit the substitution of Psalm 148 for the Benedicite.
The Jubilate Deo, which Archbishop Thomas Cranmer included as an alternative to the Benedictus Dominus Deus in the 1552 Prayer Book, is actually a psalm of approach. It was sung while entering the temple at Jerusalem. For this reason more recent Anglican service books have moved it to a position before the psalm or psalms of the day where it may be used as an alternative invitatory psalm to the Venite.
Since the Venite and the canticles are hymns of praise, it is appropriate for the congregation to stand while singing or reciting them. On the other hand, the congregation should sit for the psalm or psalms of the day as it does for the Scripture readings at Morning and Evening Prayer. If it is properly explained to them, the older members of the congregation will over time grow to appreciate this change. The gymnastics of Anglican worship can be very hard on aging joints. Many older churchgoers cannot stand or kneel for extended periods of time.
Unlike the 1662 Prayer Book, the 1928 Prayer Book does not require the singing or recitation of the Gloria Patri after each psalm or canticle. Following the Eastern Orthodox practice, the Gloria Patri may be sung or recited after the whole portion of psalms. The Gloria Patri may be omitted after the canticles. Percy Dearmer in The Art of Public Worship recommends to his readers a practice that he observed while lecturing in the United States. He noticed that even when they recited the psalm or psalms of the day, American congregations would sing the Gloria Patri at the conclusion of the psalmody. Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady included in their New Version of the Psalms of David various metrical versions of the Gloria Patri that could be sung to different meters. A number of these metrical Gloria Patri were included in The Hymnal Revised and Enlarged(1892) of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA. One of them can be sung to the tune of OLD HUNDRETH, the same tune as Thomas Ken’s doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow Another is found at the end of Hymn 450, “As pants the heart for cooling streams,” in The Hymnal (1940) and may be sung to MARTYRDOM or some other suitable hymn tune of the same meter. After a successful trial run at my own church, it is a practice that I also recommend. It concludes the psalmody on a note of praise and smooths the transition to the First Lesson.
Let me leave you with this piece of advice from the seventeenth century Anglican poet-priest George Herbert from the chapter, “The Parson Preaching,” from his book, A Priest to the Temple: The Country Parson, His Character, and Rule of Holy Life. When we preach, he wrote, we should dip and season all our words and sentences in our hearts before speaking them so that every word is heart-deep. It is wise counsel that applies not just to the sermon but to the entire liturgy—to the hymns, the psalms, the readings, the canticles, the creed, and the prayers, not just to the service leader but to the whole congregation. Every word should be dipped and seasoned in our hearts so that when we utter them, they are heart-deep. Those who hear our words will not go away unaffected. They may, for the first time in their lives, encounter the living God.
Upcoming Article Series on Reshaping the 1928 Prayer Book Services for Mission
Reshaping the 1928 Prayer Book Services for Mission—Part 1
Reshaping the 1928 Prayer Book Services for Mission—Part 2
Reshaping the 1928 Prayer Book Services for Mission—Part 3
*A list of Percy Dearmer's books and pamphlets with links to the electronic editions of a number of them is online on the Project Canterbury website.