In those places where they sing, well, they sing! And thank goodness they do, and that singing is finding its way back into the worship life of faith communities after pandemic restrictions. The result is not yet uniform throughout North America, though previously muted voices are finding vocal space once more.
In churches music is chanted or shared by a choral ensemble. It is often performed by soloists or rendered in diverse styles by instrumental ensembles. Singing is supported by organs, pianos, string quartets or guitars. For me however the energy of an entire congregation, singing their hearts out, is the most marvellous experience. I have two specific memories in mind:
At the top of Regent Street in downtown London, England immediately beside the BBC stands the parish church of All Souls, Langham Place. Noted for its fine tradition of preaching through the lens of low-church, Church of England evangelicalism I visited many times while a music student in London. While attracted by the preaching it was the congregational song which kept me coming back. In a packed space seating some 1400 worshippers it seemed as if the roof would lift as everyone (well it seemed that way) would sing. To be part of such enthusiasm was absolutely thrilling.
In a more quiet mood I recall a pilgrimage to a place just south of the Scottish border, a trek to the historic East Coast pilgrimage island of Lindisfarne, itself called Holy Island, when a hundred or so companions and I stayed up all night between the Easter vigil and the first Eucharist of Easter Day 1979. Throughout the night, people shared stories, and sang, typically in small groups or solo sharing that music which they loved and which had blessed them.
In this morning’s meeting of Dean Robert of Canterbury’s Garden Congregation the Dean noted the special anniversary of the BBC Music programme Songs Of Praise which marks 60 years on air this weekend. It is the world’s longest-running religious television programme. This Sunday’s broadcast will mark nearly 3,000 programmes since the first transmission in 1961.
While Dean of St. Paul’s, Kamloops I would often find online broadcast ideas for our virtual worship and reflection from SOP episodes. Early in my time in Kamloops I hoped to create a group experience similar to SOP but the idea did not appeal at that time to colleagues. For me, there is nothing like singing with others, singing familiar texts and tunes, often in special arrangements. In such gatherings I also like to introduce new material.
Throughout the 1990s I was an active member of the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada. Attending three of their annual conventions in Northfield, Minnesota, San Diego, California and Savannah, Georgia I joined several hundred musicians, theologians, academics, clergy and other singers in a room where everyone was motivated and skilled in the art of singing.
I remember one evening where we gathered in the historic Christ Episcopal Church, Savannah where John Wesley was minister for a time. After a sermon by the acclaimed British hymnwriter Timothy Dudley Smith, a Mennonite woman led us all, without instruments, with minimal hand gestures, in a half-hour of a cappella (unaccompanied) congregational singing. Recalling this decades later, I still get the shivers. It was heaven on earth.
Back to Songs of Praise, current host Aled Jones (himself a former star boy chorister) says:
“I’ve been a Songs of Praise presenter for over 20 years and it’s one of the biggest joys of my life. It is an honour to be able to share uplifting stories of faith with our dear audience and to gladden hearts with music that means the world to me. Here’s to a future filled with wonderful Songs of Praise!”
Of the programme itself, Patrick Holland, Director Factual, Arts and Classical Music says:
“For 60 years, Songs of Praise has held a very special place on BBC One. Never has this been more important than the past year, when as churches had to close their doors Songs of Praise continued to bring together people of faith across the UK every Sunday. It is a great honour to pay tribute to the world’s longest-running religious television programme – long may it continue.”
Since 1977 SOP has introduced interview segments which I find both creative and inspirational. Matthew Napier, Songs of Praise Series Editor, says:
“Through the singing of hymns and worship songs and by featuring ordinary Christians putting their faith into action in remarkable ways, Songs of Praise has reached its 60th by continuing to bring joy, comfort and spiritual enrichment to audiences across the UK.”
Personally I have come a long way musically and theologically since learning and leading hymns as a boy chorister in Victoria BC in the 1960s. Other singers would sit beside me in rehearsal as I could read music and knew most of the hymns. It was such fun. I have now written a few of my own, and in one case have published one of my own arrangements. As the nights grow longer in the BC interior I have a couple of projects in process. As for my personal favourites I would name three (with links).
As for other popular religious song, which I also dearly love, that must be a separate post in a blog series called “Take Note.” One aspect of my vision was to pay attention to people, life and events in a storied way. My other intention was to comment on music, only now to take up that particular baton. Your comments are most welcome.