How can we keep from singing?

by Roger Walton.

Congregational singing has been one of the casualties of the pandemic. I am not much of singer myself, but I have, throughout my life, found moments of deep worship when caught up in a song of praise with others.  Like many, for the months of lockdown, I have been unable to experience this musical gateway to the divine.  It is fine to sing along with a group or choir in a YouTube hymn, or to encounter the extraordinary quality of people combining their musical talents from their own homes and making powerful creative art with music and visual images.  I am thankful for both, but I miss the immediacy of other voices in the room.  This absence was especially painful when we met in Church for a time but were not allowed to sing.  We listened to the organ or piano and ‘sang in our heads’ but it was not the same, and, if anything, intensified the sense of loss.

On the upside, my daily attempts to sing the set hymn for the day in my morning devotions allow me to dwell with the words, for I regularly find myself reading the lyrics through slowly, prayerfully before and after my lone singing.  John Wesley would have approved, I think, for his last instruction in his Directions for Singing 1761 (yes, he told us how to do it) is:

Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually;

When I first ventured into a service in a Methodist Church as a teenager, I saw people quietly reading their hymnbooks before the worship.  These books, I later discovered, were, for these devout souls, their prayer manuals, which they used at home and brought to worship, and through which they learned their theology and deepened their communion with God.

Of course, there must be a relationship between singing and pondering the words. For those Methodists of my teenage years, singing and praying their hymnbooks fed each other. 

Perhaps for many Christians, the truth of being part of the body of Christ is first felt when the odd collection of voices in a Christian gathering join in singing. There is a momentary unity that is not only enjoyable but a means of grace and a foretaste of heavenly worship as envisaged in the Book of Revelation, where diversity is both celebrated and transcended at the same time. The eyes, ears, hands and feet of I Corinthians 12 can no longer see themselves as separate or vying for importance but find their place and purpose in Christ, galvanised towards a life of love, as they are bonded together in singing. However fleeting, this is a profound experience.

Music of many kinds can lift the heart but singing the truth about God, harmonising melody and metanarrative, contains a special nurturing power.  Colossians 3.16 urges Christians to enter a spiritual rhythm.  It involves dwelling with the word of Christ, teaching and admonishing one another, and expressing our gratitude through psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  Growing in the body of Christ, it suggests, requires mind, heart and voice.

Many are thinking about what Church will look like after Covid.  Like the Exile, it has been a deeply creative period where we have discovered new ways of worship, new (ecologically friendly) patterns of doing business, and new communities that want to dip their toes into the spiritual waters of church worship from the safe distance of the internet.  At the same time, we are rediscovering Christian practices, like daily prayer, that for some had been lost in recent years.   We will need to respond to all these various prompting and not simply fall back into what was familiar before.  Within this, we might consider the place and role of congregational singing.  I hope it may have also a renewed place, not simply to fill in gaps between other parts of the liturgy, nor to do it because we always have. Wesley’s Directions for singing recognised that it has significant dangers, if not pursued with the right intent and object.  Rather through careful, prayerful and creative exploration, we may rediscover the deep joy of being connected and nurtured in the body of Christ through corporate singing. 

4 thoughts on “How can we keep from singing?”

  1. At the age of sixteen, when I became a Church member, I also became a member of a prestigious choral society, and can echo your thoughts, Roger. At the end of one of our performances it always took me an hour to come down off the mountain top.

    Singing ‘Captain of Israel’s Host’ at Methodist Conference always had the same effect, and though I have a strong affinity with the Quakers and love the use of silence in worship I always feel happy to return to my Methodist roots and a Good Sing. My present church does wonderful things to get the Sunday morning service into our homes (we have an organist / choirmaster who is also a sound engineer and does miracles with a single camera too), though I’m quite glad that my now croaking voice remains unheard by anyone else!

    There are some hymns in our hymn books which I can’t sing for theological or other reasons, but the great hymn writers of past and present provide a grounding in the faith which, because words and music together are so memorable, stays with people for life, even through severe dementia.

    Incidentally I love your bit about ‘diversity being both celebrated and transcended’. And thank you so much for having the inspiration to start Theology Everywhere. It is always my first port of call after breakfast on Mondays.

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  2. Oh Roger, you have articulated perfectly the way I feel about congregational singing!
    And how online worship and virtual choirs, with the best will in the world, don’t come anywhere near to the sense of God’s presence I feel when singing traditional hymns, modern worship songs, and even popular love songs with others who love God and want to lift their hearts and their voices to Him in praise.
    When I first entered a Methodist Church eleven years ago to take part in the Alpha Course, the first thing I noticed on the wall of the meeting room was a banner saying ‘The Methodist Church was built on song.’
    That will do for me, I thought, let’s just have a good sing then!
    I have learnt so much of my theology from hymns, as much as from preachers, so much that I was even inspired to write a hymn as part of my studying to be a worship leader. I only wrote new words to a traditional tune, but sadly I haven’t had chance to use my hymn in worship because of the closure of the churches.
    And as for funerals, no-one could have a better send off than a Methodist congregation raising the roof in song for one of its own. If music be the food of love, play on!

    ‘While though the tempest loudly roars,
    I hear the Truth, it liveth!
    And tho’ the darkness ’round me close,
    Songs in the night it giveth.
    No storm shall shake my inmost calm
    As to that rock I’m clinging,
    Since Love is Lord of Heaven and Earth,
    How can I keep from singing?’
    (Enya)

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  3. Only last night I quoted in a zoom, ‘His love in times past forbids me to think/ He’ll leave me at last in troubles to sink’ from John Newton’s hymn ‘Begone unbelief’ This proved a comfort to others and summed up a scripture based discussion about hope. A lifetime of singing in Methodist worship has thankfully supplied me with a rich store of memorable lines.

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