This part is coming along slowly… I do see the relationship between intentionality/participation/attentiveness as being three aspects of the same whole and may juggle around the order of these a bit once they’re done. We’ll see…
When we come before the Lord to worship, when we prepare ourselves to once again take the plunge into the unending choruses of praise to God and to the Lamb, it means committing whole hog. If we’re there to praise, then let every part of us that can join in the praise. Check the psalms. Does it really say, “Let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein. Then shall all the trees of the woods fold their branches over their trunks and just stand there stoically while everyone else is singing as if they’re too cool to join in (perhaps in a slightly ironic way)?”
I didn’t think so. And yet, I see this almost every week at worship… Since I recognize that singing adds a few different things to the mix, let’s begin by talking about the speaking parts, then touch on singing.
During colonial times, there were two people who appeared at the front of the church to make worship happen: the priest and the clerk or reader. If you go into some of our oldest Episcopal churches that still have their original furniture you might see a two-level pulpit: the priest stood in the upper part while the clerk stood in the lower. The priest was, well, to be the priest, and he’d say the “priest” parts. The clerk was a layman, and his job was to lead the speaking parts for the people. On one hand this setup is a benefit—with the clerk there, you know when to say what you needed to say. And, in a time where the congregation had varying degrees of literacy, it was always helpful to have a least one guy you knew could read! On the other hand, it also became entirely too easy to sit back and let the clerk do “his” thing instead of seeing him as the leader for “our” thing. The Victorian liturgical scholar Walter Frere speaks unfavorably of this duet between either the priest and the clerk or—later—the priest and the choir where, in both cases, the congregation sat in as the audience while someone else performed their parts. Frere describes this—quite rightly—as a low-point for liturgy.
We’re there for a reason. We have been given a Book of Common Prayer so that we can pray together in common. The fact that the Anglican tradition has always provided access for the whole people to the whole service speaks volumes about what we understand participation to be. When the book says “People” it doesn’t intend a token representative, but the whole body. Thankfully, the clerk phenomenon has not been a big part of Episcopal worship in recent years, but the point still stands—the prayer book tradition is a participatory tradition; the intention has always been that the congregation should be engaged intellectually, spiritually, and verbally in what is going on.
Participation does, at the minimum, three things. First, it’s much easier to engage and remain engaged in the act of worship when we are verbally involved. The act of listening, responding, rolling the words around in our mouths, connects us to what is going on around us. Second, it represents an assent to the content of the words. When we join in, it’s an act of affirming what’s being said—we believe it, or at least have an understanding that this is what the church teaches and that we’re committed to even as we may wrestle with some phrases or aren’t fully feeling others at the time. Third, it both signals and creates a rapport with the people around us. We don’t come to the public worship of the church by ourselves and for our own sake. Public worship is corporate worship in the most literal of senses—we form a body: the Body into whom we were baptized. As we come together, we are separate members of the Body of Christ joining back together, re-forming the body in a simultaneously spiritual and literal sense. When someone stands silent in such a gathering, their actions call into question their relationship to the rest of the body.
Participation in singing as a slightly different story, but the same principles should be kept in mind. Not everyone sings—I understand that. There are different patterns of participation at worship. Some folks are better singers than others. Some are shy. Some don’t read music, or don’t read it well enough to feel comfortable joining in from the very beginning of a song—particularly if it’s a new one. Some guys might think it “unmanly” (and they’d be totally wrong on that count). Some were raised in churches where singing isn’t common or is frowned upon—whether officially or by long-standing custom.
After pointing out the myriad instructions to sing so many parts of the service from the psalms to the prayers to the creeds to the hymns, Victorian scholar John Henry Blunt confidently concluded, “The devotional system of the Prayer Book is, therefore, a singing system; and the Church of England is what the Mediaeval, the Primitive, and the Jewish Churches were, ‘a Singing Church.’” As framed notices in choir rooms across the world will attest, the great early African theologian St. Augustine of Hippo really did say that “To sing is to pray twice” (once with the words, and again with the beauty of the voice raised in song).
The goal should be for the whole congregation to be able to join in song at the congregational singing parts—service music and hymns alike. That means as congregants, we have a responsibility to raise our voices and join them with those around us—even if it’s softly! But we aren’t the only ones who have a say in this situation; the musicians and worship planners can have an impact here as well. Some music—particularly some of the pop-styles of recent years—works better for individual performers than large groups. A wide vocal range from high to low notes, complex rhythms, jumps in pitch are all very hard for the average congregation to sing and to sing well together. The choice of the music can sabotage the intention to participate even if it’s entirely inadvertent on the part of the musicians.
Participation in the service, whether in the sung or the spoken parts, is an important part of aligning yourself with the intention and the purpose of the liturgy. That’s not to say that there aren’t other modes of participation—not all participation is active participation—but vocal participation in conscious consonance with the Body around you is a hallmark of Anglican liturgy at its best.