Basic Disciplines for Liturgical Worship, Part II

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.

Hogarth_Church[A 1736 print by engraver and satirist William Hogarth entitled “The Sleeping Church”]

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.

21 thoughts on “Basic Disciplines for Liturgical Worship, Part II

  1. John Bassett

    Of course, the singers are completely at the mercy of the organist. While some musicians do believe that they are there to support singing, many more seem to believe that they are there to banish it. Why exactly is a full principal chorus, including mixtures, needed for 50 people at the 8 o’clock service? And even when more people are there, this only seems to encourage the organist to pull out more ammunition to quell the congregational singing. Can they hear each other? Couple a full swell! Is it Easter and all seats are filled? Attack with the en chamade trumpets! Against three or four manuals and 5 inches of wind, the congregation will always lose.

  2. Susan Loomis

    Sometimes musical shock sparks attention. I attended the ordination of two deacons on Saturday, and the gospel reading was chanted. It was so unexpected that everyone became a little more focused.
    When we were sharing our spiritual autobiographies at EFM, several people commented on how important music is on their spiritual journey. I doubt I’d be a Christian if the church was without music. Hymns teach so much theology without pain or boredom.

  3. Barbara (bls)

    One of the best things about music, to me, is that it sticks with you – and, as Susan notes, immerses you in the images and ideas of faith in a way that nothing else can. And it allows much easier recall at times when not at worship.

    You might find yourself singing the Gloria, for instance, some Tuesday afternoon at 4 o’clock, just because the tune is swimming around up there in your head. Or, you might remember and sing the fraction anthem, because the melody is so pretty and words are so apt, or the Collect for Purity (we sang this at one “contemporary” service I went to) – or even the Creed! (William Matthais’ version in the 1982 Hymnal is full of energy and fun to sing, even if hard.)

    And, of course, Psalms – the music of the church and also of the Temple and synagogue – are songs, to begin with. (And I wish we had those melodies…!)

  4. SaintlySages

    The distinction between sins of commission and sins of omission could well be applied to singing. A most interesting post and a priceless Hogarth. God bless!

  5. David Cobb

    Much of great value- and as they say “useful for instruction”.. though I wish you’d left a little space for a choral setting of the ordinary or a well-formed choir to chant the psalms, or the great settings of the canticles at matins or evensong- sometimes the act of someone else doing it really well-(and that would be choir and composer- or the tradition that gives us plainsong ) makes me listen in a way that nothing else does.

  6. Derek Olsen

    I note how much music shows up in the comments!

    Yes, Susan and bls, music does have the capability to unexpectedly change what you hear. David, I did leave a little space for it (not all participation is active participation) but, yes, you’re right–I do need to expand that and be more explicit about it.

  7. Susan Loomis

    Yes, I think I might like the Psalms if I could hear the original music.

  8. Robert Solon Jr


    I might push back, only a little on your point about participation and intentionality. Now I know full well that the Sunday Eucharist is the high point of our weekly lives as Christians, and so we must and should approach it with full intentionality. and yet I am also informed by two somewhat different points of view: First, my rector of my sponsering parish said that the sermon was only at best a quarter of that of what believers absorbed during worship – the music, the action, the texts, all of it were the majority of what was communicated. I took that, and take that, to mean that sometimes at least, we’re just going to get what we get from the surroundings – we may not be in a place to really focus on what is being said and done. And the Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist makes a similar point (regarding the Offices): sometimes we are fully engaged, and sometimes its everyone else who carries us along. So I want to encourage people to come to worship and especially the Sunday Eucharist, and to be as fully present as they can, but accepting that one’s full presence may not always be what others might expect, but that to at least to a certain degree one’s presence in the assembly is in and of itself being a part of the Body of Christ.

  9. Pingback: Participating at Church | Gaudete Theology

  10. Rdr. James Morgan

    Somehing I posted on an Orthodox blog the other day.
    Rdr. James Morgan
    I hope this is helpful somehow!

    I think we all can agree that
    the central aspect of being a Reader is “to read”. But there is a huge
    responsibility and significance in that beyond the mechanical task that we
    often don’t consider.

    *How* you read a line or paragraph of text can actually *affect its
    meaning*. Where we pause, how we shape a phrase, all affects how the
    hearer will interpret what is being said. And (especially in more
    difficult translations like KJV) a wrong or unusual inflection/shape to a
    phrase will actually result in the hearer hearing a thought or teaching
    that is wrong.

    Therefore — Anyone (tonsured or not) who reads from scripture in church,
    is an INTERPRETER OF SCRIPTURE. Just think about that for a moment.

    Hopefully, this opens up a whole world of intangible, spiritual/formative
    requirements of being a Reader, tonsured or not. And it should give us
    pause for a moment, those of us who are directors or clergy, as to what
    care we should take when *assigning* readings, whether full passages or

    Every liturgical action, no matter how small, affects the Church in some
    way. When you read liturgically, your voice becomes part of the action of
    the Church. It is a humbling, and sometimes even scary (in a good way),
    thing to do.

    more at: and others to and fro.

  11. Rdr. James Morgan

    I fondly remember a Greek Orthodox priest speaking of his mother, who could not read, singing the hymns of his church whilst she went about her household chores. She knew so much by heart and it was her song….
    Would we westerners be as devoted!

  12. Susan Loomis

    I think many of us who love music sing hymns throughout the day quite naturally.

  13. Brad Evans

    Church is boring.
    And if singing in church is so “manly”, why the grossly disproportionate high percentage of both gay clergy and gay choir directors/organists?

  14. Brad Evans

    So what did I say that was inaccurate?
    Face it: church is boring. The music is boring; the ritual is tedious; the cosmology and theology pointless and incredible; you can get the same politics elsewhere.

  15. Finn Froding

    Brad, accuracy is not the point. Some may find the music boring, the ritual tedious, the cosmology and theology pointless. Such characterizations are not facts, they are attitudes, opinions, and they are widely shared and widely expressed in many forums. It seems to me that our host has designed this forum specifically for those who do find relevance and meaning in music, ritual and theology, and who take pleasure in discussing these matters reasonably and charitably.

  16. Susan Loomis

    Brad, I was reacting to your attitude to gay clergy and musicians. Some manly men are gay, and so are some effeminate ones. Gender preference doesn’t make a man ‘manly’. Strength of character and compassion do.

  17. Brad Evans

    But you don’t dispute that the clergy and church musicians, certainly in Mainline Protestant churches, are disproportionately gay?
    Because then you’d just either be lying or oblivious to what’s obvious to anyone who’s ever spent more than a month attending a Mainline church.

  18. Susan Loomis

    I really don’t see what the gender preference of musicians and clergy has to do with whether church is boring. At my mainline church, I’m sure we have gay musicians, but I don’t know how many. We have two adult choirs and a children’s choir. They don’t wear tags identifying their gender preference, so I don’t know their preference. We have 3 paid priests, one a lesbian. She is definitely not boring. (We will be adding 2 paid priests this summer, neither LGBT). We have 2 deacons, one who is gay. Considering the makeup of our parish, I don’t think this is disproportionate. If anything, we probably need a gay priest.

  19. Barbara (bls)

    Susan, it doesn’t have anything to do with anything. Brad has posted the same comments hundreds of times on dozens of blogs under about 10 different screen names; he’s fixated on the topic of gay priests (and now, it seems, gay musicians), and that’s what he will talk about, no matter what the actual subject at hand is.

    What’s interesting is that he hangs out with people he thinks “need to get a life,” and talks constantly about subjects he finds “boring and tedious.” Go figure!

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