Have we been singing ourselves to death?

There have been many complaints about the government’s insistence that we should not sing in church.

My youngest daughter is in one of the Cambridge college choirs, and it really isn’t the same hearing them do Evensong on Zoom. There’s nothing quite like choral harmony, or listening to the Gettys doing ‘O Church Arise’ at full volume on YouTube. But hearing my family screech and strain our way through a song with the online church service as the background on Sunday is not the most inspiring thing. I miss congregational singing with our church family.

Crowding out the word?

Yet, I do wonder sometimes if evangelicals today put too much emphasis on this. The fashion in many churches, both high and low, whether Anglican or not, seems to be to spend more time singing or listening to music than attending to God’s word read and preached. If the words of our songs and anthems are Scriptural, the damage may be mitigated, but not entirely avoided.

This was a problem identified during the Reformation by those who put together the English Prayer Book. Peter Martyr Vermigli, for example, one of the architects of the Prayer Book, was concerned that English choral traditions would undermine the ministry of the word and lead us back in a Roman direction: ‘Almost everywhere in the papal religion they think they have worshipped God sufficiently in the church when they have sung and shouted loud and long,’ he cautioned. ‘There are many priests and monks who think they deserve well of God because they have sung many psalms.’

Vermigli identified this vice as an issue to be addressed because ‘there should not be so much singing in church as to leave almost no time for preaching the word of God and holy doctrine’. And yet, he added: ‘We can see this happening everywhere in a way, for everything is so noisy with chanting and piping [or strumming and drumming?] that there is no time left for preaching. So it happens that people depart from church full of music

and harmony, yet they are fasting and starving for heavenly doctrine.’

I think there is a challenge for us today, as we think about the desire for singing. Vermigli was provocatively strong on this. In the early church, he said, they ‘used either very little singing or almost none at all. They saw the people’s weakness to be such that they paid more attention to the harmony than to the words. So today if we see Christians running to church as to the theatre, where they can be amused with rhythm and singing, in such a case we should abstain from something not necessary, rather than feed their pleasures with the destruction of their souls’ (De Musica et Carminibus, 1561).

Singing ourselves to death?

This is perhaps sage advice for churches which find themselves in a culture of entertainment. If people literally are amusing themselves to spiritual death, pushing out preaching by a fixation on ‘good music’; if what they are really interested in deep down is a good morning or evening out for a ‘performance’ or singalong at church (or chapel or cathedral) – then, rather than pandering to it and trying to imitate the world’s musical idioms, maybe we should stop singing in church altogether?

Has coronavirus done us a favour then, forcing us to reconsider what is most essential? Of course, there’s also the clear injunction in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 for us to speak to one another and to our own hearts by means of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We mustn’t forget that. Music is a gift from God. But is there also a case for saying that we shouldn’t baptise the latest musical trends and hope to win a hearing for the gospel through good-quality Christian music in our meetings, but stop it altogether, to expose the sinfulness and deception at work in such desires, and point people to a better way? We need to be feeding our souls with the word, to the destruction of the flesh, rather than feeding our pleasures with music, to the destruction of our souls. Something to ponder while singing is banned!

Lee Gatiss

Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society and author of Light After Darkness: How the Reformers Regained, Retold, and Relied on the Gospel.

Photograph: iStock

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