Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).
Following the episode on the ‘Atmospheric Church’, quite a few people got in touch with questions and comments about the nature of our church gatherings, about singing and music, and about how we should think biblically and theologically about these things.
In response, this episode has another look at these issues, by means of a quirky proposal: “Speaking as an Anglican, I’d like to bring back the church choir”.
To listen to Tony try to persuade Phillip of this crackpot idea, just click on the player above. To read the finished piece which Tony wrote after our conversation, read below.
SPEAKING AS AN ANGLICAN, I’D LIKE TO BRING BACK THE CHURCH CHOIR
I do like a title with some shock value, but I must apologise if ‘Speaking as an Anglican, I’d like to bring back the church choir’ has left you pale and gasping for breath.
But I like a challenge, so let me try to persuade you that speaking as an Anglican is a good and desirable thing to do, and that a renewal of the church choir is just what our churches need.
Speaking as an Anglican …
English or ‘Anglican’ Churches have been around for an exceedingly long time, since before St Augustine arrived on the shores of England in 597 AD. And over the ensuing millennia, as ‘Anglican’ churches have spread around the world (especially via the British Empire), being ‘Anglican’ has come to mean a great many different things.
The kind of Anglican I speak as has been around nearly five hundred years, or more if you count pre-Reformation figures like Wycliffe. It’s the five-sola, gospel-centred Reformational Anglicanism of Cranmer, Latimer and Perkins, and later of Whitefield, Simeon and Ryle. It’s the Anglicanism that gave us the foundational texts and formularies of Anglican Churches to this day, and that are still (supposedly!) the standard of its doctrine and practice—that is, The Book of Common Prayer and The Thirty-Nine Articles.
There’s much to say about this kind of Anglicanism and its history, but the aspect I want to lean on in this article is how the revitalized theology of the Reformation Anglicans drove them to a revolutionary new practice of church.
The English Reformers saw in 16th century Roman Catholicism a form of church that was unthinkably inconsistent with the gospel of justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace through the Scriptures alone. They saw an Old Testament style of church with buildings designed to look like temples, mediatorial priests dressed in elaborate sacrificial robes, and a service of mysterious, mystical worship that performed a sacrifice (i.e. the Mass) to satisfy God—and all of it in a language that none of the people understood (Latin). It was a version of church in which everything was done for the people by the priestly caste, including the singing, which was performed by specially trained choirs, sometimes two choirs, performing antiphonally, with the people as the passive spectators in the middle.
The Anglican Reformers regarded all of this as a theological failure—a failure to understand the difference between Old and New Testaments, a failure to grasp and trust in the meaning of the death of Jesus on the cross, “who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world” (as the BCP puts it).
The theological revolution of the Reformation was the catalyst for a revolution in church. The difference in practice was stark, so much so that many of the common people violently objected, as people do to any drastic change. Now when they went to church:
- they were addressed in their own language;
- they heard large chunks of the Bible read (Old Testament and New Testament) in their own language;
- by weekly repetition they learned prayers and creeds and hymns of faith and confessions and thanksgivings and responses, all in their own language; it was not called The Book of Common Prayer for nothing—in fact, if you took the Bible readings and Bible-based prayers out of the BCP there is virtually nothing left;
- it was no longer choirs chanting antiphonally, but the reader and the people speaking antiphonally, again in their own language;
- the Lord’s Supper was no longer a sacrificial rite conducted by mediatorial priests, it was a holy communion, in which the people shared bread and wine so as to remember the once for all sacrifice of Christ, and to feed on him in their hearts by faith.
It was all being driven in the same gospel-focused theological direction, namely that the people of God were the temple, and that the purpose of their gathering was not for priests or anyone else to mediate, but for the whole congregation to join together as priests in relationship with God on the basis of the finished work of Christ. It was a gathering of intelligible, edifying speech based on the powerful and sufficient word of God, in which all participated in a language they readily understood.
Now, in speaking as this kind of Anglican, I am not speaking out of nostalgia, as if we should try to recreate the 16th century in our churches. Nor do I think the Reformers were perfect, or achieved the ideal vision of church to which we should all return.
But I would gladly identify myself with their brand of theologically-driven evangelicalism, which trusted in the power of the word of God and saw so clearly that priestcraft was antithetical to the gospel. And I would just as gladly imitate the clear-sightedness and bravery with which they followed their theological convictions through to a practical conclusion in their own context.
It’s funny though. Priestcraft is hard to kill. It has a natural attraction to the human heart. It’s a bargain that suits both priest and people—the priest gets to feel more important, and the people have someone to do everything for them. I see lots of church services in my travels, and I am constantly struck by how many evangelical churches (including Anglican ones), conduct a church gathering in which everything is done up the front by the experts. I see many churches where:
- the people say virtually nothing the entire time;
- there is a lengthy sermon, and lots of up-the-front announcements, interviews and videos, but almost no participation by the congregation (apart from a couple of lucky souls who might do the one brief Bible reading and the one prayer);
- there is very little Bible reading and prayer (perhaps 10 minutes out of an 80-minute service);
- the one thing that the congregation does participate in—the singing—is also dominated by a team of upfront performers, all of them electronically amplified to a level that effectively drowns out the congregation.
Whatever this is, it’s not Reformation Anglicanism—and I’m sure my Presbyterian and Baptist Reformed friends would chime in with their own view!
This shift seems to have happened gradually over the past 25 years or so in the circles I move in—especially the shift away from congregational, communal singing towards a more concert-like experience led by an amplified rock band with two or three microphone-wielding singers. It is now so normal and expected in many places that we no longer realise what a change it is from the evangelical singing culture of only a generation ago—where there were one or two accompanying instruments, neither of them amplified, and no song leaders. The music would strike up, and everyone would just stand up and sing, and the quality and strength of that singing was usually indicative of the spiritual strength of the congregation.
Full confession—I’ve been playing in these kinds of steadily growing, amplified church bands for most of the last 20 years, and it is only recently that I’ve realised what has happened and what I have contributed to—which is the steady decline of the communal, congregational singing.
And this is precisely why, in a spirit of personal repentance, and speaking as an Anglican …
I’d like to bring back the church choir
In the culture of hymn singing that developed in the wake of the Reformation, the church was the choir. Particularly through the great 18th century Anglican hymn writers (Watts, Newton, the Wesleys), the Reformation vision of plain-language congregational participation found expression in a revolution of hymnody. They taught their congregations to sing memorable, easy-to-sing, popular-level hymns that taught Scripture, and responded to Scripture in multiple ways.
However, somehow (and I don’t know the history) the priestcraft of the specialist choir made a comeback, such that when we now think of Anglican choirs and hymnody, we think of complex exalted harmonies, and processions of choirboys in robes. They took the singing of the people and turned it back into the singing of experts on behalf of the people.
That’s not the choir I want to see return! Speaking as a Reformation Anglican, I want a communal, congregational choir, whose joy it is to sing the word of God to each other, in plain English, making melody in our hearts to God.
It’s the kind of singing that is making a bit of a comeback in our culture with pub choirs and community choirs. It’s not so much a concert or a performance as a participatory event. It’s a bit rough around the edges. It’s full of amateurs and everyone is welcome. There’s not much in the way of accompaniment—just a piano and/or a guitar. The joy and power is in the singing itself.
If you ask me about the kind of musical atmosphere I’d like to see and experience in our church gatherings, my Anglican theology should drive us to something like a Christianized pub choir (and I’m sure Martin Luther would approve). I’d like to join a raucous, ragtag group of musical amateurs, with a piano to accompany us, and a (non-amplified) conductor to get us started and keep us on track, and a songbook full of Scripturally rich and varied songs, all of which are easy for large groups of amateurs to sing together. In most places, our current experience is far different from this—it’s a performance of anodyne power ballads by an overly-loud band which the audience kind of sings along with. It’s not only disengaging; it drowns out and steadily destroys the participation of the congregation itself.
All of which is why, speaking as an Anglican, I’d like to bring back the church choir.