Today was the first Sunday of 2013 when I didn’t go to church, so instead of a church review I’m offering a few thoughts on singing. Anyone who’s read the blog postings to date will know that the quality of the singing is something of a preoccupation for me as I work my way through churches of all denominations.
I don’t know if anyone’s ever counted the number of times singing is mentioned in the bible, but without having to research very thoroughly I can think of dozens of references to singing for joy, singing to praise the Lord, singing loudly, with or without the accompaniment of instruments ten-stringed and otherwise, and not just in the psalms but throughout the Old Testament. The New Testament is scanter on singing references, though not completely devoid of them. I couldn’t find anything about singing in the gospels, but maybe more apt scholars than myself will correct me on this point.
Some churches clearly place greater emphasis on singing than others; the reformed churches’ greater emphasis on congregational participation might explain why the singing in the Catholic churches encountered so far in my mission has been so lacklustre by comparison with most (but not all) of the Protestant churches. And to my dear Catholic friend who pointed out that participation can be spiritual without necessarily having to be physical I say, “Point taken, but it couldn’t hurt to sing along too!” I will also own up to his suggestion that what I really enjoy is a hymn sandwich. Yes, I love to sing, so a church with great music is obviously going to score higher than a church where people just mutter into their hymnbooks.
But there’s more to church than just singing, or there should be. Ever since I wrote about why theological inquiry is not encouraged, or may even be actively discouraged, I’ve been thinking about the juxtaposition of theology and theatre. The latter can mask the former. While the music, costumes, stained glass and general fun and games all continue to entertain and to meet expectations, it doesn’t occur to the worshipper to ask too many questions about what lies behind it all. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m more inclined to be sceptical when the music’s trying to be trendy, as at Hope! Church, or when the racial ideology is disturbing, as at St Margaret’s & St Leonard’s. Give me a great choir to listen to or a nice long metrical psalm to sing and I can put all my doubts on hold … or some of them, for a little while at least.
There’s only been one church so far where there was absolutely no singing – the Quaker Meeting House. That wasn’t for me, but it did make me think about what would be left if you took the hymns out of other church sandwiches, and just how palatable worshippers would find the crusts that remained.