Congregational (public) singing in Church is … a strictly Orthodox tradition, for it is of ancient Christian origin. The restoration of congregational singing in our time must be hailed, for it has the most profound roots in the very concept of our Divine services, in which all the faithful must accept participation “with one mouth and with one heart.”
The very structure of our Orthodox Divine Services, which requires a constant interchange, like a roll-call, of the exclamations of the priest and deacon with the reading of the tonsured reader and the singing of the people, already presupposes the most active and conscious participation in all ‘those standing’ in the Divine Service being celebrated, and not just a passive presence in the Church, even if it is accompanied by private prayer.
Such an active participation of the laity in the Divine Services is indicated by those numerous notations in the Typickon and Divine Service books where the word “choir” is very often replaced by the pronoun “we,” as for example, “we sing in the most attractive voice, ‘Lord I have Cried…’” or, “and we sing ‘Joyous Light…’” (Typicon Ch. 2). Very often, instead of the term “choir” the expression, “people” is used: “and the people sing…” (rubrics for Great Saturday vespers).
From this, the exclamation of the priest in the Divine Liturgy, in which he calls upon the worshippers to glorify and sing praises to God not only with “one heart,” but also with “one mouth,” becomes comprehensible.
Thus, according to the concept of our Divine Services, all the faithful must take part in the singing, if not in all, then at least in the majority of our Church hymns, rather than standing in Church like only idle spectators and listeners. The Church is not a theater, where one goes only to see and hear beautiful singing, but a place of common prayer, in which all must participate in a fully conscious manner. All the more proper is such participation in the singing of the Symbol of Faith (Nicene Creed), which is our common confession of faith and in the singing of the Lord’s prayer, “Our Father…”, which is sent up from the person of all of us to God, our common Father.
The intrusion into our Divine Services of western concert-singing, accessible only to specially experienced singers with careful and lengthy preparation, forced the choir of believers out from a living participation in common liturgical singing and made those who come into Church only listeners, but not living participants in the common Church prayer. In this western theatrical singing, all the attention is concentrated not on the words, but on the melody, which is more or less artificial – with bravura or sentimentality – but not all churchly. Under the influence of this singing, in which it is often impossible to even make out the words, and which is deeply alien to prayerful participation in the Divine Service, as in a common action of all the faithful, but only “to listen to beautiful singing,” in order to experience aesthetic pleasure, which is, unfortunately, accepted by many in our time as a prayerful feeling. This, in union with irreligious upbringing and irreligious, often Godless, school education, penetrated by an atheistic and materialistic spirit, lead to a greater and greater departure from genuine church-mindedness and the understanding of the Divine Services by the broad majority of the believers. As a result, there has been a very great waning of the immense significance of our Divine Services as a “school of religious training.” Believers often come to Church only “to cross the forehead,” as the expression goes, but everything that takes place in Church is alien and incomprehensible to them. It is therefore not amazing that we now find people who request to receive Holy Communion at the all-night vigil, and are sincerely perplexed and even offended when they are refused.
The disappearance from our Churches of congregational Church singing and its replacement by a theatrical form of Church singing by special “choirs” has undoubtedly aided the alienation of our society from church-mindedness. Thus, the surest path for a return of our irreligious society to the Church is the return to the ancient practice which is in accord with the Church rubric: the restoration of congregational singing in our Churches.
Thoughts on Archbishop Averky’s words by ArchPriest David Moser
What then do we make of the choirs that we struggle so diligently to assemble now in our parishes? Should we do away with them and depend solely on the congregation? What place does the choir and choir director have in the parish? It is clear that we all have different talents and strengths. Some are talented singers and have no difficulty with singing out, others are less certain of themselves and therefore only sing quietly and hesitantly. Some people carry a tune well and others have a limited capacity for melodious singing. One thing is certain that all people do their best when there is a strong, confident voice that they can follow. This is the place of the choir – not to replace the congregational singing, but to provide that “strong, confident voice” which can be followed with ease. The choir director, in selecting people for a choir and in rehearsing the various musical selections is not trying to eliminate the congregational singers, but rather wants to make it easy for them to join in and follow along with the strong and confident voice of the choir.
At times such as during the clergy communion the choir sings alone to provide inspiration and the opportunity for intensified private prayer for those who are preparing themselves to approach and receive the Holy Mysteries. At these times there is no “congregational singing” appointed and so the choir alone continues to sing, allowing the congregation to prayerfully prepare their hearts and minds to approach Christ.
Congregational singing is, as Archbishop Averky reminded us, an important practice of the Church which we should not neglect. We all should participate in the Divine Services and prayers of the Church to the fullest extent that we are able – for we are called to be participants not spectators. The choir does not eliminate that practice but enhances it and enables the whole Church to lift up their hearts and voices as one proclaiming the glory of God.