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With heart, mind, and voice: towards full participation of the daily office

A few years ago, a group of congregation members approached me indicating that they had a wish to contribute to weekly worship in their cathedral, particularly through singing. As Organist and Director of Music, I auditioned each of them, but found that they had not the necessary music literacy skills or experience to sing with the Cathedral’s choir. Upon giving them my feedback, I was immediately challenged with the question ‘well, what are you going to do about it?’

In the context of cathedral worship this situation presents a unique challenge. Simon Reynolds in his book Lighten Our Darkness writes:

The worship offered in cathedrals is predominantly structured, hierarchical, formalised and punctuated by a high level of musical and linguistic sophistication…It is not an immediately accessible form of worship. It makes mental and cultural demands on those who encounter it1

One of the many roles that cathedrals encompass is in the preservation and encouragement of the choral heritage for which they are so renowned. However, whilst accepting this, I do understand the need congregational members have for a more active participation in cathedral music.  

Today, the Church of England is best described as predominantly a ‘Eucharistic Church’ (largely due to the Parish Communion Movement in the 1960s), but in former times, and particularly on the Isle of Man, the liturgical diet of the church consisted of predominantly Morning and Evening Prayer with an occasional biweekly or even quarterly Communion service.  

The importance of sung prayer, and the encouragement to sing, is nothing new. Indeed, there are many biblical accounts throughout the Old Testament’s book of Psalms (see especially Psalms 9:11, 18:49, 105: 2 and 108:3). In the New Testament, it is recorded that gatherings generally included music and singing, as Ephesians 5:19 says “Sing psalms and hymns and inspired songs among yourselves, singing and chanting to the Lord in your hearts.” Other examples can be found in James 5:13 and in 1 Corinthians 14:15.

The importance and celebration of sung prayer is also emphasised at the very foundation of the Church of England in the ‘Preface to King Henry VIII’s Prayer Primer’ written by Archbishop Cranmer in 1545, it says:

Now prayer is used or made with right understanding, if we sing with our spirit, and sing with our mind or understanding; so that the deep contemplation or ravishing of the mind follow the pithiness of the words, and the guiding of reason go before2

Cranmer’s preface still has profound influence over us today, and echoes throughout our cathedrals and parish churches.

In his thought-provoking text (published posthumously), the celebrated Precentor, Canon Joseph Poole (of Canterbury and Coventry cathedrals) writes:

…music is prayer: it is the prayer of a community whose members are bound to the love of God and the love of one another, and to the service of men. Where there is no love and no service, there ought to be no music, there can be none, for hate does not sing3

Poole implies a secondary concept, that music, and specifically the participation in music, can shape and form a community of worshippers. This is again implied, and very much echoed, throughout Helen Bent’s practical Inspiring Music in Worship booklet4–a valuable resource for opening a discussion with congregation members about the role of music in worship.

Robert S Smith adds substance to this concept of scaffolding a community of worshippers in his book Come, Let Us Sing.5 He refers to the idea of ‘importance of edification’.  Smith considers the words in 1 Corinthians 14:26:

Then what should it be like, brothers? When you come together each of you brings a psalm or some instruction or a revelation, or speaks in a tongue or gives an interpretation. Let all these things be done in a way that will build up the community6

Smith suggests that in this passage, the Apostle Paul is speaking more of a mutual upbuilding than of worship; and it is this upbuilding which he terms ‘edification’. Edification can mean many things today, but we should consider the word with its original meaning, that is ‘to instruct and improve, especially in moral and religious knowledge’.

In his cerebral text Paul, Paulus,7 Bornkamm suggests that Paul is not referring to edification as an individual subjective experience, but that Paul is only interested in the edification of the church (1 Corinthians 14: 3-5, 12, 17, 26). Bornkamm asserts that Paul suggests that each church member has a duty to edify the rest (1 Thessalonians 5.11; 1 Corinthians 8:11-12, Romans 14:19 and 15:2) following a standard as set down by Christ. That is, when we exhort one another and hold one another accountable, we are prompted to engage in activities that promote godliness. Further, Smith suggests that the central activity to promoting godliness is attained through corporate worship.8 Smith suggests that it is through the effective edification of others in the assembly (the church) that results in the authentic worship of God.9

Iona Musician John Bell endorses the use of music to help create a corporate identity, and significantly, to influence and shape our future: “What the church sings, therefore, is determinative of the faith which the singers hold.”10

So, after reflecting upon the commentary above regarding sung prayer, and the idea of using song to shape and edify a community towards credible worship, I devised a sung service of evening prayer which was entirely participatory. My guiding principles were (i) the authentic worship of God, (ii) total participation of those gathered, and (iii) a fostering of Paul’s ‘mutual upbuilding’ and esprit de corps (often found in choirs) working together week in week out, developing an authentic worship experience.  

Selecting the text from Common Worship ensured a total familiarity with liturgical form and language, for full participation of the congregation,11 in the language which they understood.12 The second challenge was then to find a musical resource which was both approachable and instantly user-friendly.  

I considered words of the 1552 Book of Common Prayer:

And (to thend the people may the better hear) in such places where thei do sing, there shal the lessons be song in a plain tune alter the maner of distinct reading13

Martin Thomas in English Cathedral Music and Liturgy in the Twentieth Century recalls that one of the aims of the Tractarians and the Cambridge Ecclesiologists of the 1840s was to reintroduce congregational plainsong chant to not only recover the lost music and chant of the pre-reformation, but also to help facilitate congregational participation in the offices.14 It was the recollection of this, which inspired my decision to explore chant. However, plainsong can often be defined by complexity and embellishment, and requires skill. But, reflecting that plainsong has evolved, it was through the earlier forms of musical writing, simple square-note writing, that slowly a form of service began to take shape in my mind. I was privileged to be in the unique position to be able to work with the singers and clergy on a weekly basis, to try out, evaluate and refine what worked and what did not, enabling the service to evolve in an organic fashion, with each addition and variant being crafted by all participants.                 

By drawing on sources of familiar chant used at the offices of Evensong music of the past, the service of compline, melodies buried deep within the common psyche, snippets of local Manx folk-melody and Norwegian chant,15 and with the addition of subtle stylistically composed chant, I was able to develop a fully sung service (with the exception of the 2 scripture readings) which is wholly accessible and fully participatory. In a language which is understood, it both edifies (in the sense of a mutual upbuilding which Paul speaks of in Corinthians), and celebrates the group of worshippers, fostering a truly authentic worship experience which resonates with our particular community.16

Practically speaking, the office contains the Phos Hilaron, the Psalm of the day (with an interchangeable mode in either major or minor key, depending on the mood of the appointed Psalm), the Magnificat, appropriate antiphons, collect for the day, a contemporary Litany, The Lord’s Prayer, with bridging chant, and finally, a dismissal. Worshippers are given a fully music-notated service order in simple looking notation.  

The service can be sung completely unaccompanied, however, to enhance accessibility, I have introduced simple cantor-led sections to act as ‘signposting’ through the liturgy, as well as a continuous chordal organ accompaniment on an 8’ flute only to support the voices.

The service has now taken its own place in the Cathedral’s musical diet as a midweek office and attracts a committed congregation and regular visitors. The congregation members now feel that they are playing an active part in the musical, cultural and spiritual life of their cathedral, growing in faith and love, contributing to the edification of the church, Christian discipleship and participating in the authentic worship of God.  

  1. Reynolds, S. (2021) Lighten Our Darkness: Discovering and celebrating Choral Evensong. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 15. ↩︎
  2. Cramner, ‘A Preface made by the King’s most excellent Majesty unto his Primer Book’ (1527), 497. ↩︎
  3. Poole, JW (2022) Cymbals and dances. The Poole Family 14. ↩︎
  4. Bent, H (2017) Inspiring Music in Worship: A short course of guided conversations for churches. Salisbury: RSCM. ↩︎
  5. Smith, Robert S (2020) Come, Let Us Sing ; A Call to Musical Reformation. London: The Latimer Trust. ↩︎
  6. 1 Corinthians 14: 26. The New Jerusalem Bible. New York : Darton, Longman and Todd. ↩︎
  7. Bornkamm, G (1971) Paul, Paulus. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 207. ↩︎
  8. Smith, Robert S (2020) Come, Let Us Sing ; A Call to Musical Reformation. London: The Latimer Trust. 47-48. ↩︎
  9. Ibid. ↩︎
  10. Bell, J (2000) The Singing Thing: A case for congregational song. Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications. 57. ↩︎
  11. Nichols, B (2017) ‘From Common Prayer to Ancestor: The Quest for Anglican Liturgical Identity and the Legacy of the Reformation’. New Blackfriars: Provincial Council of the English Province of Order of Preachers. DOI: 10.1111/nbfr.12346. ↩︎
  12. Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas, Faith in the City. London: Church House Publishing. 1985. ↩︎
  14. Thomas, M (2015) English Cathedral Music and Liturgy in the Twentieth Century. Surrey: Ashgate Publications. 7. ↩︎
  15. The Diocese of Sodor and Man was between 1154 and 1266 was under the control of the Archdiocese of Nidaros (Trondheim) and research (Norwegian-Manx Collaboration, Culture Vannin) suggests that many Norse melodies made their way into Manx folk tunes and religious music. ↩︎
  16. Bent, H (2017) Inspiring Music in Worship: A short course of guided conversations for churches. Salisbury: RSCM. ↩︎
Dr. Peter Litman

Research Fellow in Ecclesiastical Music at Latimer Theological Institute.

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