Let the People Sing

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In Te Deum: The Church and Music, Westermeyer reflects on the prohibition of singing in certain branches of early protestantism. His insight into contemporary practice is penetrating:

We are not likely to argue the case for silent singing the way Zwingli or the opponents of Niceta of Remesiana or of Cotton and Keach did it. We are more likely not to argue it at all, but to do it in practice. We practice congregational silent singing every time we set up the leaders of worship as a self-contained unit so that the people and their singing become irrelevant. It can happen with organs and choirs, amplified vocalists and bands, synthesizers and other electronic equipment, in any style or in any place—wherever the sonic environment is made to appear complete without the congregation.

Our danger may actually be closer to the Middle Ages than it is to the seventeenth century. I have never heard anyone among us, other than Quakers, argue for a silent congregation. But I have often witnessed worshiping communities which, if the sounds of organs or choirs or bands or amplified equipment were removed, would be nearly or totally silent. There are “high art” churches where the congregation is asked not to sing and “contemporary Christian music” churches where things are so complex that the congregation can’t possibly sing. Although some justification may be found for such places, they certainly cannot be normative for most Christian churches. When they become normative our congregational silence parallels the Middle Ages and is but another form of priestly substitution for an assembly of spectators. (p. 194)

I pray that all cantors, church musicians, and worship pastors would take this truth to heart: it does not matter which style of music you and your congregation have chosen to enflesh your faith—let the people sing.

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