“All people… Sing…”: Reviewing the Church of England’s Covid-19 Guidance on Singing

For those of us in the Church of England attuned to its particular frameworks of time (the Church Calendar) and place (“this realm of England”[1]), the Valentine’s weekend of 2021 marked a solemn matrimony of two historic events.

On the one hand, we were greeted with the news that 13 million of those most susceptible to serious illness or death from Covid-19 had received their first dose of either the Oxford or Pfizer vaccine.[2] With recent studies showing these vaccines to have 76% and 85% efficacy, respectively, following the first dose alone, this was certainly welcome news for the country.[3] All the more welcome, however, for the country’s established church, where one third of regular worshippers are aged 70 or over.[4] Those members of our congregations most vulnerable to Covid-19 are now significantly protected against it, which should be a cause for great rejoicing, thanksgiving, and praise amongst the faithful of every parish in the land!

On the other hand, we were reminded of the martyrdom of St Valentine during the reign, and at the command, of Emperor Claudius II. According to the hagiographic record, St Valentine lovingly and miraculously cured his Roman jailor’s daughter of her blindness. In so doing, he showed great concern for the physical wellbeing of those whom God had ordained him to serve –– the same concern which has undoubtedly motivated much of the CofE’s response to Covid-19. St Valentine’s human-ward action, however, bespeaks a God-ward priority, for it was a miracle performed in the service of leading souls to Christ; of bringing spiritual life and health to the spiritually dead or starved, in obedience to the Great Commission of God’s Word (Matt. 28:19-20). Ultimately, it was for this priority –– articulated so starkly by St Peter: “to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29, KJV) –– that St Valentine was martyred. He refused to disobey God, refused to recant his faith, and thus refused to do the bidding of Claudius Gothicus, the highest civil authority in the land.

Meditating on the clasping of these two hands, drew my attention again to one area of the CofE’s Covid-19 response which has, unfortunately, been far from praiseworthy. Namely, the official CofE guidance which restricts our very practice of praise –– specifically, rendering praise to God in song. Of course, the first and most obvious problem is that the official guidance on singing is not, strictly speaking, the Church of England’s, but rather HM Government’s. The CofE’s coronavirus webpage, under “Is Singing Permitted?”, reads:

The Government has advised that:

  • Where singing or chanting is essential to an act of worship, this should be limited to one person wherever possible. Exceptionally, where it is essential to the service, up to three individuals should be permitted to do so. Strict social distancing should be observed and the use of Plexi-glass screens should be considered to protect worshippers, and each other.
  • Communal (congregational) singing should not take place. This applies even if social distancing is being observed or face coverings are used, indoors and outdoors.

It has been confirmed that this guidance applies both to professional and amateur singers where a congregation is present…. Please see Government guidance on places of worship and on Performing Arts for more information. [5]

Whilst the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of course recognise the authority of the monarch –– an authority now delegated to, and executed by, parliament’s Ministers of State –– over ecclesiastical governance, the same attendant Article is clear that “we give not to our Princes” executive power in matters of biblical and sacramental theology.[6] Undoubtedly, this latter point has been carefully borne in mind by the CofE leadership when it came to issuing guidance on other matters, such as the Eucharist. The document on the “Administration of Holy Communion” clearly shows that the implications of the Government’s public health advice underwent scrupulous theological analysis by the House of Bishops Recovery Group so that they (rightly) might decide upon the appropriate, consistently-Christian course of action to take.[7] The fact that no such similar procedure was undertaken for guidance on singing, however, suggests to me that the CofE simply did not have a theology of singing to start with –– something I have long feared to be the case. In a context where clergy are not expected to receive musical training (nor church musicians theological training), this is perhaps unsurprising, and thus somewhat excusable. However, it makes any attempt at critical engagement with the current church guidance on singing that bit harder even if, for the self-same reasons, such engagement is all the more pressing…

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith; And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.[8]

The preceding statement necessarily constrains Anglican liturgical decrees to be in accordance with Holy Scripture (“those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church”[9]). Therefore, we must first establish what Holy Scripture teaches about the sung worship of God before we can proceed further. Since it is simply unrealistic, within the scope of this essay, to deal with every biblical reference to sung worship, I wish to summarise a certain class of these references with a text whose familiarity among all Anglican worshippers is as old as Anglicanism itself: the metrical version of Psalm 100, “All People That On Earth Do Dwell”.[10] And the class of biblical references, which I am thereby summarising, are those given in the imperative mood.

All people that on earth do dwell,

Sing to the LORD with cheerful voice,

Him serve with mirth, His praise forthtell,

Come ye before Him and rejoice [emphasis added].

Throughout the psalms, and elsewhere in Scripture, singing is most commonly referenced in the grammatical form of a direct or indirect command, with the respective second- and first-person most often given in its plural form. For example, “O come, let us sing unto the LORD [emphasis mine]” (Ps. 95:1, KJV). Summing up, as it were, this aspect of the psalter, the penultimate psalm begins: “Praise ye the LORD. Sing unto the LORD a new song, and his praise in the congregation of the saints [emphasis mine]” (Ps. 149:1, KJV).[11] Already, for those of us who sincerely and habitually affirm the liturgical refrain that concludes each reading of Scripture (“This is the Word of the Lord…”), there should be a strong inclination towards acknowledging that God Himself thus commands us to sing communally when we gather to worship Him. As touching this inclination, if the Old Testament is the first course of a meal, then the proof is in the pudding! In St Paul’s epistle to the Colossian church, we read: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord [emphasis mine]” (Col. 3:16, KJV). A very similar injunction can be found in Ephesians 5:19. Finally, the New Testament’s concluding book gives us a vision of the perpetual worship of God in Heaven –– which we on earth really participate in when we gather to worship and are thus to properly embody in our liturgical practices. In this vision we are confronted yet again with the praise of God in the form of communal singing (see Rev. 5:9, 14:3 & 15:3).

Against this biblical backdrop –– and momentarily setting to one side the health concerns which precipitated the guidance –– the Government’s official advice on singing in the context of worship implies a default doctrine of solum cantandum (“singing alone”); whereas the default of Scripture is commune cantandum (“communal singing”). By presenting Government advice verbatim, without theological gloss, as part of its own official coronavirus guidance, the CofE is thus tacitly conveying errant theology.[12] If singing is essential to Christian worship then it is communal singing that is essential. (Of course, this does not mean that solo singing, or instrumental music, is barred from Christian worship; any doctrine of solum commune cantandum is also a theological error.) Current Government advice on singing is therefore incompatible with a biblical theology of sung worship, since it divorces the notion of “singing-as-essential-to-worship” from embodied, congregational, communal singing. The good news is that current Government guidance is just exactly that –– guidance! One may be forgiven for thinking otherwise given its use of the word “should”. However, the Government’s own definition of this word is as follows:

Where the guidance [states] that an activity should or should not take place this is not a legal requirement under law. However, it is strongly advised that consideration is given to following the advice being given to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19.[13]

Were it a legal requirement, of course, we in the CofE would be faced with a Government ordering us to revoke our divinely-commanded singing practices –– to quite literally perform the etymology of “recantation”. Whilst content would differ markedly to what St Valentine was confronted with, the same principle would be at stake. That alone should give us pause.

I realise there may be some who will very quickly say that, regardless of whether the Government guidance were a legal requirement or not, it seeks to protect people’s health, so we should follow it anyway. However, my “Valentinian challenge” is not so easily dismissed.

Like any human activity, singing carries risk –– quite apart from whether any droplet-borne infections happen to be circulating in the community at a given time. For example, I will never forget the moment a fellow bass chorister at my school passed out at the end of an especially long note! During the coronavirus pandemic, however, the view has been that singing, on account of the aerosol it produces, greatly exacerbates the risk of spreading the virus, thereby becoming too risky, and so should be at least minimised, if not altogether avoided. Some of the findings of a collaborative study conducted last year, involving researchers from the University of Bristol and Imperial College London, do lend support to this view. The study found that, “compared to speaking, singing generates a statistically significant (p < 1×10-5) enhanced aerosol number concentration”, but it also qualified this by stating that,

this enhancement is small relative to the much larger changes associated with increase in volume (p < 1×10-5). Aerosol number concentration increases by a factor of 10-13 as volume increases from 50-60 dB to 90-100 dB….[14]

Indeed, the overall conclusion of the study is that the volume of vocalisation is more significant than the type of vocalisation taking place.[15] The following observation is particularly worth pondering in this regard:

At the lowest volume (50-60 dB), neither singing (p=0.19) or speaking (p=0.20) were significantly different in particle production to breathing, with median number concentrations of 0.10, 0.19 and 0.28 cm-3 for speaking, singing and breathing, respectively [emphasis mine].[16]

My emphasis here is not merely for rhetorical effect but actually points to what is being overlooked in the CofE’s current risk assessment of singing. We recognise that breathing has an obvious health benefit (even though it still carries risk of spreading contagious viruses) because it is essential to our physical life. But singing, particularly corporately, also has health benefits –– both for individuals and communities. To cite just two (of many) studies corroborating this claim: A 2011 research paper found that,

group singing can have substantial benefits in aiding the recovery of people with a history of serious and enduring mental health problems. A limited body of research has also shown that singing can be helpful for people with existing mental and physical health problems.[17]

More specifically, and uncannily pertinent to current circumstances, a 2016 article states:

Singing may usefully contribute to reducing social isolation—a major problem in respiratory disease, particularly in those who are older and from a disadvantaged background.[18]

Therefore, communal singing’s physical and mental health benefits must be taken into account when assessing its overall risk factor in the context of church worship.[19] But I also wish to go further and venture that communal singing is essential to our spiritual life. St Augustine is credited with saying that to sing is to pray twice, and no-one can deny the essential place of prayer to the spiritual life and health of the Church. Indeed, it is far from insignificant that –– according to St Matthew and St Mark –– the last communal act of Jesus and His faithful disciples, before His arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, was to sing a hymn together (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26). At the very least, for the CofE to officially and strongly enjoin its churches not to have communal sung worship, because of a coronavirus pandemic, requires a great deal more scientific evidence and theological justification than it has hitherto provided.

Finally, we must return to my very first, and crucially important, point. The vaccination of the over 70s means that

[t]hose members of our congregations most vulnerable to Covid-19 are now significantly protected against it, which should be a cause for great rejoicing, thanksgiving, and praise amongst the faithful of every parish in the land!

In light of this, can it really be appropriate to go on bidding our congregations remain silent? Is this not a most fitting occasion to resume our biblically-mandated, sung worship of God? Those ancient words ring down the centuries:

O enter then His gates with praise,

Approach with joy His courts unto:

Praise, laud, and bless His name always,

For it is seemly so to do.

Is it not time our united voices took up their call?

* * *

  1. Article XXXVII, “Of the Civil Magistrates”, Articles of Religion (1562).
  2. https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/details/vaccinations. Accessed 21/2/2021.
  3. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)00432-3/fulltext & https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)00448-7/fulltext.
  4. https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2020-10/2019StatisticsForMission.pdf. Accessed 22/2/2021.
  5. https://www.churchofengland.org/resources/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-churches#na. Accessed 22/2/2021.
  6. Article XXXVII, “Of the Civil Magistrates”, Articles of Religion (1562).
  7. https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2021-01/COVID-19%20Advice%20on%20the%20Administration%20of%20Holy%20Communion%20v5.3.pdf. Accessed 22/2/2021.
  8. Article XX, “Of the Authority of the Church”, Articles of Religion (1562).
  9. Article VI, “Of the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for salvation”, ibid..
  10. The version we still use today was included in Thomas Sternhold’s Anglo-Genevan Psalter of 1561, and the Sternhold & Hopkins Psalter from 1564 onwards. The latter was, according to historian Christopher Marsh, “the most frequently printed book of its age” (2010, Music and Society in Early Modern England, Cambridge: CUP, p. 408).
  11. Note that “ye” in the Authorised Version (KJV) is an accurate and deliberate translation of the plural second-person form. The singular second-person form would be rendered as “thou”.
  12. Cf. https://www.churchofengland.org/resources/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-churches#na & https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-guidance-for-the-safe-use-of-places-of-worship-during-the-pandemic-from-4-july/covid-19-guidance-for-the-safe-use-of-places-of-worship-from-2-december. Accessed 22/2/2021.
  13. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-guidance-for-the-safe-use-of-places-of-worship-during-the-pandemic-from-4-july/covid-19-guidance-for-the-safe-use-of-places-of-worship-from-2-december. Accessed 22/2/2021.
  14. Gregson, Florence K. A., et al. (2020), “Comparing the Respirable Aerosol Concentrations and Particle Size Distributions Generated by Singing, Speaking and Breathing”, ChemRxiv, Preprint, p. 5. https://doi.org/10.26434/chemrxiv.12789221.v1.
  15. Ibid., pp. 9-10.
  16. Ibid., p. 5.
  17. Clift, Stephen & Morrison, Ian (2011), “Group singing fosters mental health and wellbeing: findings from the East Kent ‘‘singing for health’’ network project”, Mental and Social Inclusion, 15(2), p. 88.
  18. Lewis, Adam, et al. (2016), “Singing for Lung Health—a systematic review of the literature and consensus statement”, npj Primary Care Respiratory Medicine 26, p. 7. https://doi.org/10.1038/npjpcrm.2016.80.
  19. For a comprehensive critical survey of studies on singing and mental and physical health see Gick, Mary L. (2011), “Singing, health and well-being: A health psychologist’s review”, Psychomusicology: Music, Mind & Brain, 21(1 & 2), pp. 176-207.


Peter Elliott

Peter Elliott is a scholar and musician currently based in Cambridge, England. He read Music for his bachelor’s degree at the University of Oxford from 2013-16 and holds an MMus in Musicology & Ethnomusicology from King’s College London. Prior to postgraduate study, Peter worked as a guitar teacher in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. He is a Research Associate in Christian Humanities at the Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi Christian University and a PhD Candidate in Music at the University of Cambridge.

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