Gloria Patri: Who Does It Hurt When We Don’t Sing?

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

It is a formula so familiar to Anglican worshippers, occurring with such frequency in the course of any BCP order of service, that its significance can be all too easily overlooked. At this time of year, in the shadow of Trinity Sunday, its emphasis on the Godhead’s triune personhood is perhaps more consciously acknowledged by those who utter it. However, if we believe its purpose lies solely, or even primarily, in teaching Trinitarian theology, we have failed to understand its liturgical function.

Throughout the BCP the words of this formula, the Gloria Patri (or Minor Doxology), occur after every canticle –– such as the daily psalm, the Magnificat, and the Benedictus. In other words, the rendering of glory to the triune-God-who-is-there is intimately tied to cantandum in worship i.e. chanting or singing. The Gloria Patri functions like two literary devices: a clausula –– bringing a canticle to a close –– and a colophon –– contextualising and declaring what the canticle was all about. Even when merely spoken, therefore, the canticles are tacitly sung, since Anglican liturgy clearly presupposes a normative practice of singing them. One need only look to the first canticle in the BCP’s Order for Morning Prayer, “Venite, Exultemus Domino” (Psalm 95), to discern this: “O come, let us sing unto the Lord…and show ourselves glad in him with psalms…”.

Therefore, since the Gloria Patri –– the rendering of glory unto God –– presupposes the presence of song, it follows logically that singing is central, not peripheral, to the act of glorification. Singing is thus the act of “lifting up” the Lord’s name; a priestly act –– as Peter Leithart so eloquently points out in his book From Silence to Song –– that involves, and indeed ought to involve, the “priesthood of all believers” (cf. 1 Pet. 2:5 & 9). Furthermore, as an act of rendering unto God what is rightfully His, it falls under our Lord Jesus Christ’s command, found in all three of the synoptic gospels, to “[r]ender to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk 12:17 [KJV]; cf. Matt. 22:21 & Lk. 20:25).

I do not intend to here reiterate my critique of the Church of England’s ongoing coronavirus guidance restricting congregational singing. I have made my case (which can be reviewed here) and unless –– and until –– it undergoes rigorous refutation there remains little more to say. Save this: On 26th May the BBC website featured an article documenting the sense of devastation felt by amateur choirs in England as HM Government backtracked on its promise to allow groups of 15 singers indoors from 17th May. The article cites Declan Costello –– one of the lead researchers for the (now peer-reviewed and published) study on singing and aerosol production that I drew upon to support my aforementioned critique –– saying that he had not been made “aware of any new research that’s come through to show that singing is more dangerous now than it was a few weeks ago.” The BBC article does well to highlight this lack of adequate justification for the Government’s policy reversal on amateur choirs.

So how much more inadequate is the justification for the Church of England to continue to state that [c]ommunal singing, by the congregation, should not take place? Dare we persist in withholding from God that glory which we are Scripturally mandated to render Him? As Philip Percival recently put it, “[m]usical participation might not be a big part of the [modern western] world in which we live, but it has never stopped being at the core of Christian identity and our corporate expression of faith, hope and love.” That is the reason, he argues, why it hurts when we cant sing. Except that, strictly speaking, we can; the hurt is coming from the fact that we don’t and won’t! Therefore, there is nothing in the slightest unreasonable about asking the following question:

Is this just ecclesiastical and personal self-harm, or also a grieving of the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph. 4:30; Heb. 3:10 & 17)?

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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