In American Christianity, including theologically conservative congregations across the United States, a formative part of Christian worship has become imbalanced over the last generation or two. Namely, the range of hymnody has skewed to songs composed in our own narrow cultural context of the past 20 years. This trend has sidelined hymnody that fosters musical reverence in worship, limiting almost all Christians younger than 40 from singing the breadth and depth of Western Christianity’s musical traditions.
Rediscovering musical reverence in worship in the 21st century may be the key to a doorway, through which an age of beauty and the Church’s eucharistic life can again disciple new generations of Christians; to imagine the Kingdom of God, to become forged into a peculiar people—a new nation of true worshippers—who sound with their poetry that they are not of this world, and to learn with one voice to sing in the beauty of holiness the reverence of the Church universal. Does that sound like a high aim worth shooting for? It sure does to me.
Now, I will speak most particularly from the tradition I am in, which is the ecclesial communion of Anglicanism in the United States that has separated from the Episcopal Church. My experience with the power of music to discipline our souls and with reverential praise is undeniably shaped by a rigorous upbringing in traditional Presbyterianism, for which I am thankful. This, due to the tight spiritual formation still practiced in Reformed and Presbyterian communities. In other words, while my point of view is rooted in particular theological grounds, I hope my appeal carries over ecclesial garden hedges.
To begin, what do we mean by musical reverence in worship? To elaborate an answer, we must unpack the meaning of worship, the implications of sacred music, and finally the right relation of sacred music to reverence. As we approach an answer, we will naturally address related questions: What is beauty and what does it mean for worship? How does worship entail reverence?
What is Worship?
Each Sunday of Christian worship is a foretaste of the age to come, when the company of all faithful people will gather in chorus before the throne of the Lamb Who Was Slain. Until then, in this age, the Church of God assembles as the body of Christ to offer thanksgiving for the glorious victory and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. It has been said, quite rightly, that worship each Sunday is a mini Easter celebration.
In that celebration, the voices we raise accompany angels and archangels in a train of heavenly song that joins the Church throughout time and place. The Church looks back to what our Lord has done, looks around to what the Holy Spirit is doing, and looks ahead to what the Father will do in the consummation of all things. The Church powers forward in anticipation of faith and hope eventually fulfilled in sight. This movement of time, faith, and hope undergirds the right glory we render in worship to God.
Proper liturgy is infused with a desire to form people by practices and ceremonies organized for this movement of time, faith, and hope. Anglican worship, in fact, does shape us for the right glory of God. Specifically, for people becoming disciplined into Christ through the Anglican way, our formation in worship is first through the Holy Scriptures, second through the Church’s catholicity, and third through the heritage of the English Reformation and later Anglican formularies. Therefore, the prayers we offer, the preaching we hear, and the songs we sing should be saturated with the Bible, the faith of the Church through time and place, and the expressions of spirituality that God providentially gifted the Anglican Communion.
Music is Art for Making Disciples
At this point, an implication emerges for Christian congregations. Each Sunday, the quality of our praise should match the quality of our prayer and preaching. The “whole counsel of God” should infuse our whole worship. In other words, we should want our music to plumb the same theological depths and ascend the same poetical heights as our praying and preaching, because all aspects of worship hang together to discipline us into Christ. Worship is not merely the musical part of the service and a lead singer is not the worship leader.
Nevertheless, music is seminal to imagining the Kingdom of God. Songs covering the breadth of Scripture and Church history help us to imagine the Kingdom, and this is how singing makes disciples of people. Melodies carrying Biblical passages, texts, and allusions make vivid the memory of God’s interventions and promises in history. Sacred music discloses to us, our children, visitors, and spiritual seekers that there are deeper, more dramatic stories in life than our own. People desire desperately for such an image of the Kingdom. That is the only explanation for why people attempt to elevate their vision with beauty in works of imagination such as poetry and song.
There is something unsatisfying with the world as presently seen and felt. We are longing to see and feel God, and music can touch the heart with longing for what eye has not seen. The unformed in faith may not know what the Kingdom of God looks like, but music can teach them what it feels like. The unformed in faith may not know where the Kingdom of God is, but music can teach them to look in the direction of beauty.
Beauty and the Church’s Eucharistic Life
To move forward now we should raise a question related to music’s role in making disciples. What is the role of beauty in the Church? Answering that will help us grip the relationship between reverence and worship.
God is the first artist-creator, and the world God loved into being is a sign of his life. That is why creation is also revelation. God made a world of sign language to convey his benediction on his beloved creation, and human artists mimic the sign language of God by creating works of beauty. Whether the sign is a physical artifact such as a stained-glass window or musical notes printed on a page, the artistry of human creators also signifies a revelation. It reveals the inner life, feeling, and meaning of their being. Art that is beautiful reveals, or perhaps bestows, this ennobling meaning.
The artist-creator is conveying a reality to us who might be perceiving it for the first time. In this way art is always a gift, and beautiful art is an education of our spirit. Beauty dawns on us and calls us to higher being. It is like uncharted territory opening before us with an invitation to explore it and experience being as good. This kind of artistic giving is rightly cherished for the truth of the beautiful reality conveyed to others by the artist-creator. The joy we feel in beauty calls forth thanksgiving, as does any good gift that someone gives us. And, so, a right response to artistic beauty is eucharist (i.e., thanksgiving).
Artistry and the Church’s eucharistic life must go together because beauty is a divine gift, inviting us to inhabit the order of God’s creation and experience it as good, which calls forth thanksgiving. To the degree that Christians are genuinely a eucharistic people, we cannot avoid mimicking the sign language of God by creating and giving thanks for beauty.
Worshipping Reverently in the Beauty of Holiness
Now we turn to the final issue of how the Church’s eucharistic life entails reverence. The word “reverence” originates from the Latin revereri “to stand in awe of.” So, worshipping God with reverence means at least to feel such awe that the only proper response is to stand. God’s reign as king and judge are the reason for standing in awe. Psalm 96 (King James Version) is a locus text for tying together in right worship the themes of beauty, thanksgiving, and reverence:
1 O sing unto the Lord a new song: sing unto the Lord, all the earth.
2 Sing unto the Lord, bless his name; shew forth his salvation from day to day.
3 Declare his glory among the heathen, his wonders among all people.
4 For the Lord is great, and greatly to be praised: he is to be feared above all gods.
5 For all the gods of the nations are idols: but the Lord made the heavens.
6 Honour and majesty are before him: strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
7 Give unto the Lord, O ye kindreds of the people, give unto the Lord glory and strength.
8 Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name: bring an offering, and come into his courts.
9 O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth.
10 Say among the heathen that the Lord reigneth: the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved: he shall judge the people righteously.
11 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof.
12 Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice
13 Before the Lord: for he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth: he shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with his truth.
This Psalm’s imperative is to render God glory in worship because God is the reigning king who comes to judge the earth with righteousness and truth, and that is awesome. Those who are judged stand when the judge enters his courtroom to pronounce who is righteous and who is guilty; those who are righteous stand with joyful confidence when the one who enters is the perfect judge who pronounces the truth that will set them free. Christians are the latter. Reverential worship, therefore, is the Church standing in praise for God’s judgments in history that declared his people righteous, set them free, and set them apart to be true worshippers. This worship is the beauty of holiness and God’s right glory.
A consequence of this imperative of worship has been the Church’s creation of a tradition of thanksgiving that focuses on 1) who God is and 2) what he did in history (e.g., his kingship, salvific interventions in history, coming judgment, and final deliverance). In fact, if you examine the Church’s musical tradition of hymnody, chants, introits, choruses, and other liturgical singing, you will find that their content is almost exclusively structured this way. The subjective, private religious experience of the individual Christian is submerged in the assembled Church standing in awe of a God who intervened in history, renewed humanity, and made holy a new nation of worshippers. This vision of worship is why the Church produced a body of old hymnody that is marked by reverence.
Why We Should Sing Old Hymns
We should sing old hymnody in an attempt to join in the universal reverence of the Church. However, many Christians prefer for various reasons to prioritize newer songs of praise. What is the argument for favoring old hymns, or at least preferring a balance between old and new hymnody?
C.S. Lewis in his introduction to St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation advised the modern Christian to favor old books. He advised this not because authors of antiquity made no mistakes, but because they did not make our mistakes. Old authors, therefore, help us to see truth better in our time. In contrast to the old books, new books have not yet proven to have this enduring value. Here is what Lewis said:
A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. . . .
It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.
All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. . . .
We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.
The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.
Lewis’s reasoning about the virtue of reading old books applies equally well to singing old hymns. Open a hymnal, and you inhale a sea breeze of song from Christians across time and place that challenges and deepens you, and, perhaps to your surprise, can be breathed out by you with more than a little familiarity. In contrast, many new musical products sung by churches are little more than religiously themed pop songs. The style of “Praise & Worship” is obviously American and derivative of contemporary secular music from the 1990s through the 2010s. Much of it is instrumentally-driven music in a vernacular style that was written for a solo artist recording. Replicating its syncopation, affected vocals, and awkward vocal ranges is an improbable task for a congregation.
Moreover, old hymns we sing today have proved capable of fortifying Christians against the suffering, tragedy, and malevolence in the world. There is no other explanation for why old hymns are handed down and cherished. This is not to say that there are no new, good quality songs being composed now. It is to echo Lewis and say simply that the jury is out on whether new songs deserve to last beyond us; their enduring worth is unproven. Therefore, to apply at church Lewis’s advice about reading a mix of old and new books, we should sing one old song after every new song.
Hymnals Are a Doorway to the Christian Musical Tradition
As it happens, there is an ongoing attempt to incorporate good hymnody, a mix of old and new, into one accessible body of music for corporate, family, and private worship: hymnals. Hymnals are therefore a logical launching point for worshipping with the breadth and depth of Christianity’s musical tradition. (Incidentally, the Old Testament gives a significant place to hymnals: Psalms, Song of Solomon, and Lamentations are songs or collections of dramatic or liturgical poetry.)
Hymnals are a doorway into the living tradition of Christians synthesizing in worship art, eucharistic life, and reverence. Prior church committees that compiled, vetted, and selected hymns for inclusion in hymnals provided the theological, technical, and artistic service of identifying and curating the best that has been composed and sung by Christians throughout time and place. For example, the preface to the 1940 hymnal of the Episcopal Church of the United States reads:
The Commission began its work upon the principle, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” Every hymn in the Hymnals of 1892 and of 1916 was read with care and criticized from the viewpoints of reality, religious feeling, literary worth, and usefulness, and those which met these tests were retained. Translations from the Greek, Latin, and German were assigned for study by subcommittees and by them compared with the originals, with a view of obtaining accuracy and idiomatic renderings.
The point of a hymnal is to teach an ecclesial community how to sing with one voice. The use of a hymnal helps to forge a worshipping community on the anvil of Biblical doctrine, catholicity, and the theological tradition of the ecclesiastical community that authorized the hymnal. In other words, as a congregation becomes familiar with the songs of a hymnal, they become steeped in the tradition they are in. For example, the Revised Edition of the Trinity Hymnal of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church of America says in its preface:
It is essential for Christian hymnody to flow from the Word of God and to reflect the church’s belief system. To that end, the Trinity Hymnal has been prepared to nourish and equip those in the Presbyterian/Reformed community for worship that is pleasing in the Lord’s sight. The hymnal is rooted in the rich tradition of the Reformation—with a zeal for the gospel, a high regard for doctrinal purity, and a focus on worship as defined in Scripture.
The use of a hymnal from your ecclesial communion is another teaching tool in the faith, thought, and spirituality of the tradition you are in. Within that particularity, you can better recognize yourself by having a place to stand and peer into the catholicity of your own tradition and that of fellow Christians. Hence, hymnals are an instrument of spiritual formation along with other liturgical books such as the Book of Common Prayer.
Of relevance to congregations in the Anglican Church in North America, the communion this year just completed a new hymnal and published it under Anglican House Publishers, Magnify the Lord: A 21st Century Hymnal. Bringing together plainsong, German chorales, Victorian hymns, African-American spirituals, shaped-note songs, Gospel hymns, and folk songs, Magnify the Lord carries forward the best marks of the Anglican Communion’s formative commitments to Holy Scripture, the Church’s catholicity, and the heritage of the English Reformation and worldwide expressions of Anglican culture.
Have you caught a vision for Christian musical culture? What would it feel like to be moving in Christian communities for which worship is a holistic affirmation of our Lord’s resurrection; music is an art for making disciples; beauty gives us glimpses into the Kingdom of God; human artistry is a participation in God’s creative being; the Church’s eucharistic life is an ongoing response to the benediction of God on creation; reverence is the Church rendering glory for God’s interventions in history; singing old hymns is an attempt to join in the universal reverence of the Church; and hymnals are the practical effort to sing with one voice?
What sort of men and women would our children become? What spiritual giants could we raise?
- St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), translated and edited by A Religious of C.S.M.B, 4-5. ↑
- The Hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, (New York, New York: The Church Pension Fund, 1940), iii. ↑
- Trinity Hymnal, Revised Edition (Suwanee, Georgia: Great Commission Publications, Inc., 1990), 7. ↑