Congregational Singing in the Church

Orthodox America
Issue 51
Vol V1, No.1
July, 1985
  Congregational Singing in the Church
by Archbishop Averky

   Congregational [public] singing in church is a strictly Orthodox tradition, for it is of ancient Christian origin. The restoration of congregational singing in our time must be hailed, for it has the most profound roots in the very concept of our Divine Services, in which all the faithful must accept participation "with one mouth and one heart."

    The very structure of our Orthodox Divine Services, which requires a constant interchange, like a roll-call, of the exclamations of the priest and deacon with the reading of the tonsured reader, and the singing of the people, already presupposes the most active and conscious participation of all "those standing" in the Divine Service being celebrated, and not just a passive presence in the church, even if it is accompanied by private prayer.

    Such an active participation of the laity in the Divine Services is indicated by those numerous notations in the Typicon and Divine Service books where the word "lik" [lit. face] very often replaced by the pronoun "we", as for example, "we sing in the most attractive voice, ‘Lord I have cried,’ or, "and we sing 'Joyous Light'," (Typ; ch,:2).
Very often, instead of the "lik" the expression "people" is used: "and the people sing" (e. g. rubrics for Great Saturday at vespers).

     From this, the exclamation of the priest in the Divine Liturgy, in which he calls upon the worshippers to glorify and sing praises to God not only with "one heart," but also with "one mouth," becomes comprehensible.

    Thus, according to the concept of our Divine Services, ail the faithful must take part in the singing, if not in all, then at least in the majority of our Church hymns, rather than standing in church like idle spectators and listeners. The church is not a theater, where one goes only to see and hear beautiful singing, but a place of common prayer, in which all must participate in a fully conscious manner. All the more proper is such participation in the singing of the Symbol of Faith, which is our common confession of faith, and in the singing of the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father," which is sent up from the person of all of us to God, our common Father.

    The intrusion into our Divine Services of Western concert-singing, accessible only to specially experienced singers with careful and lengthy preparation, forced out the choir of believers from a living participation in common liturgical singing and made those who come into church only listeners, but not living participants in common Church prayer. In this Western theatrical singing; all the attention is concentrated not on the words, but on the melody, which is more or less artificial-with bravura or sentimentality--but not at all churchly. Under the influence of this singing, in which it is often impossible to even make out the words, and which is deeply alien to the Orthodox ascetical spirit, many begin to come to church not for prayerful participation in the Divine Services, as in a common action of all the faithful, but only "to listen to beautiful singing, in order to experience aesthetic pleasure, which is, unfortunately, accepted by many in our time as a prayerful feeling. This, in union with irreligious upbringing and irreligious, often godless, school education, penetrated by an atheistic and materialistic spirit, leads to a greater and greater departure from genuine church mindedness and the understanding of the Divine Services by the broad majority of the believers. As a result, there has been a very great weakening of the immense significance of our Divine Services as a "school of religious training." Believers often come to church only "to cross the forehead," as the expression gees, but everything that takes place in Church is alien and incomprehensible to them. It is, therefore, not amazing that we now find people who request to receive Holy Communion at the all-night vigil, and are sincerely perplexed and even offended when they are told this is not possible.

    The disappearance from our churches of congregational church singing and its replacement by a theatrical form of church singing by special "choirs" has undoubtedly aided the alienation of our society from church mindedness. Thus, the surest path for a return of our irreligious society to the Church is the return to the ancient practice which is in accord with the Church rubric: the restoration of congregational singing in our churches.

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