Singing the Psalms

Neo-Gothic Pulpit, St. Columba’s Free Church of Scotland

One of the things I like about the church I currently attend is its tradition of Psalm-singing. A cappella Psalm-singing. I have long been appreciative of the use of Psalms in worship. Worshipping regularly with Anglicans for over 27 years, the Psalms have always had a place in the weekly liturgy, whether Morning/Evening Prayer or Eucharist, whether BCP or BAS. The Psalms were there. Being recited alternately between a leader and the congregation.

This tradition of Psalm-praying is good. Is, indeed, very good. But what the Free Church of Scotland gives us is, I believe, a different sort of engagement with the Psalms. On a retreat with some fellow Anglicans once, the theme was the Psalms. We were reminded that the Psalms are God’s Prayerbook. This is a very Anglican way of putting it. In fact, however, the Psalms are God’s hymn book.

The singing of Psalms is not unique to the Wee Frees and related Presbyterians. The Eastern Orthodox sing them. Anglo-Catholic choirs sing them to Renaissance settings. Some Anglicans sing or chant them together as a group (though most do not). St. Athanasius, in his ‘Letter to Marcellinus’ appended to the end of the SVS translation of On the Incarnation (until Fr. Behr’s supplants it, at least) recommends singing Psalms. So does the Anglican William Law in his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

Indeed, Law says that you should sing or chant them as part of your personal devotions every day. If no one can hear, it doesn’t matter. If someone can, good. Remind them of their own duty to pray. (That’s the sort of advice Law likes to give.)

Singing or chanting is not quite the same experience as simply speaking. Athanasius envisages the reader entering into the voice and persona of the Psalmist through singing the Psalms. In so doing, we take up these prayers as our own. The Psalms are not simply occasional poetry for a single person to pour out his heart to God. They are songs to be sung by us all, connecting the individual with the community, the living with the dead, humans with angels, Christians with Jews.

The Psalms are worth getting to know.

So I find it a most excellent thing to sing two or three Psalms a cappella each Sunday morning or evening (depends on the week). I like to belt songs out, so the fact that usually they are set to old hymn tunes works in my favour. Rather than passively receiving the words of Scripture or the prayers, I am putting myself into them, worshipping God in spirit indeed.

And when Colin R is behind me and a little to one side, I can sing the bass part (still no good at finding harmonies solo — one reason it was good to sit with Philip S at Little T!). The harmonies of a hundred or more voices lifted up in song with no organ, no piano, no guitar, nothing. It is a beautiful thing. When the church is packed to bursting at the joint services with Edinburgh’s other Free Churches — oh, the power and might of those voices lifted up in harmony with one accord! The beauty of it. This is a church against which the gates of Hades cannot prevail, indeed!

Because there is power in God’s word written. Power in faithful hearts joined together in worship. Power in the beauty of God’s presence whenever we come before Him.

Power in the simple beauty of human voices singing harmony.

This is a beauty I appreciate in Gregorian Chant or the wonderful concert of Byzantine Christmas Hymns I attended in December. There is a different beauty in Renaissance polyphony, in the Mass in 40 Parts by Striggio or in Mozart’s Requiem. I do not wish to play down that beauty. I enjoy it immensely and find the wonder and beauty of a well-rehearsed choir or organ as at St. Mary’s Cathedral or Old St. Paul’s can bring me well-nigh to ecstasy or that Buddhist ideal of being in the moment. When I first listened to Striggio’s forty-part Renaissance glory, I almost cried.

But this beauty of around 100 Wee Free voices on a Sunday is wonderful in its own right. The beauty of simplicity in an old-fashioned but moderately unadorned sanctuary as we join together in song, aided by nothing but what God has given us. Our naked voices approach the Almighty as our souls ought — no hiding, no vain pretense, no embellishment. Just the beauty of the wonderful gift already given.

So sing a Psalm this Sunday! (Even sing one right now!)