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Come Let Us Sing – Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs in the Covid Time – AP

This weeks article in the Australian Presbyterian is a follow on to my review of Come Let Us Sing –  by Rob Smith.

Come Let Us Sing.

Being back in a service of public worship last Sunday was lovely. The ‘social distancing’ is not too much of a culture change for this Scottish Presbyterian – although the continual cleansing of everything is less familiar! But it was lovely to meet people and to worship together. The one thing that was really weird was not being able to sing – we were told just to hum along as the band played songs of praise. It goes against every grain in my body to sit silent and listen to others praise God. The cry of the psalmist in Psalm 95 is “Come, let us sing”, not “come, let us listen to them sing”.

In this regard there was a fascinating article about collective singing by the arts correspondent of The Australian, Matthew Westwood. https://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/coronavirus-when-pub-choir-becomes-a-chorus-of-one/news-story/250ebb25f76dae814bc9fee7e3e94e45?utm_source=TheAustralian&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=editorial&utm_content=TATodaysHeadlinesSubAM

The reason for us being banned from singing is that singers expel water vapours and spittle when they sing. There is a danger that a singer who has Covid 19 will thus end up spreading it. However, it is not as simple as that. The WHO initially declared that Covid 19 was spread primarily by touch and heavy droplets, not aerosol transmission. Although they have updated their guidance, the jury is still out on just how much aerosol transmission occurs. More recent studies suggest that it’s not singing that’s the problem – but rather the volume. I.e. normal Presbyterian singing might not really be a problem! We tend not to obey the injunction to shout to the Lord.

But assuming that one day we will be permitted to sing this side of the heavenly choir, it might be good for us to take this break to try and work out what we are actually doing. I suspect that there is nothing that causes more division within a church than the question of music and public singing. I find that in Australia even using the term ‘public worship’ sets some hearts racing and fingers wagging!

Which brings me on to a superb resource from an Australian writer, worship leader, preacher, thinker, songwriter and musician – Rob Smith. His latest book, Come Let Us Sing, is the result of a lives work on this subject. I have written a more detailed review for The Gospel Coalition Australia so I won’t repeat what I have said there – https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/book-review/review-come-let-us-sing-by-rob-smith/

But I do want to encourage every minister, elder and member to engage with this essential work. Smith states that his intended readership is pastors and teachers, but also music directors, song leaders and church musicians of every kind; as well as Christian congregations. It supplies what is sometimes missing—the psalms, lament, cross traditional fertilisation, and a practical theology of worship.

It would be interesting to know how what theology of worship Presbyterian churches in Australia adopt. I wonder for example how many retain the traditional and biblical practice of psalm singing. By leaving out the psalms we have lost a great resource which has particular resonance for today – they are so emotional, reflective and theological…and they are the Word of God.

What about even the idea of ‘public worship’? Smith argues that Sydney Anglicans have lost something by overreacting to a wrong tradition which saw public worship as only that which took place in a public building called a church. Given that Sydney Anglicans have a strong influence on the whole Australian church scene, including Presbyterians, this is important for us to understand and think about. By losing the language of public worship we may have ended up losing the concept – and to some extent the very raison d’etre of the church. Of course ‘worship’ is all of life – but there is something where the people of God gather together to praise and pray – is that not ‘public worship’? Sometimes overreaction against an error, just leads to a different error.

In Scottish Presbyterianism we saw this in an over reaction against a complex liturgical style of worship. We simplified it so much that we even ended up with what was called ‘the tyranny of the six tunes’ – where in many churches only six tunes were used for the psalm singing. Simplicity has a lot going for it – but sameness does not. For much of my ministry in Scotland I served in a church (the Free Church of Scotland) which had the practice of singing only unaccompanied psalms. There was a lot to be said for that tradition – not least that we learned the Word of God by heart, and we could sing. But I came to the belief that exclusive psalmody was an unbiblical position and stated so. To their credit, instead of throwing me out for heresy, the Free Church took four years (a speedy process in Presbyterian terms!) to look at the issue again and at a special plenary General Assembly, came to the conclusion that the position we should adopt was inclusive psalmody. That is, we would remain a psalm singing church but congregations that wished could also use hymns and spiritual songs – as well as musical accompaniment. Astonishingly the Church did not split over this issue and the change has largely been beneficial. Of course, our sister church in Australia – the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia was not too pleased and ‘sisterly’ relations were somewhat strained.

But no matter what we do – the point is that we should think about public worship – including singing – from a theological perspective – not just personal taste, tradition or cultural perspectives. That’s why Rob Smith’s book is so important. Perhaps there are other books out there which you can use – but I would say that every Presbyterian church should take up Smith’s book (or equivalent) and think through biblically and practically what we are doing. Presbyterians should be as known for our public praise (and prayer) as we are for our public preaching. Come let us sing (when we are permitted!) – to the glory of God.

AR – also did this interview with Rob –

Here are a couple of examples from St Peters of congregational praise.   One acapella psalm and one song.

I so miss this…

10 comments

  1. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s

    We are told to sing praises to God so the absence of singing is a sin.

    At least there are some ministers like John Mac Arthur who have not bowed to Caesar but have continued to lead their Churches biblically.

  2. I for one, am so pleased that the Free Church which I was born and raised in has moved on regarding praise. Smithton Free Church combines unaccompanied psalm praise with the addition of Praise Worship such as City Alight. ( One has to be careful which Praise Worship band one listens to, as some of them are sadly, singing purely for the money) The church is in ‘normal’ times full, and sometimes has to add more seating. It is wonderful to be part of people worshipping their Lord from the heart. I know my dear mother would be saying “Ove ove ( a Gaelic form of Oh my!!) if she knew there were musical instruments in the FC !!

  3. Strange that: which ever way you cut it, you can’t avoid making a song and dance about it!
    There is something about King David’s wife and her response to his joyful, with abandon, dancing about the church, whereas we are the bride of Christ with the presence of our glorious groom, he to whom the Psalms point, who fulfilled the Psalms, our trials, tribulations, desires, longings. And we are Abba’s children.

  4. A hymn celebrating God’s oversight of human affairs, based on Psalm 33
    (The tune Montclair comes in two versions and I prefer the version common among the Brethren where the last two two lines are repeated. Given the current restrictions on top of other things, I doubt if I’ll ever get to hear a congregation singing these words 🙁 .)

    Let exuberance be welcomed,
    Christian people ought to praise.
    Words with meaning; tuneful playing;
    melodies and harmonies;
    to the Lord, a new song bringing;
    hearts engaged and voices ringing;
    skilled accomplishment of singing.
    Shout in hallelujah days!

    Let his justice be established:
    earth beneath and heaven above.
    Word and Spirit add their witness:
    God’s is covenanted love;
    his the force that holds together;
    his the winds; the tides; the weather;
    his the sovereignty forever;
    this the laws of nature prove.

    Let the nations build their towers,
    making for themselves a name.
    God frustrates their secret counsels,
    turns their glory into shame.
    History is his coronation
    in his covenanted nation
    and in every generation;
    evermore and still the same.

    Looking down upon Creation,
    God remembers his intent.
    Fallen Man cries out for rescue:
    intervention, heaven-sent.
    Royal strength lies not in horses,
    nor superior armed forces.
    Let the stars, set in their courses,
    recognise his government.

    Let beatitudes be uttered,
    day by day and year by year.
    Let complaisance hold in union
    godly hope and filial fear.
    Lord, look down from heaven to see us;
    Send the Son from sin to free us.
    Spirit, come for comfort cheer us.
    Let salvation now appear.

    Yours,
    John/.

  5. It is interesting to see in this article and responses the entrenched assumption that what happens when Christians gather might be termed ‘worship’. An example of this entrenchment it is sad to see that in the seven pages of R. P. Martin’s article on Worship in the IVP, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (pp.983-9990) there is no rationale offered as to why ‘worship’ is used of Christian gatherings. On a previous comments page, having demurred from this ‘worship orthodoxy’, I asked for some kind of explanation, supported by exegesis, of why gatherings should be so understood. I am really open to hearing what might be said. Is there any biblical evidence [I am aware of but not convinced by citations from Revelation]?

    Romans 12:1-3 directs us to understand that our worship is the offering off our daily lives as ‘living sacrifices’ directed and empowered by the Spirit’s transformation our minds so as to discern that which is good, pleasing and perfect. Such direction and empowering is found in the Word-shaped songs, Word-shaped prayer, Word-shaped teaching, Word-shaped fellowshipping of our gathering – Col.3:15-17. The verses in Colossians act as an introduction to examples of Word-mindset living in Co.3:18-25.

    Once the research libraries are open here in Oxford and I have finished my current studies I intend to turn my attention to following up on the vocabulary / terms used of formal Christian gatherings e.g. divine service / worship service.

    The main thrust of this article and its promotion of Word-rich song books is, of course, excellent. From experience of years working with churches in Indonesia I owe a debt, from our early years there, to the singing of metrical psalms.

  6. If we limit ourselves to only Psalms then, even with Christological Psalms, we limit how we glorify Christ in our worship. Moses sang a song to God that was obviously not in the book of Psalms. Mary, the mother of Jesus, sand a song of praise that was not in the book of Psalms. More important than these, God has not limited us to the book of Psalms, but only that we worship “in Spirit and in truth” and to do so with a whole heart. King David, of Psalms fame, danced & lept before the Lord (embarrassing his wife). Above all, the book of Revelation gives examples of the songs of praise of the holy angels in the heavenly hosts – none of them from the book of Psalms.

    My Minister told me that “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” are all kinds of psalms, which I think is an error (although I am happy to be corrected).

    We have no musical instruments and no other songs but the Psalms and, while I find this very meditative and a blessing, I also am deeply aware at just how “dirge-like” and depressing it sounds like. There is no real joy nor celebration nor awe. I see now where the comedy world got the idea for the Reverend I M Jolly from (sarcastically). We witness to the world that the Lord of the universe is, at best, dull, and, at worst, non-existent in our lives.

    We do not come across as always rejoicing, or even sometimes rejoicing. Nor that we understand what joy is. We really do get the “sorrowful” part though – we have that down to a fine art.

  7. As a former church organist, and pianist, your article resonates in a number of ways. Now older and wiser, perhaps, I have learnt to appreciate some of the more recent songs and (dare I say) ‘hymns’. For example, one coming from the ‘charismatic Christian megachurch’, Hillsong: “This I Believe (The Creed)”; where one verse goes:
    I believe in God our Father
    I believe in Christ the Son
    I believe in the Holy Spirit
    Our God is three in one
    I believe in the resurrection
    That we will rise again
    For I believe in the name of Jesus.”
    John Dickson, Director of the Centre for Public Christianity, wrote in appreciation: “It’s not just a beautiful tune with good theology. It’s a beautiful tune with good theology that has captured the essence of the most unifying Christian statement in world history.” More at: https://hillsong.com/collected/blog/2014/07/this-i-believe-the-creed-song-story/#.X2vIXWgzY2w

    However, the trend towards bands and stages in many modern churches does convey a ‘performance’ or entertainment-like culture. After an overdose of this style of ‘worship’, sometimes I find myself longing for the simplicity of words without music, where the accent is upon the Word preached and the congregation responding in Psalms and hymns. I sense that many church leaders must struggle to keep the emphases right, in a culture that almost demands ‘hype’.

    It seems that the church generally has lost a sense of awe and reverence. Perhaps, this reflects the struggle over worship being a ‘whole of life’ event and the Biblical call to gather for worship on the Lord’s Day? While in some churches even the word ‘hymn’ is avoided – perhaps with some memory of them being sung in a mood that was not uplifting – nonetheless, it is hard to beat such Trinitarian treasures as the following words by Gerhard Terstergen, together with the hauntingly beautiful tune, Arnsberg.
    “God reveals His presence,
    Let us now adore him.
    And with awe appear before Him.
    God is in His temple:
    All within keep silence.
    Prostrate lie with deepest reverence.
    Him alone
    God we own,
    Him our Lord and Saviour:
    Praise His name for ever.“

    But, positively, there is a hint that our church services are changing; and I am greatly encouraged by news of the new book and the podcast interview with the Rev. Rob Smith of Sydney. Then, also only recently, the following review I stumbled across of another new book: ‘Finding Lost Words’ by G Geoffrey Harper & Kit Barker (2017, Sydney). Dr Jamie Grant’s comments are revealing: “There is a level of superficiality in the spiritual experience of today’s church that needs to be challenged… . ‘Finding Lost Words’ is an excellent set of readable essays dealing with the theology and practice of lament from an exegetical, historical, and pastoral perspective. I don’t want to overstate things but, if we really hear the message of this book, it will change the way we do church.” – Jamie A. Grant, Highland Theological College UHI (as sighted at: https://www.koorong.com/product/finding-lost-words-the-churchs-right-to-lament_9781532617478?ref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.koorong.com%2F

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