Sunday, April 17, 2011


When I was but a mere wisp of a lad, sitting with my parents in church, I took particular delight in singing the variety of hymns and the other songs.  My special favorite, which was repeated almost every week, was my favorite, I think, because it was different from all the rest.

“Glory be to the Father…,” we sang on a single note before we moved on to more of a melody.  It didn’t have much of a melody, however, at least not compared to the hymns, but I loved it. (See the Presbyterian Hymnal, Glory to God, No. 580).

Apparently that chant was not true-blue Presbyterian, but something borrowed from the Anglicans.  After what has been called “The Great Liturgical Convergence” following Vatican II (when worship planners and leaders began to learn from counterparts in other denominations and traditions), Presbyterians who saw the value of chant were introducing it into worship.  Now there are wonderful resources in the Presbyterian Psalter and the Book of Common Worship (1993), with Hal Hopson’s Psalm Tones and Refrains in both. 

Of course, there are many other traditions of chant that also present glorious possibilities for worship.  The monks at New Skete, an Orthodox monastery near my home, chant a good deal of their daily office.  Worshipping with them over a period of time, I learned how chant emphasizes the text and encourages prayer and contemplation.  The monks, of course, had lots of practice, chanting their prayers several hours every day. 

Once when I visited a large Lutheran church in Minneapolis, I was wowed by a whole congregation of ordinary people chanting the morning psalms with gusto.  It’s one thing to hear monastics chant, but quite another to be part of a chanting congregation.  That was a revelation, an epiphany—anybody can learn to chant biblical texts like the Psalms!

Chanting is a particular way of singing.  Or, perhaps it’s a particular way of speaking, since part of a chant is usually recited all on one note.  While the pacing of the monotone text is even for each syllable, it can follow the natural pacing of speech sometimes. 

Another distinguishing feature of chant is that unlike hymns, the lyrics of a chant do not require either meter or rhyme.  Prose as well as poetry can be chanted. Biblical texts which are translations from ancient languages, therefore, can more readily be chanted than re-translated or paraphrased into a metrical version.  Chanting throws the field wide open as to what can be sung.

When a text is chanted rather than spoken, the words slow down and are given more attention.  As someone put it, chanting italicizes the words.  Chanting seems to foster meditation and reflection on what is being said.

In my neck of the woods, however, I find few who chant the Psalms.  If the Psalms are part of Sunday worship at all, they are in the “responsive reading” format.  Even Episcopal churches I’ve attended, and some of the Lutheran ones as well, often seem to fall back on this verbal expression of the Psalter.  It’s better than nothing, I suppose, but not as good as could be offered up to God if we put our minds and hearts to it.

Excellent metrical versions of the Psalms are available in hymnals, and are often used as a reasonable substitute.  Yet paraphrases, fresh as they are, do not always carry the full force of the biblical text. At least, the Psalms are sung, and that’s an accomplishment.  Still chanting can be done by a congregation and opens a whole new way to experience the Psalms and make their prayers and praise our own.

It’s not just the Psalms that we could and should be chanting either.  There are other songs in Scripture (called canticles) that deserve being lifted up in chant.  Many of these have become “service music” to be learned by the people and sung in chant for the Sunday liturgy and Daily Prayer services. 

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