Monday, April 13, 2015

Full-Voice Worship

My wife and I made this year’s annual Holy Week pilgrimage at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston. Since I retired from parish ministry, this journey became a real possibility; internally, for me, it has become a necessity. Having been to Trinity a number of times over the years, I’ve come to expect excellent liturgy, uplifting music and solid preaching.

Trinity Church stands on Copley Square, a magnificent structure designed by H. H. Richardson, erected between 1872 and 1877. Its Romanesque style with rough hewn stone and huge, heavy tower set the standard for many public buildings to follow. The interior is warm and friendly in spite of being expansive and open. Elegant stained glass windows and bright d├ęcor offer a feast for the eye. The church and parish house were built under the direction of Phillips Brooks, a highly admired preacher of the day (who was also the author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”).

Yet it’s not the architecture that I’m writing about now, nor is the music or preaching, nor even the design and presentation of the liturgy. The subject at hand is how the congregation takes a major part in the expression of praise and prayer.

What impresses me every time at Trinity Church is how firmly vocal the people are in their parts of the liturgy. When the lines for everyone to speak come up, their sound fills the room.

Unfortunately, I’ve gotten used to mumbled responses and whispered “Amens.” I don’t believe that Presbyterians were always so passive in reading the texts in boldface type. There was a time when we were more assertive and affirmative in speaking up and out in worshipful zeal. In the old days, the people in the pews used to say and sing their parts in full voice to be heard across the room.

One benefit of full-voice responses is that worshippers hear one another and become aware of being in an assemblage, a gathering of believers standing in the presence of the Almighty. Louder speaking by pew-sitters prevents people from drifting off into individual worship and forgetting that we are called by God to be a people, a body together serving one Lord.

The other aspect of congregational participation that I witnessed at Trinity Church is how much the people have to say in the service. Psalms were responsive (and chanted), antiphons were incorporated in some psalms or canticles, and in some instances entire psalms and canticles were sung by all. Prayers were offered in unison or responsively, and the Apostles Creed was said in response to questions of belief. Hymns were sung, of course, but also brief musical responses from the people were inserted in prayers. And every “Amen!” was clearly affirmative. All was spoken enthusiastically.

Too often we Presbyterians are inclined to minimize the quantity of what the people speak out, maybe the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps a Call to Worship set of responses, and, if there is one at all, a Prayer of Confession or Creedal Affirmation. We usually don’t need “amens” except from the leader.

The minimalization of the people’s parts tends to lull the good folks into a passive state, and before anyone is aware of what’s happening, worship demanding work becomes mere entertainment which requires little more than showing up and sitting back to watch and listen.

Increasing congregational participation is a challenge, to say the least. So how do we meet the challenge to encourage full-voice worship in our congregations? Start with the choir. They sing out, and should be able to speak up when the occasion arises. Let them lead the congregation, as they should be doing in every hymn.

Next take some time with session members and deacons and church school teachers. Work with them to teach them active worship. Remind them that “liturgy” means “the work of the people,” so they should put some energy into it. They are leaders of the church, and in worship they also have the responsibility to lead.

Do the folks where you worship speak and sing in full voice? If not, what can you do to improve the situation?