A Defense of Congregational Singing

Recently an article was brought to my attention that attacked congregational singing as something that was less than desirable. The author of the article presented the following statements:

"It is now often assumed, especially since the reforms in the liturgical worship of the Roman Catholic Church....that meaningful worship is worship in which the laos or the people of God are active participants.... Both in the Greek and Russian Churches Choirs have represented this active worship since the beginning of formalized Christian ritual... congregational singing is not ancient. What survives and overcomes the trial of time for us Orthodox is "ancient"

.....Congregational singing has not existed in the Orthodox Church since the first few decades of Christianity. It simply did not survive.... most historians of Church worship assume that Orthodox worship is very closely tied to the model of Jewish Temple worship at the time of Christ....it was inconceivable to the Jews that the congregation would sing the services.... there is in fact ample evidence ....that even before the fourth century Peace of the church there were ordained psalters who were entrusted with the singing of the services.... In fact the fourth century Synod of Laodicea ..... strictly enforced the clerical status of the reader and the fifteenth canon issued by the synod forbids anyone but "canonical" (i.e. ordained) readers from singing in the church....The standard practice in the Orthodox Church for the last seventeen hundred years at least, then, is that of maintaining an ordained group of singers who sing the services....it is not the privilege of the congregation at large..... the singers are set aside: to help the congregation in its physical, mental and spiritual participation in the Liturgy. And being so lifted up, the most authentic participation in the Liturgy, an actual partaking of the essence of the Liturgy, is Holy Communion. 

The author allows that in modern times it has been accepted that non-ordained readers may stand in the choir, but that this is a modern concession. The author seems willing, at the end of the article, to allow congregational singing for missionary purposes, though it is not the "standard of the Church."

Is the "prostopinije," the congregational Plain Chant of our Diocese, really a recent innovation and even "un-Orthodox"? Perhaps this is why some recent Carpatho-Russian converts to other Orthodox jurisdictions from the "Ruthenian" Byzantine Rite Roman Catholic Church feign ignorance of the "prostopinije" or vehemently denounce it as "Western."

Singing in the Early Christian Church

The author of the above article tells us that congregational singing was practiced in the first decades of the Christian Church as an "anomaly," his reason being that there simply weren't enough trained singers to form a choir. It is true that congregational singing was practiced, but not for the reason stated.

Egon Wellecz, a pioneering expert in the study of Byzantine Chant, points out the correct reason:

"It was from the synagogue that the Christian communities took over the tradition of reciting, chanting, and singing, as more fitting for their simple service than the elaborate music of the Temple, with its great choirs and instrumental music. For training Christian congregations in singing, converted readers (anagnostai) and precentors (cantors) from the synagogues were chosen." (A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press: 1971, p. 34.)

Orthodox Christian worship, originally and most emphatically, was not inspired by the Jewish Temple (read the Letter to the Hebrews). It evolved from the worship of the synagogue. It was from the synagogue that Orthodox churches received the tradition of separating the sexes in worship, of standing in prayer etc. While congregational singing in the Temple was probably not practiced, it most certainly was, and is still, in the synagogue.

It is true that in later centuries, as a result of typological and allegorical exegetical methods originally used to explain Scripture being applied to the Liturgy (as in St. Maximos the Confessor), the Churches of Constantinople did attempt to imitate, in some aspects, the Jerusalem Temple. However, this was not the practice in the first five centuries of the Church. In fact, most of the Church Fathers of this time attacked the highly developed worship of the Temple of Jerusalem, with its choirs and instrumental music, as a divine concession to the weakness of the faith of the Hebrews. To quote St. John Chrysostom on the use of instruments in the Temple,

"I would prefer to say that they played these in times past on account of the dullness of their understanding and so that they might be drawn away from idols" (Homily on Psalm 149:2, PG. 55:494).

Choirs and Ordained Cantors

The author asserts that the congregational music of the first decades of the Church simply did not survive. Its place was taken by ordained psalters or readers who formed choirs; the congregation at large no longer participated in the singing. He states that Canon 15 of the Synod of Laodicea forbids anyone but these "canonical" readers and singers to participate in the Liturgy.

Again, what the author says has some truth, but with a great deal of misunderstanding mixed in with it. Congregational singing did survive the first decades of the Christian Church; in this our author is mistaken. However, he is perfectly correct in saying that the Church also "set apart" individuals to be readers and singers and recognized them as a distinct order in the Church.

Canon 15 of the fourth century Synod of Laodicea says: "No others shall sing in the Church, save only the canonical singers, who shall go up into the ambo and sing from a book" (quoted from The Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. xiv, p.132). 

Did the ordained singers and readers gathered into a choir now come to "represent" the laos, the people of God, and have they done so for the past seventeen hundred years? In the light of this canon how can it be confidently stated that congregational singing did survive more than the first few decades in the Orthodox Church?

The key to understanding this paradoxical situation lies in appreciating what exactly the role of the ordained singer was and the type of music employed in the Church at the time.

Again to quote Egon Wellecz:

"In the early days of Christianity Psalms were sung in the way customary in the Jewish synagogue. The "precentor" (cantor) sang the whole psalm and the congregation responded with an interpolated phrase" (Ibid. p.35).

If this sounds familiar that's because it is. The antiphons of the Liturgy are Psalm verses interspersed with a refrain: "Through the prayers of the Birthgiver of God..., O Saviour, save us..." Because books in the ancient world were expensive and scarce, only one person (who later became the ordained singer or reader) would chant the verses; the congregation sang the refrain. St. John Chrysostom describes a scene that is frequently relived in many of our Diocesan churches. Admonishing those who talked during the services in his church at Antioch he says:

"For in truth there ought to be but one voice in the church always even as there is one body. For that reason the lector utters his voice alone and the Bishop himself is content to sit in silence; and the singer sings alone, and though ALL answer (pantes hypechosin) the voices carry up as if from one mouth" ("Homilies on I Corinthians 36:9, PG 61:313).

The same method is found in Russian Churches at the singing of the Prokeimen. One singer announces the refrain and the tone it is to be sung in; the choir then uses this as a refrain while the verses are chanted by the singer. In this case, the choir has simply replaced the congregation. In a society where the capacity for the mass production of books did not exist, the congregation responding to a solo singer was the only practical means of congregational participation.

Liturgical scholars feel that many parts of the Liturgy began as the refrains to Psalm verses. Obviously, we still have the antiphons (though now reduced to a few verses), but there are other parts as well. The Trisagion (Holy God) was definitely used as a Psalm refrain in the "chanted office" of Constantinople at Vespers (3rd antiphon). Some feel that even the Cherubic Hymn was sung interspersed between Psalm verses as a refrain. And then, of course, there is the Prokeimen, the Alleluia and the Communion Hymn, among the more obvious.

It should also be mentioned that the ancient Church had very few "hymns" that were not scriptural. The "canons" and "sticheri" that we sing as a matter of course did not come into existence until centuries later, and even they began as verses interspersed between the Psalms of Vespers and Matins. In fact, Canon 59 of the same Synod of Laodicea banned "private compositions" such as these from being sung in the Church!

Canon 15 of Laodicea is not a prohibition of congregational singing. It is a directive that for the good order of the Church only canonical singers should sing the verses of the Psalms, and then, only from a book (not by memory) and from the ambo. The ambo, or more commonly now the "amvon," was in the ancient church a raised platform with steps in the front and back in the center of the Church. It was from here that the Scripture was read, the homily given, and according to the Canon, from where the ordained singer ought to lead the congregation.

There are a great many references to congregational singing in the writings of the Church Fathers. One from St. Basil the Great is worth repeating. He makes a reference to congregational singing in his "Homily on the First Psalm":

"Who indeed can still consider as an enemy him with whom he has uttered the same prayer to God? So that psalmody, bringing about choral singing, a bond, as it were, toward unity, and joining THE PEOPLE (laos)(emphasis mine) into a harmonious union of one choir, produces also the greatest of blessings, charity"  (Homily on Psalm 1, "The Fathers of the Church," vol.46, CUA Press, p.152. For the Greek, Pg. 29; 212).

The Choir

In the Church Fathers one also finds, after the fourth and fifth centuries, references to choirs. One should not assume that these choirs were what we experience today. They were, as the author of the article in question points out, gatherings of ordained singers who sang together, rather than as soloists, and who performed largely the same function of leading the congregation. However, there are instances of the choir singing alone on certain occasions, especially among the monks and nuns in Syria.

It must be remembered that these choirs did not sing different parts; they were not "polyphonic." To quote the renowned patristic scholar Johannes Quasten:

"With the understanding that unity and harmony stood in opposition to duality and disharmony the primitive Church rejected all heterophony and polyphony. The greatest possible harmony was pursued as the musical expression of the union of souls and of the community, as it prevailed in the early Christian liturgy" ("Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity," Washington: 1983, Pg. 67).

The "harmony" referred to here was not the singing of different voices in parts, but rather, the natural harmony of different voices all singing the same part: just as prostopinije (plain chant) has only one voice, one part.

St. Ambrose of Milan in the fourth century wrote this about the effect homophonic or monophonic singing had on the singers: "a pledge of peace and concord, like a cithara putting forth one song from different and equal voices."(PL, 14:924).

The polyphonic choirs that we all love are the product of Western musical influence in the Renaissance era and beyond. The style of music that they apply was unknown in the Patristic and Byzantine Church of the Middle Ages where the "one-voice" style prevailed. Nevertheless, perhaps they can be permitted by "economy!"

Congregational Singing - An Ancient Survival

Congregational singing did not disappear as the author asserts. The traditional Carpatho-Russian Plain Chant has been traced by scholars, such as Johann Von Gardner (see "A Few Words on Church Chant in Carpatho-Russia; "Orthodox Life," Jordanville: 1978, Pg.46), to the ancient Znameny Chant of Kievan Rus'. As such, it shares much with the Russian Old Believer Tradition. Kievan Rus' received its chant tradition from Greek missionaries via Constantinople and Bulgaria in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The Uniate Church did not create the prostopinije (plain chant) in Carpatho-Russia; it existed long before the "Unions." In many of the "Irmosi," the strains of Byzantine chant can still be clearly distinguished. The claim that choirs of the type found in contemporary Russian and Greek churches have been "representing the people at the Liturgy" for the past seventeen hundred years is without foundation.  

What is Ancient?

The author asserts that the function of the choir is to create "mood music" that supports the silent faithful in participating in the Liturgy. The highest form of participation, he tells us, is in receiving Holy Communion. But is this truly an "ancient" practice? Has it overcome the trial of time? Unfortunately, the answer is no. The frequent reception of Holy Communion died out by the end of the fifth century for the most part. Even St. John Chrysostom complained, "In vain do we stand at the altar; there is no one to partake." (Homily on Eph.3,4).

The author would seem to be contradicting himself by advocating a practice that, by his definition, is not ancient, a practice that did not survive the test of time. This would seem to be the "innovation." Receiving Holy Communion at the Liturgy more than once a year, or once a lifetime, was simply not the norm.

The plain truth is that the Holy Spirit is not as static as we, perhaps, would like Him to be. Anyone even the least bit familiar, as the author in question is, with the history of worship in the Church knows that it has been constantly changing its outer forms to meet the needs of the faithful. It will continue to do so in the future.

The truly amazing thing is that it does this without any committees or overseers; it just seems to happen whether we like the changes or not. While we certainly stand at the end of revelation, the witness of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church is ongoing in all forms. Why else are there now on Sundays and Feast Days Communion lines, when not long ago there were none? Why has the Presanctified Liturgy gained such a devoted following?  We cannot claim that the liturgical tradition of the Church has completely blossomed; it will not do so until it is transfigured and perfected in the New Jerusalem, when the object of its desire, union with the Lord, has been fulfilled. To do otherwise is to say that the Holy Spirit is no longer working in the Church.

Our Diocese has been blessed to have a living tradition of congregational singing (this is not to say anything against our many excellent choirs), one that many non-Carpatho-Russians have come to share in as well. It is a tradition that has kept us together in the past and will continue to do so in the future. We have been blessed to experience what St. Ambrose of Milan described in the fourth century:

"For it is a powerful bond of unity when such a great number of people come together in one choir... when all sing in the community of the Holy Spirit, as the Artist permits no dissonant voice" (PL 14:925).

Protopresbyter Lawrence Barriger