Monday, July 18, 2011

A Singing Congregation

Sunday was wonderful -- the congregation demonstrated its growing confidence in its own voice. We continued to apply the lessons learned. We mixed familiar tunes with hymns new to the congregation. Two of the hymns we sang a cappella. 

This was the first Sunday I used my new audio recorder (Zoom H2). It proved a wonderful little device that can record in 360 degrees so it points at the congregation as well as the musicians. I plan to use this recorder as I travel the country in search of congregational singing . . .

Anyway, you can hear the results below. As you listen realize that this is a very average congregation led by musicians with no amplification.

The opening hymn/call to worship was a setting of Psalm 139, "Search Me O God" by J Edwin Orr (1936). We set it to the tune EVENTIDE by Monk (1861) which is associated with the hymn Abide With Me - but the mood seemed to fit and it is too good a tune to leave just for funerals! (click to listen)

We chose "How Deep the Father's Love" by Townend (1995) as the second hymn.  This is a beautiful hymn (We have re-written a couple of lines to take out the echos of the doctrine of limited atonement and (to my mind) a cold understanding of penal substitutionary atonement that takes away Christ's agency). (click to listen)

Our closing hymn (coming after the offering) was Isaac Watt's setting of Psalm 106 (1719) to the OLD 100th from the Genevan Psalter (1551). We book-ended the psalm with the familiar "Praise God from whom all blessings flow" (Doxology). The congregations volume swells as the psalm progresses. From the front we could hear harmonies coming from the pews. (click to listen)

After the service we received a great deal of positive feedback. It was not the generic "we enjoyed your music today." Instead, we had people asking us about tunes etc. Libby observed that folk are starting to have a sense of ownership of their singing in the service. One father of an eighteen year old said his son loved singing his own harmonies . . .

Sunday, July 3, 2011


It is the 4th of July weekend - always tricky for an Englishman in the US - even trickier for Christians wanting to be avoid idolatry while at the same time recognizing the importance of place, tradition and history.
This was our first time leading worship after our last slightly tricky attempt. I am pleased to say that we actually managed to implement the lessons we learned. Libby did a god job of leading the congregation in the Tallis Canon. We also reintroduced Libby's hymn Make Us New set to Cyril Tawney's frequenty covered folk song Grey Funnel Line (the refrain is based on Barry Dransfield's version).

I say reintroduced because we had played this hymn with the old amplified Red Team. Now without piano and with the need for multiple voices to make the harmonies heard, Libby worked up a new arrangement.
One point of interest in the arrangement is that the tune is in the tenor sandwiched between treble and bass lines. We learned this lesson/trick from the shape note arrangements in the 1834 Southern Harmony hymnal. Men and women can sing the line (an octave apart) giving a strong lead to the congregation. It tends to mean that you can keep the range within the abilities of the average worshipper (not too high or too low) without pushing it too high because of the need to fit 3 parts underneath it. Also the strong male voices can carry the tune and lead the singing.
I first ran into this at River Hills Church of Christ in Oxford, Mississippi in 1997. River Hills is a small African American  congregation with a fantastic singing tradition shaped by the Church of Christ's prohibition on the use instruments in worship. It is where I first heard and sang Charles Tindley's hymns . . . but I digress.

We knew this was an unfamiliar melody for the congregation, so we used the first verse as a call to worship - we had eight voices. It then served as a closing hymn with 2 guitars, 2 violins and a cello (thanks again to all the fine musical volunteers).

We were able to set up much closer to the congregation this week and from where I was strumming and singing it felt like it worked. By "worked" I mean I could feel my own voice as part of the congregation all raising our voices together.