Toward a Sacramental Theology of Congregational Singing
1. The Problem
In twenty-first century America, it is difference in musical taste not difference in doctrine that poses the greatest threat to congregational unity. Look up the service times of any large mainline Protestant church and you are likely to find multiple services offered on a Sunday morning. This is nothing new of course, churches have often had two or even three services on a Sunday morning with, for example, a simple service at 8 a.m. and all the stops pulled out for the 11 o’clock service. What is new is offering different services simultaneously. Consider this description from the website of a large Baptist church: "during the 9:00 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. services in the Sanctuary, the worship style is best described as “blended” - singing a mixture of contemporary praise choruses and traditional hymns. . . [There is also] a contemporary service called The Link at 10:30 a.m. in the Fellowship Hall." The Link is ‘a casual worship experience." These worship experiences--with names like The Well, The Crossing, and The Gathering--divide congregations over aesthetics. But this is more than a change in musical taste or a preference for comfortable chairs and jeans over pews and suits: this is the emergence of sub-congregations sharing the same church buildings. Put simply, musical preference is dividing churches.
Can we really think of the separation of the body between the hymns in the sanctuary and the contemporary worship songs in the fellowship hall as a rupture in the body of Christ? Is this not perhaps overstating the case? I do not think so. Even if these two worshipping groups celebrate the Eucharist on the same day--and many do not--they do not gather around a common table and share in the common cup and loaf. Ignatius, the first-century bishop of Antioch, would certainly have thought this a problem. In a letter written to the church in Philadelphia, he insisted that a church should not have separate sittings for the meal. "Be careful then, to observe a single Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and one cup of his blood that makes us one, and one altar."
In many Protestant churches today, the greatest symbol of the Church’s unity--the Eucharist--is sundered over song choice and most people are unaware this schism has even happened. One solution would be to convince people that what we sing and with whom we sing is unimportant. To take this line would be to make a terrible mistake. The problem is not that these churches are taking congregational singing more seriously than their Eucharistic identity; it is that they are not taking congregational singing seriously enough. Rightly understood, congregational singing is a sacramental practice of the Church.
2. Congregational Singing as a Sacramental Practice
In Church Dogmatics, IV.3.2, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Karl Barth makes a curious statement. "The Christian community sings. It is not a choral society. Its singing is not a concert. But from inner, material necessity it sings . . . . What we can and must say quite confidently is that the community which does not sing is not the community." Barth is suggesting that congregational singing is in some way an essential constitutive practice of the church.
This is the kind of language that theologians usually reserve for talking about the Eucharist; it is a sacramental way of talking.
Can we consider congregational singing a sacramental practice? If we do, what are the implications for those who study worship practices and for the liturgical practices of new paradigm churches?  To answer these questions I am defining a sacramental practice as a liturgical practice that participates in and points to a heavenly reality. This definition is rooted in the work of the nouvelle théologie movement of the mid-twentieth century that was led by the theologian Henri de Lubac. The theology is dense and technical but at its heart is De Lubac’s discovery that there had been a fundamental shift in sacramental theology in the West in the Middle Ages. Brian Hollon neatly summarizes this claim. "De Lubac suggests that prior to the twelfth century, the ultimate ‘truth’ of the sacrament resided beyond the sacrament, whereas after the twelfth century, the sacrament was its own fulfillment--it was the thing being celebrated." The unfortunate result, as DeLubac describes it is that "the Eucharist becomes a matter, primarily, of individual piety, and the church’s identity is tied increasingly to the present, visible institutional structures."
Boersma affords us a very helpful concept when considering congregational singing as a sacramental practice. While, as Robert Jenson explains, "in classic sacramental teaching a sacramental sign both is related to and is that which it signifies," nouvelle théologie reintroduces the stronger and more dynamic category of participation. "Unlike mere symbols," Boersma writes, "sacraments actually participate in the mysterious reality to which they point." Thus a sacramental practice participates in and points to a heavenly reality.
Boersma’s project to reclaim a sacramental ontology for Protestants makes a significant contribution to an understanding of congregational singing as a sacramental practice. Reciprocally, understanding congregational singing as a sacramental practice can help the project of recovering a sacramental ontology for Protestants. That is a lofty claim to make for your average congregation singing on a Sunday morning, but consider the following:
2.1 Congregational singing participates in and points to the Song of the Trinity
In the orthodox tradition, the whole of creation is God’s song. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa described the cosmos as "a kind of musical harmony whose musician is God." Contemporary orthodox theologians continue in this deep vein. David Bentley Hart calls creation the "Triune polyphony" and even more poetically, Vigen Guroian refers to creation as "a Trinitarian love song." This is sacramental ontology at work--the whole of creation is God’s song. What makes it sacramental is that it is an invitation to the church to join in.
The community created in song is a rich metaphor for exploring a theology, not just of creation, but also of the Trinity itself. Theologian and musician Stephen Guthrie, in his excellent book Creator Spirit: the Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human, writes,
Music, particularly shared song, seems to provide a powerful sounding image of [a particular] kind of community life. . . one where there is a distinction without the loss of unity, where there is unity without the removal of individuality, where the members of the community have their life in and through one another.
This singing community of the Trinity sings creation and invites creation to sing along. Lucy Winkett, a canon at St Paul’s Cathedral, preached these words on Trinity Sunday in 2010: "The Trinity is not a dry doctrine to be thought about but a life to be lived. . . The song of the Trinity in eternity is a song even we can sing."
2.2 Congregational singing participates in and points to the Body of Christ
St. Paul uses the metaphor of singing to express the unity the church has in Christ. Romans 15:5-11, contains the idea of the new reconciled humanity now praising God "with one voice." This new humanity now includes the Gentiles who "sing praises." This is not just a metaphor; it is Paul’s description of the surprising new social reality of the early church--Jews and Gentiles singing God’s praise together. Ignatius of Antioch toward the end of the first century picks up the same idea. "In your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. . . [So] become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, ye may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ."
This singing is not just a demonstration of a new unity as the Body of Christ; the idea developed that congregational singing may even be a practice of reconciliation. Basil the Great, preaching in the fourth century on the benefits of singing psalms said:
A psalm is a tranquillity of soul and the arbitration of peace; it . . . creates friendships, unites the separated and reconciles those at enmity. Who can still consider one to be a foe with whom one utters the same prayer to God! Thus psalmody provides the greatest of all goods, charity, by devising in its common song a certain bond of unity, and by joining together the people into the concord of a single chorus.
Writing over seventeen hundred years later, Guthrie describes it this way, "When the church sings together, it announces the new community the Spirit has created in Christ. But the church’s singing not only announces this new community, it enacts it." For Guthrie, the current divisive conversations over music and song choice are oddly reassuring. In the same way that arguments over the Eucharist--the sacrament of the church’s unity in Christ--became a force that tore apart "the garment of Christ’s body, which everyone confessed to be seamless (John 19:23-24) during the Reformation, so now it is arguments over song choice and worship style that turn a sacramental practice against the unity of the church."
2.3 Congregational singing participates in and points to the Song of Heaven
This is perhaps the theological dimension of congregational singing with which we are most familiar. When we sing in church we join, as the Book of Common Prayer declares, "with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven" in singing praise to the ‘Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come" (Rev 4:8, NRSV).
Notice the journey: the direction of the song. It goes out and returns to God. It is the love song of the Trinity that, out of the abundance of love, sings creation into existence. God desires creation to join in the song and so the church picks up the theme and sings it in anticipation and participation with the whole of creation in praise of the Creator. This is what is happening symbolically and literally on a Sunday morning when congregations open their hymnals or gaze at the projected words on a screen and start singing.
3. A Re-evaluation of Congregational Singing
If congregational singing is, in fact, a sacramental liturgical practice, why do we not hear sermons on the subject? Why is it so undervalued? Understanding the loss of sacramental ontology in the late middle ages helps explain how in the West congregational singing started to lose its connection with the idea of heavenly participation. It also helps explain why congregational singing is seldom understood (though often experienced) as a sacramental practice in its own right. The increasing insistence on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist in the thirteenth century meant an increasing separation from "the unity of the church as the mysterious reality (res) to which it pointed." The theological tendency became not to consider congregational singing of value in its own right but rather to value it solely for its ability to enhance other liturgical practices. Palestrina explained in the dedication to his Second Book of Masses in 1567 his intention in writing music for the church was "to adorn the holy sacrifice of the Mass in a new manner." Modern Catholicism more highly values congregational singing, as Vatican II explains, "the more closely connected it is with the liturgical action, whether making prayer more pleasing, promoting unity of minds, or conferring greater solemnity upon the sacred rites."
This talk of singing in terms of its contribution to the liturgy creates the unfortunate impression that when the community sings God’s praises it is not an important liturgical action in its own right. Singing becomes a second-order activity. Consequently, Roman Catholic debates concerning music and singing tend to revolve around how choir directors and organists can institute music that works well with the liturgy or how best to teach the laity to sing Gregorian chant.
What is missing here is the idea that the unity of the Body of Christ celebrated and constituted in the Mass is also celebrated and constituted in the songs of the people. Guthrie puts it this way: "Shared song . . . is yet another way that this common life becomes a part of lived experience. In song, the church shares not 'one bread' [1 Cor. 10:17] but one voice."
In an equally unfortunate fashion, Protestant understandings of congregational singing are also affected by the legacy of this medieval shift in sacramental imagination. For most of the history of Protestantism, the value of congregational singing lay in its relationship with the Word of God, either in the songs being scripture set to music (think of Calvin and the Psalm singing of Geneva) or in the way the hymnody was a pedagogical tool for the reformers to pass on the revolutionary ideas of the evangelical gospel (think of Luther in Wittenberg).
According to Yves Congar, this way of valuing scripture has its roots in medieval arguments over the relative authority of scripture and the church. His colleague DeLubac proposed the solution of re-sacramentalizing scripture in the context of the church.
If we consider Scripture from within and with the eyes of faith . . . and at the same time to remember that Christ was the Logos, that is to say, the Word of the Father, could it not be said that this body of Scripture appears truly as a body of Christ? And from there, does it not follow that this immanence of the unique Word at the heart of these multi-faceted words makes of them a real and living unity?
If Protestants could develop this sacramental imagination as DeLubac suggests and actually raise their view of scripture, then the practice of singing scripture is far more than a pedagogical tool or a proclamation of truth, it is a participation in the living Word: the Word becomes song and dwells among us.
4. New Paradigm Churches
The Praise and Worship revival launched by the new paradigm churches in the 1970s and 1980s that led to the so-called “worship wars”, values congregational singing for different reasons. The songs are not to accompany and enhance the sacraments nor are they a catechetical tool. At the heart of the Praise and Worship revival of the 1980s was a recovery of intimacy with God in worship. The first generation of worship leaders insisted that the classic evangelical hymns were full of theology singing about God but were not singing to God. Thirty years later, according to worship historian Lester Ruth, the burgeoning hymnody in the CCLI charts differs from the evangelical piety of older hymns in another significant way. The songs express a realized eschatology absent in their Victorian antecedents: worshippers sing of experiencing heaven now, not at some future moment when they cross the Jordan into Canaan’s happy land. They do not anticipate a time in the future when they will join with the heavenly host--that is experienced now in worship. In darkened auditoriums led by rock bands illuminated by theater lighting, congregations close their eyes, and sing, "Open the eyes of my heart, Lord, I want to see You." In this song by Michael W. Smith, John the Revelator’s vision of the saints praising God around the throne is not a prophet’s vision of a future for the communion of the saints, it is a possibility for individual worshippers on a Sunday morning. This is why music is so important to this movement. This is why so much money is spent on the live worship experience. It is also why it is so vulnerable to idolatry and commodification.
For all this new emphasis on the importance of music in worship, new paradigm churches are mired in the personal piety of neo-evangelicalism that is all but blind to the corporate sacramental dimensions of the liturgy. In these churches, the tendency is for baptism to be reduced to an opportunity for personal testimony and the Eucharist to be simply an occasional opportunity for personal piety. While this is true for most traditional low Protestant churches, what is new in new paradigm churches is the influence this individualistic piety has had on the practice of congregational singing. Rather than encountering the lusty congregational singing of the Wesleyan revival or of Ira Sankey’s gospel hymns, psychological anthropologist T.H. Luhrmann discovered in the Vineyard churches in Chicago and California that "worship is intensely individual even when everyone sings together. . . Worship time is understood to be private, personal, a time to commune with God alone while in the presence of others." The music creates an immersive environment that isolates the worshipper and helps them to concentrate on having a personal encounter with God: a person with whom they can have a loving relationship and from whom they expect to hear.
It is, however, impossible--though some try--to experience group singing solely as an act of personal piety. Whether they realize it or not, embedded in the practice of congregational singing is a sacramental theology of the real presence of Christ. When congregations sing God’s praise together the gap between sacrament and reality collapses. When we are, to use Charles Wesley's expression, "lost in wonder love and praise" we are caught up in the worship of heaven and we are surrounded by and participating in the sound of the congregation singing. We are inside the sign; we are participating in the reality of a sonic unity.
The high theology of congregational singing proposed in this paper offers interesting possibilities for those engaged in theological reflection on the lived theology of worshipping communities. If nothing else, it should cause us to pay close attention to the practices of congregational singing in the liturgical life of the communities we study. It may also afford ways of considering and evaluating the time and energy spent by congregations on their music whether the object of study is a cathedral choir or a contemporary worship service.
For those interested in following Hans Boersma’s urgent call for Protestants to recover a pre-modern sacramental ontology, the understanding of congregational singing as a sacramental practice may contain within it the possibility of a restoration of an evangelical sacramental imagination. In new paradigm churches and those others that adopt their practices, congregational singing is often the only vestige of a sacramental liturgy in a fragmented wasteland of purpose driven piety. Ironically, at the same time as the Praise and Worship revival offers the hope of the recovery of a sacramental unity for these evangelical churches, it is the very absence of a sacramental ontology in these congregations that makes the sundering of the Eucharistic body over song choice and worship style barely register as a problem. Because so many Christians experience this sacramental reality through their filter of intense personal piety, they are all but blind to the communal dimensions of the divine encounter present in the congregation’s praise of God. They are blind to it even as they encounter its emotional and spiritual power. All the pieces are laid out before them every Sunday morning but they are unable to put them together. The big picture of the sacramental reality of the Body of Christ present when the community of forgiven sinners and reconciled enemies sings God’s praises together is there but they cannot see it. Theologically unaware of the sacramental reality of the unity of the body present in congregational singing, they are unable to either protect or truly nurture its practice.
 Ignatius, To the Philadelphians, 4, in Cyril C. Richardson ed. Early Christian Fathers (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953), p. 108. Emphasis added.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. Geoffrey William Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. Geoffrey William Bromiley, 1st pbk. ed., vol. IV.3.2 (London ; New York: T. & T. Clark International, 2004), pp. 866-67. Emphasis added.
 The term “new paradigm churches” comes from sociologist Donald E. Miller. In his 1997 book Reinventing American Protestantism, Miller identifies the Vineyard churches of his study as examples of the ‘new paradigm’ churches that now dot the American ecclesial landscape. Stripped of most of the symbols and forms of traditional Christian worship, it is the music, Miller argues, that is the ‘triggering device’ in these churches for the movement from the profane to the sacred realm. Donald E. Miller, Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the new millennium, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 91.
 Bryan C. Hollon, Everything is Sacred: spiritual exegesis in the political theology of Henri de Lubac, Theopolitical visions (Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2009), p. 55.
 Hollon, Everything is Sacred, p. 56.
 Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: the weaving of a sacramental tapestry (Grand Rapids, MI.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2011), p. 2.
 Boersma, Heavenly Participation, p. 75.
 Robert W. Jenson, "The Church and the Sacraments," in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, ed. Colin E. Gunton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 212.
 Boersma, Heavenly Participation, p. 23.
 Commentary on the inscriptions on the Psalms 1999, 28; in Vigen Guroian, The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2010), p 5.
 David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: the aesthetics of Christian truth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2003), p. 274.
 Guroian, The Melody of Faith, p. 13.
 Steven R. Guthrie, Creator Spirit: the Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011), p. 85.
 Canon Lucy Winkett, Sermon preached at the Eucharist on Trinity Sunday (Sunday 30 May 2010), St Paul’s Cathedral. http://www.stpauls.co.uk/Worship-Music/Join-us-in-Worship/Read-Sermons/Archived-Sermons/Sermon-preached-at-the-Eucharist-on-Trinity-Sunday-Sunday-30-May-2010-by-Canon-Lucy-Winkett.
 Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians, 4:1-2, in A. Cleveland Coxe, Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Revised by A. Cleveland Coxe (New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), p. 49.
 Homilia in psalmum i, 2; PG xxix, 212, in Music in Early Christian Literature, edited by James McKinnon, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 65-66.
 Guthrie, Creator Spirit, p. 80.
 Boersma, Heavenly Participation, p. 84.
 Boersma, Heavenly Participation, pp. 57-58.
 Andrew Wilson-Dickson, The Story of Christian Music: from Gregorian chant to Black gospel : an authoritative illustrated guide to all the major traditions of music for worship, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 75. Emphasis added.
 Vatican Council II, "Sacrosanctum Concilium" http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html.
 For the official conversation see Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Musica Sacra: music at Mass, a liturgical and pastoral challenge; papers from the second study day on the anniverary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican City, December 5, 2005, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010).; for something more boisterous see Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can't Sing : the culture of Catholicism and the triumph of bad taste (New York: Crossroad, 1990).
 Guthrie, Creator Spirit, p. 80.
 Boersma, Heavenly Participation, p.61. Yves Congar, Tradition & Traditions: the Biblical, historical, and theological evidence for Catholic teaching on tradition, trans. Michael Naseby and Thomas Rainborough (San Diego, CA, Needham Heights, MA: Basilica Press; Simon & Schuster, 1998), p. 135.
 Henri de Lubac, Laurence Paul Hemming, and Susan Frank Parsons, Corpus mysticum: the Eucharist and the church in the Middle Ages: historical survey, Faith in reason (London: SCM Press, 2006), p. 87.
 Lester Ruth, “Similarities and Differences in Evangelical Song: Old and New”, presentation at Adult Forum, Duke Divinity School, October 6, 2013, https://congregation.chapel.duke.edu/index.php/worship-and-nurture/adult-education?id=432
 T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: understanding the American evangelical relationship with God, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), p. 4.
 Luhrmann, When God Talks Back, p. 323.