What Does the Church Look Like Without Communal Singing?

silent-and-semi-silent-vowels-in-japanese-devoicingHow can I keep…from singing? the old, old song asks.

Well, turns out you keep from singing because it might infect the alto section…and Lord knows no song is complete without the alto section.

If you don’t believe me, just ask an alto.

The very idea that communal song will be put on hold for a while, even after churches can gather in person again, breaks my heart.

Music is at the heart of what makes worship a thing.

Music is, some would say, what makes a church service tolerable.  And if the music is good?  Well, that can make a tolerable church service enjoyable, even.

Music was always the fallback for a pastor who gripped a sub-par sermon in their hands.  “Well,” they would think, “at least they’ll see Christ in the liturgy…”

The loss of communal singing in church will be great, indeed.  Where else, save for the bar, do we sing communally anymore?  Gone are the glee clubs.  Gone is classroom singing.  As the Fine Arts disappear from school curriculum in deference to STEM courses, gone is the peculiar mathematics and social intelligence that communal singing, both the learning and the doing, offer humanity.

And, sure, I’ve seen many the stoic pew-sitter stand obediently during a hymn and never move their lips.  But that is the exception, in my experience, not the rule.  It’s not that some have chosen not to sing in church, it’s that now we must choose not to fill the void those lyrical objectors create.

What will we do?

Well, we won’t stop music, that’s for sure.  In fact, one of the beautiful things about the liturgy lies in its repetition.  I only need to hear the introduction to Setting Four of This is the Feast and the song of my heart begins intoning, even if only in my mind, “This is the feast of victory for our God…

To be honest, one of the reasons the liturgy is repeated week after week is just for this reason: so your heart knows how to sing when your lips, for whatever reason, be it tragedy or overwhelming joy, cannot stir.  The liturgy is kind of like your familiar road home that you take, and though your mind drifts as you drive it, you arrive safely back in your garage before you know it because your body knows the way.

Your soul has memorized it.

That does not, of course, replace communal singing, but it is a bit of comfort, Beloved.

No, we will not abandon music, but we will do what communities have done since we first began purposeful gatherings: we will ask someone to sing on our behalf.

After all, what is a pastor but the person called by the community to lead them through the parts, sometimes offering them on the community’s behalf?  Who is the cantor but the person commissioned by the assembly to encourage song, arrange song and, if need be, sing for the silent community?  And, like the elected representatives currently fulfilling (or not) their duties in our government on our behalf, these people will take on the role of speaking for the community, singing for the community, until it can again.

This has happened in small ways, always.

I remember our musician playing an especially emotional rendition of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” one Sunday morning and, when his voice gave out as the tears choked him, the whole community started singing the song for him.  It was more than beautiful.

This will be that, but in reverse.

And I remember a particularly troublesome bout of laryngitis that afflicted me one Christmas Eve, leaving me no voice for my favorite Christmas hymns, as I had to save it all for the sermon. On that O holy night the community sang for me.

This will be that, but in reverse.

And surely wise leaders will take the opportunity to safely incorporate soloists, distanced duets, and whatnot for those gathered.

Crisis is the mother of ingenuity.

What will it look like?  I don’t know yet…but you can’t stop the music, Beloved. It dances inside you. It lives in the heart of our spirituality.  The Christian Celts claimed God sung creation into being and, as Jesus said, if this virus silences the disciples, the very rocks themselves will ring out in song, vibrating with the energy of sun they’ve absorbed every day of their existence.

The crickets chirp the soprano line. The wind rushes through the trees as an able tenor (which are hard to find!). The opening petals of the flowers and their almost imperceptible cracking will replace the bass pedals of the organ if they have to…though they won’t.

They won’t, because we’ll find a way.

It will be sad, it will be difficult, but it will be done.

You will sing for me, and I for you, until we can sing together.