Choirs in Reformed Worship

For centuries congregations who stood in the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition had no choirs. Because Calvinists took the priesthood of all believers seriously, they jealously guarded congregational involvement in worship: the people were to speak (sing) for themselves. That meant no choirs, no anthems, no cantatas—-just the strong, vibrant sound of congregational singing in response to the spoken Word.

Today choirs are almost as common as committees among congregations who call themselves Reformed. Many of these churches have choirs of many sorts and sizes.

What brought about the change? The truth is that we let choirs into our services not because we came up with some theological position on the role of music in worship, but, rather, because we liked what we observed in other traditions. We started borrowing practice before thinking theory. That’s how change usually happens.

However, because of this lack of “theory,” Reformed and Presbyterian churches are often uncertain what role the choir should take in the liturgy. Without trying to write an essay on the subject— though more reflection is certainly needed—I do have a few observations about three different types of church choirs that I see functioning in many Reformed churches. Historically the three types developed in the order presented.

Choral Society

The first type of choir is what I’ll call the “church choral society.” This group works on some big anthems or on a cantata for special occasions. At first they sing only after the evening service in a special program; later, as part of the evening service; and perhaps eventually as part of a special service in the morning. The choral society is not so much a church choir as a choir made up of members of the same congregation who love to sing together.

Anthem Choir

The second type is the “anthem choir.” This group works faithfully on anthems, which are from time to time inserted into the Sunday liturgy. Usually the anthem doesn’t replace an item in the liturgy; rather, it’s an addition to the order of worship. A large and well-developed choir prepares an anthem every Sunday, learning several new ones each year and recycling favorites. In our congregations by far the most church choirs fall into the anthem-choir category.

In borrowing the idea of an anthem choir from churches of other traditions, however, most of us ignored a few things. In Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican churches, anthems were chosen and composed to relate to the Scripture of the day. Many times the words of the anthem were taken directly from Scripture. In other words, the anthem was an integral part of the liturgy. Because most of these churches followed a lectionary, the choral director knew the Scripture passages for a given service far in advance.

If our choirs ignore that integration between Scripture and anthem, they borrow only part of a tradition; the other part goes begging for attention. When it has no relationship to what precedes and follows in the order of worship, the anthem becomes “special music,” an intrusion in Reformed worship. It may be a beautiful intrusion, but it’s an intrusion nonetheless.

Service Choir

I’ll call the third type of choir a “service choir.” This group sings service music. In other words, it participates in worship by taking over one of the liturgical actions that were going to take place anyway. For example, the service choir may sing a call to worship, a call to confession, or a prayer for illumination before the sermon. Or it might augment congregational song with descants and special accompaniments. The music a service choir sings may be either short and simple or long and substantial (including anthems); whatever its length, it is meant to carry liturgical action.

Many Calvinists might point out that the service-choir concept brings the priestly function of the choir into question. What about the Reformed principle that the people should do their own worship? Interestingly we have had no problem with the minister switching roles between proclamation and response; no one I know has argued that the congregational prayer should be voiced by the entire congregation. But when it comes to the choir performing a similar role, many Reformed Christians have expressed doubts.

Some of those who hesitate do so because they fear that the more active the choir becomes, the less active the congregation will be. But that should not and need not happen. Actually, by having the choir sing a call to worship or to confession we are moving toward, not away from, the idea that worship belongs to the people. And we are moving toward the concept that a choir sings on behalf of the congregation as all together bring their worship and adoration to God; away from the idea that the choir brings something to the congregation that was not there before.

A good way to start transforming an anthem choir into a service choir is by selecting music for particular liturgical actions. The bulletin then lists the selection as part of the order of worship {Call to Confession: title) rather than as an addition {Anthem: title). And the text is printed in the bulletin so that all the people can understand every word.

When such a change is made, choirs will begin to find their rightful place in Reformed worship. Choral music will no longer intrude or merely decorate but will enrich our worship with that marvelous power that Calvin also recognized: music can “move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal.” A service choir will enrich our liturgy as we seek to worship the Lord not only in the beauty of holiness but also in holy beauty.

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.