One of the more prominent features of Protestant denominations over the decades was hymn singing. Get in your time machine, go back 50 years to a service for any Protestant denomination, and you would find every member of the congregation on his feet, hymnal in hand, singing quite loudly, even harmonizing the old familiar hymns: Onward Christian Soldiers … Amazing Grace … When the Roll is called up Yonder … More About Jesus … Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow!
Catholics congregations were rather different. Low Masses in Latin were common in which there was little or no singing. High Mass featured complex music that a trained choir largely handled. And the few hymns the Catholics did know quite well were generally not sung with the gusto anywhere near that of the Protestants.
I’ll admit it; I’m a big fan of the metrical hymns of the Protestant tradition. One of the regrets I have is that in the years just after the Second Vatican Council when vernacular songs were permitted, we did not borrow more heavily from the English and German traditions of hymns.
Hymns are stately, easy to learn, and have memorable melodies. They were also metrical, which means that they were sung to a steady beat and almost never had the complicated rhythms of many modern church songs. Congregations have a hard time singing syncopated rhythms (rhythms that are in some way unexpected, making part or all of a tune or piece of music off-beat).
Many of the old Protestant hymns, especially those from the English tradition, are actually magnificent translations of the Latin hymns of the ancient Catholic Church. Many of them also beautifully paraphrase the Psalms. As such, their themes were biblical, and richly theological.
A beautiful example of this is the English translation of a verse from the beautiful hymn by St. Ambrose (Veni Redemptor Gentium):
Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
and darkness breathe a newer light;
An endless light that shines serene,
Where twilight never intervenes.
And there is this line from the well-known English hymn “For all the Saints”:
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long;
Steels on the ear a distant triumph song
and hearts are brave again and arms are strong
One final example is from the grand hymn “O Worship the King”:
Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end,
our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.
I love to sing and listen to these old hymns, and I love to play them at the organ.
But lo and behold, it seems the old hymns are dying out even in many of the Protestant denominations, and especially in those of the Evangelical sort. Paradoxically, in many of the old mainline Protestant denominations, which are theologically and morally quite liberal, the old hymns are still sung. Many of the Evangelical denominations, which adhere more closely to biblical teachings and morality, are now using Christian contemporary music, largely replacing the old hymns.
But most Christian contemporary music is really meant more to be listened to than to be sung, and it certainly is not designed to be sung by a large group of people.
Here are some excerpts from a recent article by Thom Schulz at the Holy Soup Blog: (I have added a few remarks of my own in plain red text.)
Looking around the church last Sunday I noticed that the majority weren’t singing … That’s been the case for years now–in churches large and small. What used to be congregational singing has become congregational staring … (Looks and sounds like a typical Catholic Congregation.)
What happened to the bygone sounds of sanctuaries overflowing with fervent, harmonizing voices from the pews, singing out with a passion that could be heard down the street? I suspect it’s a number of unfortunate factors.
Increasingly, the church has constructed the worship service as a spectator event … It seems it’s paramount for church music to be more professional than participatory. The people in the pews know they pale in comparison to the loud voices at the microphones. (Yes, this is certainly the case in most megachurches, which are even built like theaters. Many of the services there look more like productions than worship services.)
[Further] The musicians’ volume is cranked up so high that congregants can’t hear their own voices, or the voices of those around them, even if they would sing. So they don’t sing. What would it add? The overwhelming, amplified sound blares from big speakers, obliterating any chance for the sound of robust congregational singing. (Yes, I learned this as an organist: if I played too loud, people stopped singing. The singing of the faithful needs to be supported and accompanied, not drowned out and overwhelmed. In some Catholic parishes, volume from musicians and even lectors and preachers is a problem. Now even some smaller church structures have massive PA systems that overload the listeners rather than enhance their listening.)
Sometimes people refrain from singing because the songs are unfamiliar, hard to sing, or just cheesy … I long for an environment that evokes my real, heartfelt, vocal participation. (As stated above it is really rather difficult to get a larger congregation to sing syncopated music. Clear, metrical music is better if congregational participation is desired. Just because some song by a soloist sounds nice doesn’t mean it’s easy to sing. I get the impression that a lot of Catholic contemporary music is really written for soloists and then forced upon the congregation, who then vote with their mouths—which stay shut during the song. All the frantic waving of the cantor’s arms doesn’t really change the situation either. If something is singable for the congregation, the wild gesticulation of the cantor is not needed.)
At any rate, I’ll just conclude by saying again that I favor metrical hymns for congregational singing, and there is a noble history of some five hundred years on which to draw. There are some nice Gregorian hymns too. I know the comments section below is bound to attract more than a few comments about ditching hymns as well and singing the Introit, the Gradual, etc. But honestly, the number of parishes capable of accomplishing that reasonably are few. Further, even if a trained schola exists in your parish, the topic here is congregational singing. Sadly, that reality seems to be disappearing—even in the denominations that once resounded with hymns and enthusiastic singing by most of the congregation. It’s too bad, really.
I’m interested in your experience of congregational singing. I find that in most parishes less than 20% even make a pretense of singing. My own congregation is a bit of an exception since we use a lot of Gospel hymns and music that are very easy for the congregation to sing: lots of refrains and memorable melodies. What of your parish?
Here are two grand Hymns from the English Church:
And here I am playing the organ—an older melody for the Tantum Ergo that was popular in older German parishes.