by Frank Ezinga
Canadian Reformed Churches are “Psalm singing churches”. When the Book of Praise is discussed there we are share our appreciation that all 150 Psalms are included and that effort was made to follow Scripture as accurate as possible.
However, our practice is often to sing a selection of stanzas of Psalms. Psalm 122: 1 and 2, but not 3. Psalm 100: 1, 4 but not 2 and 3. When an unknown or un-liked Psalms were selected, I heard critical comments after the service.
If there is an issue with the Psalms, some Psalms, or part of some Psalms, this would be brought to the attention of the Consistory/Classis/Synod. If some of the Psalms are not to be sung, then this would also be brought up. So far, I am not aware of these initiatives and I have been wondering why we don’t sing a Psalm; instead we sing a stanza (sometimes out of context).
Jos van der Kooy, organist of the Westerkerk in Amsterdam gives some background on antiphonal singing, and he sheds some light on the reason for singing individual stanzas in our Calvinistic churches.
In the Westerkerk we regularly sing songs antiphonal, when everyone, men, women, or choir alternate. Sometimes people ask questions about this practice. Some church members are disappointed about the fact that they cannot sing along the words that they treasure, because another group is singing. Why do we sing alternating between groups?
In the Wester we often sing many and often all stanzas of a Psalm or hymn. Especially when these stanzas have many lines the singers have a problem with breathing and the quality of the singing decreases. Not because the enthusiasm for the singing decreases but because of the lack of singing stamina. Our generation sings much less than the previous generations and that is noticeable.
Antiphonal singing gives the church goers a chance to catch a breath. But what if one cannot sing their favourite stanzas? Maybe an historic perspective will be beneficial.
Antiphonal singing is as old as the church is. In monasteries Psalms were usually sung antiphonal. That was to give the monks and nuns a chance to catch a breath. To prevent misunderstandings: in monasteries the singing does not alternate between man and women, they do not live in the same buildings. Alternate singing is done by groups of people who are positioned opposite of each other. Catching a breath was and is a reason for alternate singing. And possibly an equally important reason for alternate singing is this. The moment that you are silent, the words are given to you, and you participate by receiving the words. The next stanza you are giving the words to someone else. Antiphonal singing is not only catching a breatm but also and act of giving and receiving.
We primarily sing to the glory of God, who is enthroned on the praises of his people (Psalm 22:4). If in our singing something resonates about being God’s people and the different roles of giving and receiving – assumed by everyone in the congregation – that would be wonderful. That is how we arrive at the text that since 1686 appears above the main organ of the Wester. “Deo et Proximo”, to God and to the neighbour. In the context of this blog we may translate this as: to the glory of God and to the edification of the people.
Did we throw out the baby with the bathwater and have the congregation sing all Psalms and only in one group, after the 16th century Reformation? Did that create a (breathing) problem and resulted in the Reformed Churches not singing Psalms but mostly stanzas?
Anglican churches are often chanting the Psalms. Yes, that is also done by a choir. But the context of the Psalms remains intact. In our churches only the congregation sings. (According to Jos van der Kooy: we only give and don’t receive.) And we may not sing Psalms in their integrity. Could the biblical practice of antiphonal singing be a blessing to our churches, enrich the worship services, and edify the congregations? I think so…