The moment liturgy ended, a new Episcopalian burst out, “I love singing! I want to do this every Sunday!” Up until this moment, she hated singing. She told me so, on more than one occasion. She felt awkward: her voice isn’t great (she thinks), she doesn’t read music, the hymns are complicated, and just as she is catching the melody we are done, not to sing that hymn again for months. She wonders if this church is for her, even though her queer self is warmly welcomed.
But this Sunday, she was thrilled to sing.
Five of us from St. Philip had just finished a one-day Diocesan sponsored workshop in Eugene with Music that Makes Community. We learned how to teach and lead congregational songs without paper, just using our voices and bodies, focusing on music that fit the Episcopal liturgy. On Sunday, the MMC team joined St. Philip to try something new for us: an entirely sung, musically diverse Eucharist, taught as we worshiped. We processed to Uyai Mose/Come, All You People in Shonu from the Bantu people, and sang Glory to God from the Lima Liturgy. We responded to the readings with the Psalm refrain When I was in Trouble, to the Gospel with the familiar Celtic Alleluia. We gathered after the peace singing We are Coming Lord from Sierra Leone, and sang that God Welcomes All. Everyone chanted the Lord’s prayer in the language (and note) of their hearts, we were invited to Come to the Table of Grace, and were reminded to Lead with Love as we processed out.
In one service, we celebrated at least four diverse cultural traditions of Christianity, honored the tradition of the Episcopal liturgy, and created together a sense of being community. The simplicity of the music, and teaching it in the moment, allowed everyone to enter in. The clear melodies, and then the invitation to harmonize, built familiarity while allowing creativity and uniqueness. The freedom to make mistakes helped calm anxiety. We sang music we can revisit and expand with new languages (or the original language of the song), new melodies, and new harmonies. After the service, people were asked to share just a few words about what they noticed. This is what they said:
Greater participation, enthusiastic singing, living together, touches your soul, collective joy, wondering when not singing when we were going to sing, joyful and sunny like the day outside, feeling held by the congregation, harmony, spirit, it was like being in South Africa.
St. Philip is a small church. We don’t have a choir, much less a music program. But we now have a small group of parishioners want to lead congregational singing at every liturgy. One member wrote a hymn that we will sing at communion for a few weeks. We will still sing from Lift Every Voice and Sing and The Hymnal 1982, as we expand how we participate with God and one another each Sunday morning.
Liturgy makes us who we are, who we are called to be. It is deeply formative: the words we pray, the way we move our bodies, the stillness of the moment, the music that lingers well after the precise words of the sermon have drifted away. Liturgy is a primary place in our shared Christian life where we practice how to be God’s loving people in the world. Music is one of the most visceral ways we enter into the liturgical experience. Music moves us, it brings a sway to the body, a tap to the foot, a gut response that fills us with feeling (good, bad, soaring or souring), it literally resonates through our bodies, often shaking loose emotions that we cannot or will not otherwise express. Music, often more than words, roots us in a place, a time, a people, a culture, a way of being in the world. Music can also stretch our world, creating unexpected connections.
Small churches can create music together. All our churches can not only honor the richness of the Anglican choral tradition, but welcome in new rhythms and sounds that create a place for experienced singers and those who simply want to make a joyful noise unto the Lord.
This article was originally written for the summer newsletter of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Oregon.
Photo by Omar Rodriguez on Unsplash