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Choir and Organ: Their Place in Reformed Liturgy

An article evaluating the place of both choir and organ within the "sequence of actions" in Reformed worship.

Christian assemblies have at all times and in all places read the Scriptures, prayed, and sung. The Christian liturgy was born singing, and it has never ceased to sing.... This fits the fact that Christian worship is the public proclamation of the mirabilia Dei and of the good and joyful news, an act of thanksgiving, praise, and blessing for the freedom won for us by the resurrection. It is an Amen, an unceasing Alleluia (Rev. 19:4), a Yes to the new Covenant, a hymn of glory to God the Father.1

Almost always the Christian church at worship has sung. When present before its Lord at worship, it hasn't been able to refrain from singing. Anyone who has first seen God on the cross, and then seen him rise victorious from the tomb, can understand why.

But why would the people of God at worship ever want others to do their singing for them, while they keep quiet? Why would they want to have a choir?

Very often the church at worship has supported its song with instruments. Anyone who has experienced such support can understand why, even though not all approve.

But why would the people of God at worship ever want to cease performing the actions of the liturgy for a while, keep quiet, and listen to their instrumentalists make music? Why would they want to have an organ playing solo?

My topic is principles concerning the use of choirs and organs in the Reformed liturgy. And in my judgment the first step to wisdom here is to be taken by cultivating a sense of surprise over the fact that we allow choirs and solo organs into our liturgy. We've all grown so accustomed to these that we don't regard them as needing justification. Yet once the nature of liturgy is understood, they become surprising, unexpected.

And the truth is that choirs and organ have crept into the Reformed liturgy. They have not been led in, by the hand of solid liturgical principles. At the time of the Reformation the city fathers in the Netherlands owned the church organs. Good burgers they, they did not permit the destruction of these expensive instruments at the hands of the Reformers. Neither did they, for long, like the idea of these instruments standing idle. So concert pieces were played on the organs, before and after the Reformed services. But then, as anyone might guess, it wasn't long before the organs crept into the service itself.

By contrast, the use of choirs in the Reformed liturgy is more an American than a European practice. In fact, in a rather charming pamphlet published in 1939 entitled The Pound in a Napkin, the Rev. J. K. van Baalen argued that resistance to choirs in the Christian Reformed Church was a sign of our lingering Dutchiness, and that if we wanted to get anywhere in America we had better "get with it." We "must have choirs," he said, " 'special numbers' and all. WORSHIP WITHOUT A CHOIR IS SIMPLY UN-AMERICAN, FOREIGN" (43). You see what I mean when I say that choirs and solo organs have not been led into Reformed liturgy by the hand of solid liturgical principles!

So the first thing I want to do is get you to feel the problematic character of choirs and solo organs in the Reformed liturgy.

Perhaps a good way to begin is by calling to your attention the difference between religious and liturgical music. If all you take away from this lecture is a feeling for this distinction, then already I will have accomplished a great deal. Liturgical music is music which humbly serves the actions of the liturgy. Religious music is music which serves our auditory attention, and which, in addition, expresses religious conviction. Let me make the distinction concrete for you by playing a splendid specimen of each, first a piece of religious non-liturgical music, and then a piece of liturgical music. In this particular case, the composers themselves would almost certainly agree with this classification of their works. Both are pieces which most of you have probably not heard, and I'm sure that their musical styles will not appeal to all of you. The first is from the opening of Penderecki's piece, Resurrection of Christ; the second is the Sanctus from Stravinsky's Mass. Penderecki, still very much alive, is a Polish Catholic. Stravinsky was a Russian Orthodox, though his Mass was intended for the Catholic liturgy.

[The audience listened to the "splendid specimens" at this point. Ed.]

I hope that these examples give you some intuitive feeling for the distinction between religious non-liturgical music, and liturgical music. And I suspect that already you see the drift of my argument. If choir and solo organ are to be justified in the liturgy, it cannot be done on the ground that they are capable of presenting us with religious music. It will have to be on the ground that they have some positive role to play in the liturgy. Let me say it again, since this is the most fundamental of all the principles that I shall propound: If choir and solo organ are to be justified in the liturgy, that will have to be on the ground that they benefit the liturgy.

But what is the liturgy? Unless we have some agreed understanding of that, we will get nowhere in our attempt to discover principles for the use of choirs and organs. Of course here is not the place for a full discussion of liturgy. Let me here call to your attention just those aspects immediately relevant to our subsequent discussion.

Sometimes the liturgy of a congregation is thought of as the fixed and specified words of its worship. Then Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, and Episcopalians are said to have a liturgy, since in each of these communions a good number of the words used each Sunday are fixed; whereas most so-called evangelical churches are said not to have a liturgy. Most Reformed and Presbyterian churches come close, in this respect, to the evangelical churches. For though they may have a fixed structure to their liturgy, there is very little by way of fixed content, fixed and specified words.

My reason for introducing this rather common sense of the word "liturgy"-a sense which most liturgists would instead give to the word "ritual"-is to make clear that this is not the sense I shall be working with in this paper. Neither is it the sense of the word that the organizers of this conference had in mind when they called it a conference on "Liturgy and Music." I shall instead take the word "liturgy" in a more basic and traditional sense, a sense whereby even the most evangelical congregation invariably has a liturgy on a given Sunday.

Liturgy is a sequence of actions. The people of God assemble in order that certain things may be done. And the liturgy is simply the sequence of those actions. It doesn't matter whether the words used are fixed, or freely chosen by some members of the assembled people. Regardless, the congregation has assembled for the doing of certain things. And those, in their sequence, are the liturgy.

What characterizes that sequence of actions which constitutes the liturgy? What is the organizing principle behind it? In asking this question we stand before a fork in the road. Two strikingly different answers are available to us. Our choice will have decisive consequences.

An answer which has enjoyed great popularity in our century is that the actions comprising the liturgy are characterized by the fact that they are all aimed at producing a certain effect on the congregation-the effect of religious feelings, the effect of an edifying experience. The assumption is that the people of God assemble in order that their religious emotions may be stirred. And everything-architecture, choir, organ, congregational singing, sermon, vestments, processions-everything is chosen with that purpose in mind. Should there be a choir? It depends on whether the use of a choir would heighten the religious experience. Where in the liturgy should the choir sing? It depends on where it would have the most moving effect. Should the organ play soft background music during the transition from one liturgical action to another, thus "papering over all the cracks"? It depends on whether this would heighten the edifying experience. Such a liturgy, on casual glance, will often appear purely episodic, just one thing after another without rhyme or reason-a disconnected array of pieces. But deeper analysis will reveal a cord on which the pieces are strung-the cord of religious experience as the intended effect.

I shall not conceal from you my abhorrence for this way of understanding and shaping the liturgy. I most emphatically agree that our emotions and feelings should be involved in the liturgy. But to think of the people of God as assembled in order to have religious emotions evoked in them has no basis in the authentic Reformed tradition, and more importantly, none in the biblical witness. It reflects, rather, the pietist tradition of Christendom, where inner experience often becomes the all-determiner.

Let me then sketch for you the outlines of what seems to be a more biblically faithful answer to the question: What characterizes that sequence of actions which comprises the liturgy?

Often it is said about the biblical understanding of communal worship that worship is there understood as part of the response of God's people to God's acts of creation and redemption. God is the initiator. His people are the responders. I think this is true-worship is part of our response to God's action. Yet I suggest that this formula is incomplete in a most important way. Our worship represents not just our response to God's creative and redemptive activity, but also a continuation of it. Liturgy is a response to, and a continuation of, God's activity.

For God is active in the liturgy. He is one of the main liturgical agents, the other being his people. If anything characterizes the Reformed understanding of liturgy, it is that the actions comprising the liturgy include both actions on the part of the people and actions on the part of God. A good many Reformed liturgists have in fact espoused a dialogic analysis of the liturgy. Liturgy, they have said, is a dialogue between God and his people, a back-and-forth sequence of address. And indeed, the extent to which this is true in a well-constructed liturgy is striking. God addresses his people in the greeting, the people respond by addressing to God their confession of sin, God addresses to his people his word of forgiveness, the people respond by addressing to God their gratitude in the words of the Gloria or some other hymn, and so on, back and forth, until finally, at the culminating part of the Lord's Supper, in the Communion, we share the meal of our Lord with Christ our host and no longer can acts on the part of God be unraveled from acts on the part of the people. In short, the structure of that sequence of actions which comprise the liturgy is that it is predominantly a dialogue of mutual address between God and his people.2

To get at a second dimension of the character of that sequence of actions which is the liturgy, let us consider the biblical understanding of the purpose of the liturgy. Why do the people assemble for the performance of the liturgy? What is the point of the gatherings?

Clearly one reason is that the people may be edified, built up in the faith unto good works, built up, that is, unto obedience. This is a point made by Paul in chapters 12 through 14 of his first letter to the Corinthians, and made again in the tenth chapter of the book of Hebrews. And it's a point dear to the Reformed person. Characteristically we Reformed people think of going to church as going to sermon. And we think of the sermon as marching orders. In what we do Monday through Saturday, we say, lies the proof and worth of Sunday. For us, the fundamental question to put to the liturgy is always: What did we get out of it?

But in biblical perspective there is clearly a second fundamental reason to assemble for the performance of the liturgy. It is right and proper-in the words of the old Latin Mass, dignum et justum--for us to acknowledge God's majesty and goodness. It's right and proper to sing praises to God for his works of creation and redemption, and for our status as new creatures in Jesus Christ. It's right and proper to confess our sins, it's right and proper to continue celebrating the supper of our Lord in memorial of him until he comes again. I know of course that it's also right and proper to care for the poor of society, to work for peace, to build bridges, to create paintings. But it must be said to the Reformed person-emphatically, because he's so much inclined to forget it-that it is also inherently right and proper to perform the liturgy. This too is part of obedience. There's profound truth in speaking of what takes place in our assemblies as a worship service. Worship, let's not forget it, is part of our rightful service to God. Not only is liturgy for building us up unto obedience. Liturgy is for acknowledging God, in a tone of chastened celebration.

I said that one question to ask of the liturgy is: What did we get out of it? In the light of what I've just said it's clear that there's another, namely, How did we do? How did we do in our attempt to acknowledge God with praise and confession, with thanksgiving and intercession? Did we do it at all adequately?

Do you now begin to see why the person who has a Reformed understanding of the nature of the liturgy will find choirs and solo organs problematic? Music in the liturgy must be a humble servant of the liturgy. To put it somewhat vulgarly: The liturgy must call the shots for the music. To put it more elegantly: In the house of worship, liturgy is the master.3 So if there are to be choir and solo organ, they must serve the actions of the liturgy. But how can they? How can they be anything other than a distraction? How can they do anything but cause a halt in the liturgy?

In the liturgy, God and his people address each other. Mainly God addresses his people by way of the minister, in prophetic role, speaking on God's behalf. What contribution can choir or organ possibly make to that? And when it comes to the people in turn addressing God, for the most part the congregation can do that very nicely itself by saying its responses and singing its songs. True, when it comes time for the intercessory prayers of the people, a leader is needed. What's not needed, however, is choir or solo organ. The contemporary liturgical composer, J. Gelineau, a French Roman Catholic, puts the point well:

The liturgical renewal which developed slowly but surely in the twentieth century had something of an archaeological flavour to begin with. But sooner or later, it was bound to call into question the whole purpose of singing and music in the liturgy. If Christian worship really is a symbolic activity in which an assembly expresses its faith, then it follows that any singing or music must belong to the believing people as a whole, and not remain the special preserve of a chosen few, be they clerics or musicians.4

A Reformed understanding of the nature of the liturgy forces us to take with great seriousness the question whether choirs and solo organs have a place in the liturgy. That is what I have been emphasizing. In fact, I am convinced that they do have a place. Though not necessary, nonetheless they sometimes benefit the liturgy immensely. So let me now move on to explain how they can do this, and to point out where in the liturgy they can best be used.

I think you can see in advance, however, that if you are to apply the advice I propose to give, you must first grasp the structure of the liturgy with which you are working. Before you as church musician can settle on the where of the choir's and organ's placement in the liturgy and the what of their contributions, you will have to submit your liturgy to an action-analysis. You will have to try to figure out what action is being performed at each point in the liturgy, asking yourself whether it is an action of the people addressed to God, an action of God addressed to the people, or an action of the people addressing one another. You will have to try to understand why each of the actions is performed in the way in which it is, asking yourself whether there are other equally good ways of performing it. And you will have to try to understand the rationale behind that particular sequence of actions. In short, given that liturgy is master of music in the house of worship, you will have to begin your work by setting your musical concerns off to the side for a moment, and study your liturgy.

If you follow this advice, I predict that at some points you'll have the rewarding experience of understanding for the first time in your life why that item is there. I also predict, however, that many of you will receive a jolt of varying degrees of severity. You'll find some items in your liturgy for which you simply can't discern the intended function. And you'll find some sequences which seem to you to make no sense.

To illustrate these points, let me invite you to glance through two sample, contrasting liturgies. First, look through the model liturgy approved by the 1978 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, constructed on the principles contained in the Report of the Liturgical Committee which was approved and referred to the churches by the Synod of 1968. Then compare that with this full copy of a liturgy which I experienced recently in a Christian Reformed Church:

Organ Prelude

Call to Worship

Silent Prayer

"Hear Our Prayer" (Organ)

Votum & Salutation

Psalter Hymnal No.

Reading of Law

Psalter Hymnal No.

Congregational Prayer


Psalter Hymnal No.

Scripture Reading


Closing Prayer

Psalter Hymnal No.



Moment of Meditation (Amen-Organ)

Organ Postlude

The structure of the first is highly articulate. At each point you can see what action is being performed; and if you reflect a bit, or read the '68 Report, you can see why the actions occur in that sequence. The second, at several points, contains remnants from a traditional Reformed liturgy, but without the context which originally gave those items their point. This is particularly clear at the point of the reading of the law. Traditionally the law was used in the Reformed churches either as a call to confession, or after confession as a guide to the Christian life. Here it functions in neither of these two ways. After the opening hymn the minister simply said, "Let us now listen to God's law"; and then, immediately after having read it, he announced a hymn which had nothing to do either with what preceded or with what followed. Here, then, is a good example of a liturgy in which it is unclear at a prominent point what liturgical action is being performed, and in which one thing just follows another without rhyme or reason. Since the Reformed liturgy has traditionally included the reading of the law, the people in this congregation would probably have been disturbed if it had not put in its appearance. So here it is. But no longer does it do either of the things that the reading of the law traditionally did in the Reformed liturgy; neither is it clear what else it does instead. An action-analysis of this liturgy reveals a serious breakdown.

But how can competence in liturgical matters be expected of you as a church musician? Well, it seems to me that an essential component in the training of every church musician is a good course in liturgy. In fact, however, I know of no college at all which locates itself in the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition that even so much as offers a course in liturgy, let alone requires it of all fledgling church musicians. That's a scandal. Until the scandal is removed, I strongly recommend to all of you that you read the 1968 Report of the Liturgical Committee of the Christian Reformed Church, if you haven't already done so.

But what do you as a church musician do when, having analyzed your liturgy, you find that it doesn't hold up? You try to get it changed, in as diplomatic a manner as possible. What other responsible course of action is there? And if you fail? Then obviously you work with what you have. But don't give up before you've tried!

And so at last I come to what you've all been waiting for-the whether, the where, and the what, of choirs and organs-whether we should use them in the Reformed liturgy, if so, where we should use them in the liturgy, and what we should have them sing or play. I begin with choirs. And let me say that here I am not talking about the use of a choir to lead the congregation in its singing, or even, on occasion, to "embroider" the congregation's singing. I think no one has any doubt about the value of that. My questions concern the choir's singing by itself, solo.

I have already remarked that normally the congregation presents its intercessions to God by someone leading it in those prayers. The leader formulates the intentions of the people. In Reformed churches, this leader is customarily the minister. But that's not necessary. Admittedly people do not generally think of the structure of the intercession as that of someone leading the congregation in itsprayers. They think of it rather as the minister's prayer, which the people overhear. They talk afterwards about "what the minister prayed for." But this is all wrong. It's not the minister's prayer. It's the people'sprayer of intercession on behalf of world and church, led by the minister or others.

I submit that the basic role of the choir is along the same lines. The role of the choir is not to sing its praises while the rest of us listen in. Nor, to go back to an earlier point, is the role of the choir to induce in us some religious emotions. The basic role of the choir is to lead us in the performance of one or another of our liturgical actions-that is, in one or another of the actions which consist in the people's address to God. The choir may lead us in our confession of sin, for example. But the choir doesn't confess for us. We confess. The choir merely formulates our intentions in song, in exactly the same way that the one who leads formulates our intentions at the time of our intercessions.

But is it legitimate for the choir thus to lead the people in one or another of its liturgical acts? Well, surely it is legitimate in general for one or more persons to lead the people in the performance of some one of their liturgical acts. That, after all, is what goes on in the intercessions, as we have just seen. So the only question over which there could be any dispute is whether such leadership may legitimately be accomplished by one or more members of the congregation singing the words rather than just saying them. And since you and I regard singing in church as legitimate, I don't see how we can answer "No" to this question. Of course, it might just be that for some of the people's actions it is legitimate for the choir to serve as leader, whereas for others, not. But I myself see no reason to draw any boundaries here. The principle I would suggest is this: The people of God may legitimately be led by the choir in the performance of each of its liturgical actions.

But though choirs may be legitimate, they may nonetheless be undesirable. And it is on the question of the desirability of sometimes using a choir to lead the congregation in one of its liturgical acts that the weight of our reflection must fall. The question of desirability is to be settled by considering whether we sometimes perform some liturgical action better if we are led by the choir. It's to be settled by considering whether the two purposes of the liturgy-edification of the people and acknowledgement of God's greatness-are sometimes better accomplished when people are led by choir. Here experience must be the teacher. And on the basis of experience I say most emphatically "Yes." Sometimes I have felt, felt deeply, felt to the point of tears, that an action of my congregation was better performed by our being led by a choir. It was done with more intensity, more festiveness, more zealousness, more celebrativeness, more.... Words fail me in trying to capture what it was about the leading of the choir on these occasions that enabled us to perform our actions better. More of our whole selves was involved, and involved more intensely.

Nonetheless, the history of the church makes a warning in order. Most of the actions of the people should most of the time be said or sung by the people themselves, not by the minister and not by the choir. Otherwise, the members of the people no longer see that these are their actions, whereby they express their faith. They begin to think of them as actions of the choir, or of the minister, and they begin to think of themselves as spectators at a performance. With fierce jealousy the people must guard its actions. Traditionally the Reformed service has opened with words, "Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made the heaven and earth." These words represent an action of the people, whereby the congregation expresses its dependence upon God. Yet traditionally the minister has said those words, not the people. The result has been, I submit, that most people do not even perceive them as expressing one of their actions. The same dangers of forgetfulness and obscurity attend the use of choirs. The Episcopal liturgist, Massey Shepherd, puts it like this: "In all liturgies, there are certain parts of the ritual that belong to the people-responses, creeds, hymns, such as the Sanctus or the Gloria.... When the congregations encourage or permit a choir to take over their own responses and hymns by elaborate musical settings beyond the reach of the average worshipper, they are forfeiting their privileges and responsibilities. They no longer participate in a liturgy; they are listening to a performance."5

In effect I have been suggesting an important condition on the use of choirs, a condition such that the use of a choir is desirable only if this condition is met. The condition is this: When the choir leads the congregation in the performance of one of its liturgical actions, in no way should the use of the choir distract the people from the liturgical action they are performing, nor make it unclear to them what that action is.

Some important rules of thumb follow from this general condition. For one thing, the music that the choir sings must not-either in its splendor, its squalor, or its unfamiliar style-call undue attention to itself. Secondly, the people must be able to catch the words that the choir is singing. Sometimes this will require that the words be printed out. And thirdly, if there is any chance of ambiguity, it should be stated in bulletin or announcement just which liturgical action it is that the choir is leading the people in performing. Don't just say "Anthem." That tells us nothing at all about the liturgical action in which the choir is supposed to be leading us. Specify the action.

I have said that the basic role of the choir is to lead the people in the performance of their actions of address to God. I see no reason for limiting the role of the choir to this, however. The choir can also find a place in the God-to-man direction of the liturgy. God's role as agent in the liturgy is accomplished by way of someone speaking on his behalf, as does the minister in the sermon, for example. Now some of the actions in which someone speaks on behalf of God are officially reserved to the ordained minister. Pronouncing the benediction is an example. Others are not so reserved. Any member of the congregation can be appointed to read Scripture. And it seems to me that in principle such actions as these may also be done by the choir-actions, that is, which structurally consist of God's address to the people and whose implementation is not reserved to the ordained minister. Once again, though, the existential question to which we must devote our attention is not so much the legitimacy as the desirability of having the choir perform this role. Here too experience must be the test. In my own experience I have sometimes felt that God did address the people more effectively when the choir spoke on his behalf. We were more effectively built up in the faith. The purposes of the liturgy were better accomplished.

I move now from the whether of choirs to the where of choirs. Where in the liturgy should the choir be used? In a way, this question has already been answered. If the role of the choir is to lead the people in the performance of one of their liturgical actions, then the choir should be used wherever in the liturgy it is judged that the purposes of the liturgy will be better achieved if the people are led by a choir. And if the role of the choir is to address the people on the behalf of God, then the choir should be used wherever it is judged that God would speak more effectively to the people through the choir than through speech by the minister or others. (Once again, actions officially reserved to the ordained ministry constitute an exception.) But this answer to the where question is so general as to be of little assistance. So let me make some more specific comments on where in the liturgy the choir will characteristically best fit.

Let me say in advance, however, that, without astonishing your congregation with endless surprises, you should by all means avoid falling into a dead routine. Use your imagination as to where in the liturgy on a given Sunday the choir can best be used. And also allow for the judgment that sometimes it would be best not to use it at all. Why should the fact that you have a choir in your church dictate that always you must find a place for it? Traditionally Lent was a period when the church self-consciously reduced its singing. It might be well for us to take hold of that tradition.

Most of us are aware of three great traditions of choral liturgical music-the Catholic Mass tradition, the Lutheran cantata tradition, and the Anglican anthem tradition. A glance at where in the liturgy each of these traditions made use of the choir may prove helpful to us in our own search. (The Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions also incorporated unison, monophonic chant into the liturgy. But here I am speaking just of polyphonic choir music.)

Most of the choral music of the Catholic Mass which has come down to us consists of settings of five fixed, invariant parts of the Mass-five sections from the so-called ordinary of the Mass: The Kyrie, the Gloria in excelsis, the Creed, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei. Here, then, is one major tradition for the placement of the choir in the liturgy. The choir sings some of the fixed, invariant text of the liturgy.

The Bach cantata tradition represents quite a different use of the choir. The Lutheran liturgy, then and today, has a lectionary-that is, a fixed cycle of readings from the Scriptures specified for each Sunday, following the church year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, etc. It was this church-year lectionary which governed Bach's use of his choirs. The cantata occurred between the Scripture reading and the sermon. And the texts Bach used were always thematically united with the Scripture readings for the day. Bach did not confine himself to setting to music the Scripture passages for the day, nor did he, in Catholic fashion, set the fixed text of the liturgy. Instead, he freely gathered texts from wherever he found them available, his principle of choice being simply that somehow the thoughts expressed be relevant to where the congregation was in the church year.

The Anglican anthem tradition represents yet a third use of the choir. By no means has the use of the choir in the Anglican tradition been confined to the anthem. Much of the fixed text of the Anglican liturgy has been set to choral music-both the propers, that part of the fixed text which varies in accord with the church year, and the ordinary, that part of the fixed text which never varies. But these settings have proved nowhere near as influential a part of the Anglican choral tradition as the Anglican anthem.

Intercessory prayers close out both the Anglican Order for Morning Prayer and the Order for Evening Prayer. And in both cases these intercessory prayers include a set of three collects. In the prayer book of 1662, following the text of these collects, there occurs, for the first time, this fateful rubric: "In Quires and Places where they sing, here followest the Anthem." Nothing was said about the text of the anthem, except that earlier it had been specified that no anthems were to be sung to the Virgin. And the liturgical function of inserting a choral piece within the sequence of the intercessory prayer is, to put it mildly, unclear. In the Calvin library there is an old commentary on the Book of Common Prayer in which an author Wheatley says about the placement of the anthem that,

The reason of its being ordered in this place is partly perhaps for the relief of the congregation, who, if they have joined with due fervour in the foregoing parts of the office, may now be thought to be somewhat weary.... (p. 159)6

Of these three ways of using the choir in the liturgy, that represented by the setting for the Mass, that represented by the Lutheran cantata, and that represented by the Anglican anthem, surely it is the last, the free text, liturgically uncommitted, Anglican anthem, which has most influenced us in, the Reformed and Presbyterian traditions here in America. It's not hard to see why. From the very beginning of the Reformed churches the church-year cycle of readings was discarded in favor of the so-called lectio continua. Thus Bach's practice of following the lectionary was, from the very beginning, irrelevant for us. Likewise, the founders of the Reformed churches, for reasons no one knows, discarded all the ancient responses and canticles from the liturgy, thereby making the practice of the Catholic composers irrelevant. The Gloria in excelsis disappeared, the Sanctus disappeared, the Agnus Dei disappeared. Calvin kept the Kyrie in Strasbourg; but when he went to Geneva, that too disappeared. With minor and prosy exceptions, the Reformed liturgy has no specified content, no specified words, only a specified structure. Thus it was that the free-floating Anglican anthem proved inviting for us. I think it is for the same reason, in part, that no tradition of choral composition has arisen among us. Even if our churches had not been opposed to the use of choirs, what could our composers have done? I submit that great choral traditions have emerged only when there was a considerable degree of fixity in the content of the liturgy. Our liturgy has little more than a bare-bone structure. Nothing there to set!

So what can we do with choirs today? Well, our new liturgy makes the strategy of the Catholic Mass tradition relevant to us. Look once again at the model liturgy of 1968, and notice that it incorporates a number of fixed responses of the people. Here, then, is scope for our composers. As the '68 liturgy comes into use, I look forward eagerly to the day when composers within our communion will create for us settings of the Gloria, of the Creed, of the Sanctus, etc., both settings which are appropriate for the congregation to sing, and settings which are appropriate for the choir to sing.

To give you some idea of how this might go, let me introduce you to a composition done by a member of my own congregation, Connie Huisman. It's for use in Pentecost, and it's a setting of our regular Pentecost liturgy at Church of the Servant, which in turn is a variant of the model '68 liturgy. Mrs. Huisman has integrated the minister, the congregation, a cantor, and the choir so that together they constitute a liturgical whole. No one could possibly feel here that the singing of the choir marks a halt in the liturgy. She has done what the Catholic composers did: The text which she has set for the choir is simply part of the ordinary of the liturgy. As her basic musical material she used the old plainsong melody for the Pentecost hymn, Veni Creator. (Included in an appendix are a few pages from' the beginning of the Pentecost liturgy and a few pages from near the beginning of the Lord's Supper. The congregation does not see the score for the choir's music.) I do earnestly hope that this way of using the choir will prove to be a sign of the future.

But what if the liturgy with which you work has almost no fixed content? Or what if, though it has some fixed content, no one has composed choral settings for it? What do you do then? Well, I think an adaptation of Bach's practice will prove the most satisfactory, most of the time. In preparation for the sermon, allow the choir to lead the people in meditation on the text for the day. Or alternatively, allow it to lead the congregation in meditation as a response to the sermon. In other words, integrate choir with text and sermon. Of course, since we don't have a lectionary, this means that you'll have to find out, several weeks in advance, what the minister has chosen as the theme and Scripture passage for his sermon!

But whatever you do, don't be afraid to use your imagination. And don't just insert an anthem into the liturgy, with liturgical function ambiguous and text unrelated to the rest of the liturgy. Out with special music!

Those were comments on the where of the choir in the liturgy. But as it turns out, I have discussed the where in such a way that the what has also been discussed-what the choir should sing. Or rather, I have discussed the what of the choir's words though not the what of the choir's music. What I have to say about the choir's music blends with what I have to say about the organ, however, so let me move on to that.

Two points about the use of the organ can be made very quickly. In the first place, though I am fully aware of the Orthodox practice, and the Mennonite, and the Reformed for about a century, of excluding all instruments from the liturgy, nonetheless I see no reason whatsoever why the organ should not be used to support the singing of the congregation. To those of you who are organists I want to say that sometimes I have felt that the singing of the congregation became an accompaniment to the loud and aggressive playing of the organ, rather than the organ being a modest support to the singing of the congregation. And that's to get things topsy-turvy. But in general, I see no reason to doubt the legitimacy of organ accompaniment.

I do though, and this is the second of my opening comments about the organ, question the organ's imperialism. No doubt, given its tonal and dynamic range, the organ is more satisfactory more of the time for supporting the singing than any other instrument. But on festive occasions, drums and trumpets are wanted. And on other occasions, softer instruments like violins and recorders. One of the most moving experiences of my life was to attend a service in Kenya, East Africa, where the singing was supported solely by a small percussion band. And, yes, we should not be afraid to sing a capella on occasion. You, the church musician, should ask, for each song to be sung by the congregation, what its tone, its mood, is; and then, in the light of the instrumental resources available to you, you should support the singing with the instruments whose timbre and dynamic range can best capture that tone-or alternatively, you should allow the singing to be unaccompanied.

The use of the organ becomes much more problematic when it moves out from accompanying the singing to become a solo instrument. Here I want to distinguish two uses. Sometimes the organ is used to accompany some liturgical action performed without words, such as in the offertory. And sometimes it is used all by itself, apart from any liturgical action, as in the prelude and postlude.

The liturgical action which takes place at the time of the offering is the presentation by the people to God of their gifts for the church's work. In small churches it works well for the people themselves to bring their gifts forward; and certainly that is symbolically significant. In large churches that becomes impossible. The gifts of the people must be collected from them in place. Either way, the offering can perfectly well be done in silence, the people meditating on the significance of what they are doing.

What rationale might there be for not doing it in silence, instead having the organ playing during their liturgical action? I fear the actual reason is usually that people cannot bear silence in the liturgy. Thus the organ provides background music, serving to blot out the painfulness of silence. This is not a legitimate reason. We must learn to accept and even to relish moments of silence in the liturgy. A second reason sometimes given for the organ offertory is that this represents the organist's offering of his or her gifts to God. This too seems to me not a legitimate reason. The liturgical action here is that of the people presenting their gifts to God for the work of the church. Now no doubt the organist should place her musical abilities in the service of God, just as I should place my philosophical abilities in his service. But the offering in the liturgy is hardly the place for that.

I can see only two reasons, interconnected ones, for playing instrumental music during the offering. One is to set an appropriate tone for this action, the other is to aid us in meditation on the significance of what we are doing. I myself prefer silence at this point. But if in the judgment of a congregation the use of instrumental music at this point helps to achieve those two goals of setting the appropriate tone and aiding in meditation, then fine. In my experience, the great danger in having instrumental music at this point is that, rather than aiding our meditation on the significance of our liturgical action, it distracts us to the music itself. If this is to be avoided, surely the music must be relatively modest in character.

Lastly, what about instrumental preludes and postludes? The thing to say first off, again, is that they are not necessary. There's nothing wrong with allowing the buzz of happy greetings to fill the air before the service begins, while some meditate for a moment, and then simply to open the service with a hymn or a call to worship. So too there's nothing wrong with closing the service with a hymn, or some words of benediction or dismissal, and then allow the people to exit with joyful conversation. Nonetheless, an instrumental prelude can function as does a good offertory. It can set a tone which is appropriate to the theme for that day. And secondly, it can aid the worshippers in their meditative preparation for worship. The instrumental postlude has a function rather like the first of these two. It can serve to express the tone of celebrative thankfulness on which any service of Christian worship should close. In short, apart from the prelude's function of aiding in meditation, it seems to me best to think of the prelude and postlude as creating an aural environment appropriate to the worship of the day. Just as banners can provide an appropriate visual setting, so instrumental music can provide an appropriate auditory setting.

How can prelude and offertory best accomplish the goal of aiding in appropriate meditation? In my judgment, there is no device better than that represented by the chorale prelude. Take some hymn which is familiar to the worshippers and whose words are appropriate to the day; then find an instrumental piece which in one fashion or another is an embroidery on the tune of that hymn.

I have several times over spoken of a piece of music as having a tone appropriate to one thing or another. I said that the tone of the offertory should be appropriate to the liturgical action of presenting to God our gifts for the works of the church. I said that the tone of the postlude should be appropriate to the spirit of celebrative thanksgiving which properly closes every service of Christian worship. I said that the tone of the prelude should be appropriate to the theme of the day. And now I can add that the tone of the choir's music should be appropriate to whatever liturgical action is being performed by way of the choir's leading. What do I mean when, over and over, I speak of a piece of music as having a tone appropriate to something?

Well, what lies behind those words is a theory of aesthetic fittingness, as I call it, which I have developed in a recent book of mine.7 Obviously here is not the occasion for me to expound that theory. Let me just indicate the bare bones of the idea, and then suggest how it is to be applied to the matters at hand. Suppose I draw for you a jagged line and an undulating line; and then ask which of these fits better with tranquility and which fits better with agitation. Everyone to whom I have ever presented this question says that the undulating line fits better with tranquility and the jagged line better with agitation. So too, if we compare a straight horizontal line with a straight vertical, everybody would say that the former fits better with tranquility and the latter with agitation. And to move to music, everybody would pair off tones whose pitch is at the interval of an octave, with tranquility, and tones whose pitch is at the interval of a second, with agitation.

What is going on in these cases, and others like them, is the following: Various of the qualities of reality come in ordered series, or as I sometimes call them, modalities. There is the pitch-series, the loudness-series, the speed-series, the tranquility/agitation-series, etc. Within each series, there are degrees of similarity among the various members of the series. But also across these series, there are degrees of similarity holding between series' members. And what I mean by fittingness or appropriateness is such cross-modal similarity. A number of psychological experiments have confirmed that, to a striking degree, our human judgments concerning such fittingness are cross-cultural. In all cultures studied, people agree that large in size goes with low in pitch, and small, with high. Likewise, they agree that fast goes with high in pitch, and slow with low.

And now back to the liturgy. Musical compositions have a tone, or character. And the tone of some music is more appropriate to confession than to praise, that is, it's more fitting to confession than to praise, whereas that of other compositions is more fitting to praise than to confession. So too, the character of some music is more fitting to Good Friday than to Easter; and that of other, vice versa. You as a musician must constantly choose your music with the fittingness of its character in mind. Listen for the tone, the character. And then ask: Does that fit the theme of the day, and does it fit the role in the liturgy which it will play.

I'm sure it was this phenomenon of fittingness which Calvin had in mind when he said, in the Preface to his 1545 Psalter, that:

Touching the melody, it has seemed best that it be moderated in the manner we have adopted to carry the weight and majesty appropriate to the subject, and even to be proper for singing in the Church.... Care must always be taken that the song be neither light nor frivolous; but that it have weight and majesty (as St. Augustine says), and also that there be a great difference between music which one makes to entertain men at the table and in their houses, and the Psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and his angels.

You organists, in choosing the tone of the music you will play, you choir directors, in choosing the tone of the music to be sung, have an awesome responsibility. For what you do influences the entire character of the meeting that takes place on that day between God and his people.

So far I have said not a word about musical style. The principles I have enunciated make no reference to style. They are neutral with respect to style. The first question to ask of music in the liturgy is whether it has the requisite fittingness to the actions of the liturgy, not whether it's in a style that we happen to like. The second is whether it is aesthetically excellent. Yet diversity of musical styles is something we all have to deal with. So let me close with two comments on musical style in the liturgy.

The first is this. We today live in a society of incredible musical pluralism. And not only does the music extant in our society come in an astounding diversity of styles, but music in each of these styles is readily available within the economic reach of almost everyone. Furthermore, no longer does anyone hold the view that there is one ideal, paradigmatic musical style to which all others, with greater or less success, attempt to measure up. We all acknowledge that there can be aesthetic excellence in every, or almost every, style, while at the same time we maintain our preferences among these styles. So each of us satisfies his more or less legitimate stylistic tastes during the week; and then on Sunday we are all thrown together in the liturgy of the church. What can the church musician do in this situation? What can he possibly do, confronted with this radical pluralism in musical tastes right within his own congregation?

He may and must insist on aesthetic excellence. He may and must insist that the music fit the liturgical actions. But given that music in different styles can satisfy these criteria, he cannot legitimately force his own tastes onto the congregation. I myself see no solution to this situation other than that of each person tolerating the other person's taste. What other solution is there? I sometimes think that nothing so much tests a congregation's love for one another as their preferences among musical styles. Music is love's great test.

But secondly, I think there will be a certain quality of style common to all music that fits the Reformed liturgy. It's the quality of simplicity. Over and over in the writings of Reformed people on the liturgy there comes to the fore the mention of simplicity-along with intelligibility and beauty.8 What is wanted is not lushness, splendor, magnificence, or complexity, but simplicity, sobriety, and measure. "A Calvinist aesthetic exists," says the contemporary English poet and critic, Donald Davie. He goes on to remark that:

`In nothing perhaps has Calvin been more misjudged than in the view that he lacked an aesthetic sense....' It was after all John Calvin who first clothed Protestant worship with the sensuous grace, and necessarily the aesthetic ambiguity, of song. And who that has attended worship in a French Calvinist church can deny that-over and above whatever religious experience he may or may not have had-he has had an aesthetic experience, and of a peculiarly intense kind? From the architecture, from church-furnishings, from the congregational music, from the Geneva gown of the pastor himself, everything breathes simplicity, sobriety, and measure-which are precisely the qualities that Calvinist aesthetics demanded of the art-object.... And so, even if we admit for the sake of argument that Calvinism denies sensuous pleasure, we encounter time and again the question, when faced with a Calvinistic occasion: do we have here a denial of sensuous pleasure, or do we not rather have a sensuous pleasure deployed with an unusually frugal, and therefore exquisite, fastidiousness? It is peculiarly of the nature of Calvinist art to pose this question.

The congregational singing of the Reformed churches represents an element of enormous vitality in the contribution of the people to the liturgy. Let us never allow it to slacken. And the Genevan Psalm tunes represent one of the great musical treasures of the Christian church. Let's resurrect them, while at the same time we sing a new song. But today I have the courage to hope for something more. I hope for composers among us who will turn their backs for a while on the lure of the concert hall, place themselves humbly at the service of the liturgy, recognizing that in the house of worship liturgy is master, and create for us a body of choral and instrumental music which fits the liturgy of the Reformed churches, and moves its worshippers to tears.

When will we begin to hear these new sounds, taking up the place reserved for the Reformed churches in that rich ecumenical composition which God's church sings on earth, as it practices for that New Day of everlasting praise? I think I hear some of them already.

Principles Enunciated for the Use of Choirs and Solo Organs

1. Liturgical music is not music for listening to, but music which serves the purposes of the liturgy.

2. All music in worship, including choir and organ, should be liturgical music, serving the actions and purposes of the liturgy.

3. Before the musician can apply principle (2) to specific works of music, he/she must perform anaction-analysis of the liturgy to be used.

4. The major use of the choir will be to lead the people in the performance of its liturgical actions.

5. It's legitimate for the choir to lead the people of God in the performance of any one of its liturgical actions.

6. It's desirable for the choir to lead the people in the performance of some one of its liturgical actions if the liturgy's purposes of edification and acknowledgment are better accomplished when the people are thus led.

It's desirable for the choir to lead the people only if the use of the choir does not distract the people from the liturgical action they are performing, nor make it unclear to them what that action is.

a. Rule of thumb: The music shall not call undue attention to itself.

b. Rule of thumb: The people must be able to catch the words the choir is singing.

c. Rule of thumb: If there's a chance of ambiguity, state what liturgical action it is that the people are performing under leadership of choir.

7. It's legitimate for the choir to speak on behalf of God in all actions except those reserved to the clergy.

8. It's desirable for the choir to speak on behalf of God at some point in the liturgy if the purpose of edification is thereby more effectively accomplished.

9. One important use to consider for the choir is to have it sing part of the fixed text of the liturgy.

10. Another important use to consider is to have the choir lead the congregation in meditation on the Scripture in preparation for the sermon, or in meditation after the sermon.

11. Silence during the offering is thoroughly appropriate. However, instrumental music can set a tone appropriate to the action of offering our gifts, and can aid us in meditation on the significance of that action. A given congregation may judge that an offertory is desirable for achieving those purposes.

12. Instrumental music before the beginning of the service is not necessary. However, it can set a tone which is appropriate to the worship of the day, and can aid in meditative preparation for worship. A given congregation may judge a prelude desirable for achieving these purposes.

13. Instrumental music after the service is not necessary. However, instruments can set a tone of joyful celebration appropriate to the conclusion of worship. A given congregation may judge a postlude desirable for achieving these purposes.

14. One of the best ways for instruments to aid in meditation is for the music to take as its theme an appropriate and familiar psalm or hymn.

15. The tone (character) of all the music in the liturgy should fit (be appropriate to) the theme for the day, and/or the action in connection with which that music is used.

16. If music in different styles satisfies the criteria of beauty and fittingness, then we must learn in love to tolerate our different tastes.

17. Intelligibility, beauty, and simplicity, should mark everything that occurs in the Reformed liturgy.


1. J. Gelineau, "Music and Singing in the Liturgy," in The Study of Liturgy, ed. Jones, Wainwright, and Yarnold (Oxford, 1978), p. 440.

2. It ought to be added, though, that this is not the whole of the liturgy's structure. What also occurs in the liturgy, or ought to occur, is the address of members of the people to each other. To take an example: The Passing of the Peace has traditionally been an important component in the liturgy, expressing the unity of the body. It goes way back to the New Testament church. In this action, clearly, members of the congregation address each other. More generally, in Col. 3:16 Paul speaks of "teaching and admonishing one another," and in Eph. 5:19 he speaks of "addressing one another in psalms and hymns."

3. Cf. these words of Howard Slenk: "All events in the service, then, must carry forward the action of worship. And if we are to have music, it must contribute to this forward motion by intensifying certain acts of worship for which we deem the mere spoken word insufficient. If we believe this, then we will not use music as a signal for telling people when to rise, walk, sing, talk, or open purses. We will not insist, for variety's sake, on special numbers, which usually have no connection with worship in progress. The use of music in such a trivial role reveals a lack of respect, for the integrity of worship as well as a failure to understand the ultimate seriousness of music as an art. Music in worship is not there to help the service go smoothly, or to entertain us. It is there to increase our awareness of the meaning of our relationship to God." Howard Slenk, Music: An Intrusion in Reformed Worship (Trinity Christian College Press, 1968), pp. 3-4.

4. Gelineau, op. cit., pp. 448-449.

5. Massey H. Shepherd, The Worship of the Church (Greenwich, Conn.: Seabury Press, 1952), p. 55.

6. Incidentally, the word "anthem" is derived from "antiphon." Traditionally an antiphon was a brief section from Scripture which framed the reading or singing of a Psalm (or biblical canticle). Eventually the antiphons expanded and pulled loose from their original position.

7. Art in Action, forthcoming from Eerdmans Publishing Company.

8. In 1559 Queen Elizabeth issued some Injunctions pertaining to the use of the new Prayer Book. There she allowed for the continuation of choirs in those churches which already had them, but said that the singing in the church should always consist of "a modest and distinct song," and that the contribution of the choir should be "in the best sort of melody and music that may be conveniently devised, having respect that the sense of the Hymn may be understood and perceived...." Here, surely, we have the three criteria of intelligibility, beauty, and simplicity. These three criteria are discussed in the great book by the Swiss Reformed liturgical scholar, J. J. von Allmen, Worship (Lutterworth Press, London, 1965).