Teenage readers of Higher Things may not remember a time before chanted services, especially if your pastor graduated from the seminary within the last 15 years. Even the youngest of us pastors and parents, on the other hand, can recall a time when fully chanted services were almost non-existent in Lutheran churches. Chanted psalms and prayers were virtually unheard of. That’s not to say that there was no singing. The congregation sang hymns and liturgical responses, but in the majority of congregations, the pastor spoke all of his parts, in part because only the responses were set to music in The Lutheran Hymnal (1941).
Now known by many as the “old” hymnal, Lutheran Worship (1982) made strides to re-introduce chanting in the early eighties, and since then congregations have grown more and more accustomed to the practice, though many still see chanting, like making the sign of the cross, as verboten (forbidden) for Lutherans. Lutheran Service Book (2006) has continued and in many ways expanded what was begun in Lutheran Worship, providing chants for the pastor, chant tones for the Psalms and for the prayers in the Divine Service and Daily Prayer Offices. Now it is not uncommon, especially at Higher Things Conferences, to hear the pastor chant not only his parts of the service, but the Collects, Psalm verses, and in some places even the lessons.
It is hard to say with any precision why the Lutheran Church has seen such a resurgence of chanting in America in recent years. Perhaps one of the easiest explanations for it is a simple fact that we can. God’s Word neither commands nor forbids the chanting of prayers, psalms, or other parts of the Christian service. There is certainly nothing unbiblical about it. Throughout the centuries Christians have joyfully chanted Psalms and Hymns, following the advice of the blessed Apostle St. Paul to the Colossians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). Early Christians were not doing anything new when they sang psalms and hymns during the service but were doing what believers had always done.
Another likely reason for the return to chanting among us is the realization that chanting no more makes one a Roman Catholic than does reading the Epistle or the Gospel in the Church. When Protestant Christianity made its way into the New World, it did not leave its anti-Catholic sentiments behind. Following the lead of their Puritanical neighbors, many of our Lutheran ancestors who came to North America utterly rejected anything that resembled a Catholic service, including chanting.
Happily, there were a few Lutherans who escaped this prejudice, like C.F.W. Walther, the first president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Walther refused to let criticism of chanting by Lutheran pastors stand, writing in Der Lutheraner (pre-cursor to the Lutheran Witness): “If you insist upon calling every element in the Divine Service “Romish” that has been used by the Roman Catholic Church, it must follow that the reading of the Epistle and Gospel is also “Romish”; Indeed, it is mischief to sing or preach in church, for the Roman Church has done this also…”
Lutherans who are opposed to chanting might be surprised to hear that several of the chants used in our services today were composed by Luther himself. Like many theologians and pastors before him, Luther understood the gift that God had given in music, echoing the long-held belief that “next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.” If your pastor chants the Words of Institution during the Communion service, you can thank not Rome, but Luther.
The common practice of Luther’s day was for the Words of Christ to be said inaudibly by the priest, and Luther believed that the whole church should hear those words. And what better way to make them heard than to set them to music? So it was Luther who arranged the chant that is commonly used for Christ’s words instituting the Sacrament of the Altar. Not only did Luther compose chants for the Words of Institution, he did so also for the Epistle and Gospel readings, and allowed for the Creed to be sung as well in his Deutsche Messe (German Mass). No one can say that Luther was opposed to chanting.
Is chanting absolutely necessary for a valid celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or is it somehow more pleasing to God than speaking? Not at all! There are a time and a place for both in Christian worship. Whether you chant or speak God’s Word or prayers to God, what matters above all is faith. Chanting does not make one any more of a Christian than anyone else, or any less of one for that matter. There are, however, several advantages to chanting that pastors and congregations are beginning once again to acknowledge. Some of these are explained by Rev. David Petersen in the Liturgy and Hymns booklet for a 2003 Higher Things Conference: “Chanting is meant to make the words more distinct and easier to hear. It also lends beauty to the service. It helps to set Divine Words apart from the everyday, secular words, and ceremonies. The music is deliberately simple. It is intended to carry the words, not to interpret them. That is part of what distinguished chanting from singing” (p. 4).
Furthermore, chanting helps the congregation slow down and recite Psalms in unison, rather than having three or four people at the end of the psalm while the rest are still in the middle. Chanting also tends to be easier on the pastor’s voice and makes it easier for one to project. Chanting also aids in the learning process. Think of all the song lyrics you know. I’ll bet it is easier to recall those lyrics when you sing them than when you just try to speak them. It is the same with Holy Scripture. Set it to music, and suddenly you just made it that much easier to remember it!
Inevitably you will have this experience at some point in your life: you bring a friend to church and after the service, he or she says to you, “Why did your pastor sing everything? Isn’t that what Catholics do?” To which you can respond: “Yes. So is reading the Epistle and Gospel, singing, preaching, and praying.” And then, if you really want to sound intelligent, you can say in the (incorrectly quoted) words of St. Augustine: “He who sings prays twice.” Happy chanting!
by The Rev. Paul L. Beisel