Discrepancies as They Relate to the Restoration of Congregational Singing in Orthodox Christian Worship
by Mark Bailey
Leaders in the various branches of Orthodox church in America have begun to re-examine and, to a certain extent, re-introduce congregational singing into liturgy. As a result. choir directors are beginning to choose, in many cases, simpler musical settings for liturgical components which seem to lend themselves well to congregational participation. Many reasons for this movement exist, including the motivation to engage the congregation more actively and sustain their interest more consistently in weekly liturgical performance. For whatever reasons, such a noble and essential goal is welcome, since liturgy domiinated by the choir strips the congregation of its right to participate actively as essential members of corporate worship. Unfortunately, the way in which this goal is currently approached and maintained, without due process of research and discourse, reveals flawed foundational perceptions, which are antithetical to liturgy. While already initiating certain elements of congregation singing at various levels without uniformity or agreement, the Church has so far failed to answer two simple, yet critical, questions: Why is congregational singing in worship necessary rather than preferred, and what particular historical or present tradition of worship may serve as a model for its restoration?
Constructed and applied answers. such as the aforementioned idea of needing to engage the congregation more actively to promote liturgical interest and popularity, represent superficial approaches to the issue. Putting aside preoccupations with immediately practical or sociological considerations. one realizes that only a single source is available by which to build a coherent argument: that source is liturgy. And indeed liturgy is the answer. Liturgical focus promotes the study and consideration of liturgy beyond its present condition and allows one to discover liturgy’s goals and priorities. Concerning congregational participation specifically, an evolutionary analysis of liturgical structure past and present reveals the foundational answer so urgently needed: that congregational singing is truly necessary because it is inherently part of liturgical structure; that is to say, in worship it represents the norm. As a result, liturgical structure itself, as opposed to various modes of its celebration, is the appropriate model and format for the restoration of congregational singing.
When examining the scripts of the Orthodox services. one realizes that liturgy as drama casts, with seeming spontaneity, a principal role for the gathered assembly, as it also casts specific roles for the musicians and the celebrants. The combination of these roles offers a logical sense of balance to the way in which the gathered faithful serve. In some traditions, however, the role of the assembly has been nearly, or in some cases totally, obliterated by a complex set of historical, ecclesiastical, and extra-liturgical events, whose explanations unfortunately reach beyond the scope of this paper. Nevertheless, suffice it to say that the establishment of liturgy as the sole consideration for congregational singing is foundational, historical, logical. and therefore the central point of the argument.
Lacking an acute awareness of this quality of influence, the status quo found in Orthodox church in America indicates a lack of uniformity in liturgical celebration. Three general conditions describe the situation. The first condition appears in churches where the choir assumes responsibility for all liturgical utterances not appointed to the celebrants. Reflecting the Western influenced Slavic liturgy of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, the choir sings all litanies, responses. refrains, and ecclesiastical texts. The congregation, as a result, remains silent throughout the service. The second condition one finds seems to be, at first glance, the opposite case, where the congregation. as a whole, assumes responsibility for all musical settings and responses. In this form of so-called full congregational singing, the gathered assembly is in fact transformed into the choir, and, therefore, this situation represents nothing more than an extreme example of the first condition. The third condition is found in churches where the congregation acts as the appointed singers of the grand and familiar hymns of the Divine Liturgy i.e. the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and perhaps “Holy God,” in addition to a popular troparion or two. The basic premise is that the congregation should sing the liturgy’s ordinary texts, while the choir takes charge of the proper texts. Although unique historical circumstances may serve as precedents for each condition, a critical examination of liturgical structure and format, in history and presently, also unequivocally indicates that not one of these conditions is, in essence, liturgically accurate.
To further this analysis and reach the heart of the matter, it is necessary to clarify essential terminology. To begin, one should understand that the congregation is comprised of the gathered assembly of worshippers, the choir and the celebrating clergy. Often, however, the choir and clergy must serve separate functions, leaving the gathered assembly, in these cases, to consist of worshippers only. The choir, on the other hand, is made up of those who sing for the church in performance of a liturgical music function; the choir may consist of a group engaged in part-singing, a group of cantors, or a solo chanter. In simplest terms, the choir must prepare for singing at services, whereas the congregation may enter and perform its role without musical rehearsal per se.