Many Christians are well used to having a choir sing in their church services and the singing of a choir has been a fixture of our worship at Faith Presbyterian Church since its organization in 1953. That is understandable as choirs feature in the Bible’s own description of divine worship. Choirs, with both men and women singers (Neh. 7:67; 2 Chron. 35:25), were organized for the worship of the temple and were placed under the direction of able musicians (1 Chron. 25). Choral singing was accompanied by instruments, indeed in the temple by a full orchestra, as is also indicated in the titles of various psalms (e.g. Ps. 6). From material provided in Chronicles and the psalms themselves, we learn that Heman, Asaph, and Jeduthun were directors of separate temple choirs (Heman’s choir, for example, was apparently known as the “Sons of Korah.”) The title, “For the Choirmaster” or “For the Director of Music,” attached to fifty-five psalms, indicates that psalms or anthems, whatever may have been their origin (e.g. Ps. 51), were collected and arranged for the use of the temple choirs.
The fact that an emphasis was placed on the temple singing being directed and accompanied by trained and skilled musicians indicates that part of the reason for having a choir was to offer particularly beautiful singing to the Lord, singing that was beyond the capability of the congregation itself. Much choral music, though we can hardly say how much, in the Old Testament and in Christian history since, was antiphonal, in which one choir responded to another, or one side to another (e.g. Neh. 12:24). In modern times the antiphonal effect has been incorporated into our polyphonic music, with voices singing different parts in harmony. Some of the most beautiful music in the world was written to be sung by the choirs of Christian churches.
All of this being so, it may come as a surprise to some that controversies have swirled around church choirs for centuries. In the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition choirs returned, in the teeth of stiff opposition, to Sunday worship only in the later 19th century. This development occurred generally at the same time that musical accompaniment was reintroduced to the church’s praise. (Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina, went through a stormy controversy over the introduction of a choir and instruments – highlighted by the padlocking of the cello by some conservatives! – before it finally secured an organ in 1856.)
From the Reformation onwards, the argument against choirs had largely been that they intruded on the congregation’s right of participation. This was a natural enough concern, given that congregational participation had diminished virtually to the vanishing point in much of medieval worship. This continued to be a particularly important argument in the Presbyterian tradition because, as a result of some early and unhappy developments in Presbyterian worship, singing was virtually the only participation left to the congregation. Since that time, in an effort to defend traditional Presbyterian worship against this “innovation,” a biblical/theological argument against choirs was developed. It took this form: choirs were part of the temple liturgy in the Old Testament; that liturgy has been done away with; choirs are not re-instated in the liturgical teaching of the New Testament; therefore, they are not to be used by Christian churches today.
There is nothing about that argument that I find remotely persuasive. Choirs are found before, during, and after the temple in the Old Testament. They are part of the temple worship, in the same way that prayer, praise, and sacrament are part of that worship, for reasons that in no way limit their use to a particular period in the history of salvation. The New Testament shows us what seem to be choirs singing in heaven, never says anything that could be taken to forbid or even discourage the use of choirs in worship, and, in any case, tells us comparatively little about how to construct a worship service, in largest part, no doubt, because that instruction had been so comprehensively given in the Old Testament. The Bible is in favor of choral singing as a part of worship.
There have been and are today no doubt churches in which choirs do supplant the congregation’s own singing. But, as the Bible itself shows us, in a properly ordered worship, both choir and congregation have a proper role. The great value of a choir, from biblical times to the present day, has been its ability, still more than the congregation’s, to glorify the words of worship with the beauty of music. Few Christians have not had the experience of being stirred by the beauty of a sacred text sung well by a choir as part of a service of worship. In fact it was precisely the beauty of music well sung and the power of words when set to such music that tempted the church at times in her history to use the choir to such an extent that it supplanted the congregation’s own voice of praise.
Choirs can cause other problems. If they are composed of poor singers or are poorly schooled and directed, the congregation is not helped in its worship but finds itself obliged to endure an alien element. Further, the music chosen for church choirs to sing may not fit the musical training or taste of a congregation and so leave the people behind. Musicians do not always have the same tastes or interests as a congregation, though congregations, of course, should expect to have their tastes educated and elevated over time.
Choirs are meant to animate worship, not distract from it. Choirs are, in the Bible and in all serious Christian liturgical theology, the voice of the people. They belong with the people, therefore, in the architecture of the church. The modern, largely American, innovation of a large choir facing the congregation, sitting above and behind the table and the pulpit, singing to rather than on behalf of the congregation, has contributed significantly to the idea of the congregation as spectators rather than worshippers themselves. The voice of the choir is to be taken into the heart and made one’s own expression, very much as the prayer of one who leads the congregation in prayer.
Here at Faith Presbyterian we add the choir’s voice to the congregation, with the latter singing much more than the former; we place the choir within the congregation by placing it in the balcony; and we choose a selection of anthems, whether ancient or modern, that are accessible to a congregation like ours. We have avoided the custom of an “anthem” to be sung by the choir at some customary point in the service, as if an anthem, in and of itself, had a place or purpose in the liturgy, and instead use the choir to articulate the congregation’s own voice at certain points in the liturgy, especially the lifting up of our hearts to the Lord at the beginning of worship, the confession of our sins, and the prayer or spiritual reflection that concludes our worship just before we leave the sanctuary.