- Revd Rob Smith
Singing and Not-singing in a Covid season
Of all the restrictions necessitated by the COVID pandemic, one of the most frustrating, at least for most Christians, is not being able to sing together—either because we’re unable to meet together or because it’s not deemed safe for us to do so even if we are able to be together. Of course, not being able to sing together hasn’t killed us, and it won’t. But it has deprived and diminished us and, understandably, is deeply painful to many.
So, like the writer of Psalms 42-43, we are right to lament our inability to sing together as God’s gathered people—to sing as Scripture exhorts us to do and our very own hearts long to do. We have lost something significant—something that may not be of the esse of the church (vital for its being) but is certainly of the bene esse of the church (vital for its well-being). The loss is profound.
Why is that?
As I tease out at length in my book, Come, Let Us Sing, it’s because singing together is a very important way of doing a number of very important things. It’s a way of praising God together, a way of praying to God together and it’s a way of proclaiming God’s word together—both to ourselves and to each other.
Singing, of course, is not the only way of doing these things—we can praise, pray and proclaim by speaking—which, thankfully, we are still able to do (whether we’re sharing space or meeting via screens). But singing is a unique way of doing these things and a powerful way of doing them together.
For by combining music and words, emotion and cognition, thoughts and feelings, singing not only integrates us as individuals—helping us to feel truthful thoughts and think faithful feelings—but it unites us together as a community—helping us to glorify God with one voice and to strengthen each other by confessing one hope, one faith, one Lord. As Steven Guthrie writes, there is “an analogy of form between the sound of people singing together and the unity to which the church aspires.”
Singing together, then, helps us fulfil the three vital purposes of gathering as the church of Jesus Christ—praising, praying and proclaiming—and, in the process, achieves two vital effects—personal spiritual integration and corporate spiritual unification. No wonder we’re missing it!
However, the news is not all bad.
As we’ve already noted, it is not the case that these purposes and effects are unable to be achieved at all without singing. They clearly can be. We can still praise, still pray and still proclaim in speech. But when it comes to song, it’s going to be the one to the many (a soloist) or, perhaps, the some to the many (a small group), rather the many to the many (the whole congregation). And, of course, if we’re meeting online, we can all sing at once, even if we can’t hear each other—unless we’re game enough to all unmute (which, speaking from experience, is not something I’d recommend).
What’s more, whether we are sharing space physically or sharing screens digitally, we can still experience personal integration and corporate unification as we hear God’s word synchronously and respond together with repentance and faith, confession and prayer, thanksgiving and praise.
In addition, if we are able to gather, humming together (which we can do safely) while, at the same time, seeing, hearing and meditating on the words being sung to us is actually very valuable. In fact, some of us (myself included) have found that we’re paying even more attention to the words we’re hearing precisely because we’re not singing them.
This is not entirely surprising. Sensory distraction has always been one of the dangers of singing, which is why John Wesley once advised believers to “attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually.”
The ideal, then, is to engage our minds, hearts and voices at the same time. But given that we can’t do the third of these at the moment—at least not in the way we’d like to and not when we’re together—my suggestion is that we see this season as a time of training; a time for honing our musical musing skills (that is, our ability to engage simultaneously with tune and text) so that when we can sing together again we will be all the more able to faithfully articulate with our voices and meaningfully meditate with our minds at one and the same time.
Let me add one final thought about something else you can learn to do (or do better) during this season. Learn to engage your body—somehow, someway. It’s the way God designed us. Hearing and making music and song is a somatic experience. That’s why some of us like to move with the music or play a rhythm on our legs or claps our hands or hold our hands together or lift them in the air. Such bodily actions are not only thoroughly biblical but, according to John Calvin, have a three-fold use:
The first is that we may employ all our members for the glory and worship of God; secondly, that we are, so to speak, jolted out of our laziness by this help. There is also a third use in solemn and public prayer, because in this way the sons of God profess their piety, and they inflame each other with reverence of God.
So, in this time of restriction and frustration—as we follow the advice of our governing authorities and curb our freedom out of love for our neighbours—let us not squander the opportunity to develop our ability to engage our ears in listening, our minds in understanding, our emotions in feeling and our bodies in moving, all as we either sing or hum our hearts out to the glory of God and for the good of our brothers and sisters in Christ—even if, for now, they can only see us and not hear us.
Remember: this present season is not permanent. So let’s prepare ourselves for the season that is to come!
Rob Smith lectures in systematic theology and ethics at Sydney Missionary & Bible College in Australia, is the Assistant Director of Ministry Training & Development for the Anglican Diocese of Sydney and serves as an honorary assistant minister at St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral in Sydney. He is married to Claire, and they have an adult son and daughter in law. He is the author of Come Let Us Sing, published by the Latimer Trust.