(NEWS ITEM: Please be in prayer for the 80th General Assembly of our sister denomination the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which will convene beginning tomorrow, Wednesday, June 5th, at 7:00 pm. Besides the treatment of other weighty matters, this meeting will include the release of the psalm section of the proposed URC/OPC joint Psalter Hymnal. Pray that the Lord would grant wisdom and insight to those charged to make decisions regarding this important songbook, and that he would allow this “ecumenical opportunity of a generation,” as one OPC minister has termed it, to bear plentiful fruit.)
Here in the United Reformed Churches in North America, it’s entirely possible you do. It’s also entirely possible you don’t. And it’s entirely possible you feel strongly about it either way. Quite an explosion ensued when a similar question was asked not too long ago in a Reformed discussion group. A stranger to the practice of the URCNA might well ask, “Why all the controversy?”
The primary objection to the use of a choir in the worship service is that it tends to violate the dialogical principle which guides our Reformed worship services. The principle is simple: God speaks, we respond. There are only two parties in the equation—the Lord, who speaks to us through the ministry of the Word and sacraments, and the congregation, which offers up songs, prayers, and gifts in thankful reply. In this system it is difficult, though not necessarily impossible, to justify the existence of a choir in a corporate worship service.
Assessing the ecclesiological implications of choirs in worship is far above my capabilities at this point, and the fact that so many learned men have been unable to reach an agreement on the topic shows that it can’t be resolved simply. But I would like to approach the question from a slightly different and more practical perspective, one taken by the authors of the excellent volume The Revised Church Order Commentary.
Revs. Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma undertook the writing of this commentary on the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in 1941 to help explain to ministers, elders, and interested laypersons the proper functioning of this group of churches. The Revised Church Order Commentary was published in 1967 to coincide with the extensive revision of the CRC’s Church Order in 1965. And since the Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America is completely silent regarding choirs, this resource is probably one of the best and most applicable to which we can turn.
Article 52 of the 1965 CRC Church Order, which directly addressed the issue of choirs, read as follows:
a. The consistory shall regulate the worship services.
b. The consistory shall see to it that the synodically-approved Bible versions, liturgical forms, and songs are used, and that the principles and elements of the order of worship approved by synod are observed.
c. The consistory shall see to it that if choirs or others sing in the worship services, they observe the synodical regulations governing the content of the hymns and anthems sung.
(These principles are reflected somewhat less explicitly in Article 38 of the United Reformed Churches’ present Church Order, which states: “The Consistory shall regulate the worship services, which shall be conducted according to the principles taught in God’s Word: namely, that the preaching of the Word have the central place, that confession of sins be made, praise and thanksgiving in song and prayer be given, and gifts of gratitude be offered.”)
What points of application does this article make as to the use of choirs? First of all, Van Dellen and Monsma point out that “the very wording of the provision under consideration, as may be noticed, is simply permissive…And if [choirs] do [sing], then the consistories shall see to it that the pertinent synodical regulations are adhered to.” In other words, the Christian Reformed Church did not forbid the existence of choirs in worship, but it did provide a guard and limit on their use. The authors of the Commentary note that Article 52 also allows soloists and small groups to “render special song numbers in the worship services,” provided the same restrictions are applied.
Back in 1930 the CRC had actually adopted a resolution which, though it did not condemn choirs outright, cautioned consistories from using them indiscriminately, for the following reasons:
1. The danger exists that congregational singing shall be curtailed.
2. If the choir sings separately there is the difficulty of maintaining the principle of Article 69 of the Church Order [which states that only the psalms and the synodically-approved hymns, i. e. the contents of the Psalter Hymnal, may be sung in worship].
In cases where choirs exist or shall be introduced, synod insists that only those psalms or hymns shall be sung which are approved by Article 69 of our Church Order; or such anthems, which contain only the exact words of portions of Scripture.
To many of us here in the URCNA, these synodical restrictions may sound unduly harsh. Why such concern over what a choir sings? Does its repertoire really need to be limited to the Psalter Hymnal or excerpts from Scripture? Doesn’t its music ultimately help the congregation as we together lift our hearts in praise to the Lord?
Van Dellen and Monsma give two principal consequences of the use of choirs and soloists which the Christian Reformed Church feared. First, many of these musical offerings are of the type which simply “do not fit in the framework of our worship services and which do not edify the worshipers.” What percentage of these selections might be prepared with no thought at all given to the dialogical principle of worship mentioned above? Even though we would recoil in horror from saying it out loud, too often our soloists tend to become performers and our choirs tend to give concerts. Suddenly the dialogue between God and his people is broken, even unintentionally, by the awkward intrusion of a third party—an awkwardness that is exemplified in the uncertain smattering of quickly-smothered applause from the pews at the end of the “performance.” Should we really be faced with this situation on a regular basis in corporate worship?
Second, the authors simply call our attention to the fact that “these extra and special numbers are very hard to control as to their doctrinal soundness.” It is a strange phenomenon, but a true one, that an unsound song is much more likely to be sung first by a soloist or choir than by the congregation. It is, as Van Dellen and Monsma admit, an area in which Scriptural accuracy is much more difficult to regulate than in simple congregational singing.
What is the solution to the perennial problem of the church choir? Can this tricky element of worship be effectively redeemed, or ought it to be eliminated entirely? Although I don’t have a simple answer to the question, in the second half of this article I’ll try to explore some practical ideas that can help individuals and congregations reach a conclusion.
The excerpts quoted here are from The Revised Church Order Commentary by Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969 (third printing), pp. 205, 206. See also The Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America.