When the church buildings were able to reopen earlier this year and we returned to worship in person, to begin with, singing was not allowed. I don’t think I was the only one who was a little confused by some of the government directives at the time. In the summer, as England headed to the Euro final, thousands of people sang enthusiastically from the stands at Wembley Stadium, but on Sunday small, socially distant congregations were asked to remain silent.
Saint Augustine would have said that the one who sings prays twice. Researchers can’t find any trace of this, but it’s a fascinating thought. Now that we are allowed to sing again, I have reflected on the power of singing, how I missed it, and how it intensifies speaking and prayer. I am thinking primarily of the song of praise, but I cannot help but also think of Strauss’s Last Four Songs or Leonard Cohen’s last album.
When we sing, we pray twice because, first, we pay more attention to the lyrics. We shape and taste every syllable in the ebb and flow of melody and meter. When there is harmony too, each word is enlarged. You hear and experience layers and even underground strata of meaning. I think of the deep, resonant bass of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil. We hear it in our intestines as well as through our ears. In unison with other voices, we pray 100 times and become one voice.
One of the highlights of my Christmas was my mom singing every year in Scratch Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall. The Covid opposes it. But it was a fabulous experience: hundreds gathered for the sole purpose of singing Handel’s wonderful music. Music changes us. It amplifies and broadens our praise. He brings joy to our prayer. Plus, singing is good for you! Earlier this year, Opera North published 10 Reasons Why. Here are a few of them. Singing releases serotonin and dopamine, the “happiness chemicals” that improve your mood. It increases lung capacity. And good, deep breathing is one of the best and cheapest ways to beat stress. Opera North conductor Oliver Rundell says, âGet away from the rest of the world. Enjoy the physical sensation of inhaling and creating a note with your body. Maybe that’s why we pray twice when we sing. Our whole body is involved.
On Christmas Eve the Angels sang.
Much like the crowd at Wembley, song is the only language that will get the job done. Unfortunately, outside of church and football, community singing doesn’t have much of a place in our culture. But we still want to. Isn’t that one of the reasons Christmas carol services continue to gain popularity? These are the only repertoire of songs that many of us still know; and this facilitates membership.
But it’s not just that. It is the particular song that we sing at Christmas, the song of the angels: peace on Earth, good will to all. This song speaks to the human heart and lifts our hearts and voices to pray as well, brings us back to Bethlehem and the mystery of God among us, re-tuning our hearts to the no longer elusive wavelength of heaven. And what do we expect from this Christmas, if not peace on Earth? We pray for peace with the earth as we go through our climate crisis. We pray for peace with one another in our families and communities, but also for the fragile shipments of human life that cross the Channel. This song is a song of hope and despair and, pointing to Christ, shows us how we need to change and where help is available. He invites us to join in. It is a promise for all life, for all the earth and for all of our being.
If I had been at the Royal Albert Hall this year listening to Messiah, I would be waiting for my favorite passage, that sudden change of speed in the Allelujah choir where the choir in a magnificent voice declares: “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. The text of the book of Revelation is developed. It is celebrated. It is the hope and the meaning of Christmas multiplied by the song.
Stephen Cottrell is Archbishop of York