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Singing a new song

Edward Dowler considers the Psalms, Augustine and anthropology, and calls for the safe restoration of congregational singing to our worshiping life.

I recently went to assist my diocesan bishop at the licensing of a new priest-in-charge in the parishes of Ore: a very deprived suburb of Hastings.  Music was played both by the organist and also through an electronic system.  But, in accordance with the current regulations, only the small church choir was allowed to sing.  Spontaneously, however, a wonderful thing happened that I expect has been replicated in churches around the country at the current time.  Although muzzled by their masks and visors, I became aware that sound was coming from the congregation: they literally could not stop themselves from echoing the tunes that were being played.  This was not some coordinated act of disobedience: they were aware of the rules and not deliberately seeking to disobey them.  But I came to realise that the song of the Christian community is literally irrepressible: it cannot be held back because God is its source and origin, and it seeks to outpour itself to God in return.  As the Psalmist expresses it:

‘He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.  Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.’ (Psalm 40.3)

Commenting on another psalm in a sermon to his congregation, St Augustine of Hippo remarks how the Psalmist’s words, Sing him a new song, sing skilfully to him in jubilation, reflects the experience of workers in the fields in rural north Africa.  They find themselves so caught up in happiness that they give vent to their deepest inner feelings in a non-verbal, or perhaps pre-verbal, song of joy: 

‘This is what acceptable singing to God means: to sing jubilantly.  But what is that?  It is to grasp the fact that what is sung in the heart cannot be articulated in words.  Think of people who sing at harvest time, or in the vineyard, or at any work that goes with a swing.  They begin by caroling their joy in words, but after a while they seem to be so full of gladness that they find words no longer adequate to express it, so they abandon distinct syllables and words, and resort to a single cry of jubilant happiness… it indicates that the heart is bringing forth what defies speech.’ (1)

As Augustine’s translator the late Sister Maria Boulding writes, ‘Iubilum (= jubilation) in classical Latin evokes rustic songs, mountain cries, whoops of joy, shepherds’ shouts’.  God has provided an irrepressible song that goes beyond what can ever be verbally articulated.

Augustine’s experience of jubilant workers in the field is fascinatingly in tune with the insights of the neuroscientist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist writing in his landmark work on the human brain The Master and his Emissary.  We naturally assume that humans first made up language so that they could communicate efficiently with one another and then, perhaps somewhat self-indulgently, invented some nice tunes to accompany their words.  But McGilchrist questions whether we have got this in the right order.  Examination of human skeletons from long before the time human language arose reveals that our ancestors had, by comparison with apes and monkeys, remarkably large thoracic vertebral canals supplying the nerves that allow control of the voice and the respiration needed for singing.  What is the explanation for this?  McGilchrist writes,

‘The most likely answer is a surprise, and requires a bit of a frame shift for most of us.  For the explanation of this sophisticated control and modulation of the production of sound, in the absence of language as we know it, has to be that it was for a sort of non-verbal language, one in which there was intonation and phrasing, but no actual words: and what is that, if not music?’ (2)

The weight of the evidence is that ‘music came first’, which is why the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, cited by McGilchrist, argues that ‘music has very ancient origins, long predating the evolution of language’.  If McGilchrist and Dunbar are right, music was thus the most fundamental form of communication: God put a song in our mouths long before we used them to speak.

Music is not a pleasant add-on, but deeply integral to our worshipping life, and indeed to our human physiology.  It has now been scientifically shown that singing in church is no more likely to cause infection than speaking, (3) especially when done from behind a mask – although the effectiveness of these is in any case debatable.  The song that God has put deeply within our hearts and within the structure of our bodies demands to be allowed to return to him in the overflowing praise of the heart.  My plea is that we should no longer be prohibited from setting it free.

The Venerable Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings in the Diocese of Chichester.


1) Exposition of Psalm 32.2.8, trans. M. Boulding, Vol 1, p.401, n. 30.
2) McGilchrist, p.102.

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