O Sing unto the Lord a New Psalm

Page from the psalter in the Bible

I’m always a little sad when I have to recite a psalm in worship instead of singing it. I realize that for some frequent services, like the Daily Office, it’s not always possible to sing the psalms, much less the entire service on a regular basis, aside from Sundays. I do understand the practical aspects of worship planning. But the psalms really are meant to be sung! They are, after all, our Biblical hymnal, and they are important enough to be included in their entirety in the Book of Common Prayer. And yet there can be a fear—perhaps unfounded—that small congregations just won’t be able to handle the singing of psalms at the Sunday Eucharist.

On the contrary, there are some simple ways to introduce psalm singing to congregations that do not have a history of singing the psalms. It takes some creativity, initiative, education, and pastoral guidance, but it can be done. The beauty of psalm singing is that there is a great deal of variety in how one can sing the psalms. Here are some options.

  1. The simplest way to begin singing anything is to do just that: sing it. Even if this means singing on a monotone, the intensity and aural fluidity of singing elevates seemingly ordinary words to a new height. If your congregation struggles to sing well, this may be the way to go.
  2. If you have a capable choir and the congregation as a whole does not sing well, there are several options. The choir itself can sing the psalm on behalf of the congregation. The assembly is indeed still participating and praying through the voices of the choir. Additionally, there is a whole range of responsorial psalmody out there. On the Anglican end of things, Peter Hallock’s Ionian Psalter is a notable example. The heavy lifting of this type of psalm singing lies with the choir, but the congregation still participates. Similarly, the collection of gradual psalms edited by Bruce Ford offers a way for a choir to sing plainsong settings of psalm verses with congregational refrains interspersed throughout. Ford’s edition adapts the former versions of gradual psalms, which were not designed for the Revised Common Lectionary. Ford has also argued that, according to ancient Church practice, the psalm verses have always been sung by soloists in the choir, with antiphons interspersed throughout for the full assembly.[1] This is yet another way in which the gradual psalms could be sung, allowing the congregation to focus their attention on the words of the psalm verses and to respond with antiphons. If your parish is fortunate enough to have strong volunteer singers or paid staff singers, allow their God-given instruments to proclaim the psalm verses.
  3. Simplified Anglican Chant is a common means of chanting psalms in many Episcopal parishes. The brainchild of Robert Knox Kennedy, Simplified Anglican Chant allows for a much simpler way of singing psalmody than traditional Anglican Chant. There are tunes for use in the service music edition of The Hymnal 1982, many of them by Kennedy himself. It also might be a fun project for a music director to experiment with composing simple tunes with interesting harmonies. This prevents some of the monotony that can occur with Simplified Anglican Chant. Moreover, William Bradley Roberts has a whole collection of Simplified Anglican Chant tunes based on well-known hymn tunes, available from St. James Music Press.
  4. Finally, there is, of course, traditional Anglican Chant, both full/double (two psalm verses for each statement of the chant tune) and half/single chants (one psalm verse for each statement of the chant tune). There are many relatively easy versions of Anglican Chant tunes in the service music edition of The Hymnal 1982, as well as within the public domain. For the average congregation, half/single chants, in particular, are absolutely doable.

These are only a few common ways of singing psalmody, whether at the Eucharist or Office. The key to successful implementation of psalm singing in a parish that has typically not sung psalms is education. Explain the importance of singing the psalms. Explain how to read the pointing for Anglican Chant or plainsong psalmody. Offer workshops on psalm singing. And make sure to vary the tunes on occasion. Singing one Simplified Anglican Chant tune for an entire liturgical season will not be edifying or interesting. I recommend having a stock repertoire of a fixed number of tunes that your congregation can handle. Repeat the same tune for a few weeks. Or even better yet, have your congregation learn different tunes at a workshop (or before Sunday liturgies over a period of weeks), and then make the effort of matching the affect of each tune with the text of the psalm. At their best, chant tunes should convey the moods of the psalms themselves.

In short, don’t take the easy way out! Coax your congregation into singing the psalms. It can be done, and it can be done well. There is much room for creativity and education. This is a prime opportunity to teach your congregations about music and the Bible. Don’t pass up the golden opportunity to let your congregation fall in love with the Bible’s own hymnal.

[1] Bruce Ford, “Singing the Psalms” The Journal of the Association of Anglican Musicians (Vol. 25, no. 5: May/June 2016): 9.

The Rev. Dr. Kyle Babin is administrative assistant for the Center for Liturgy and Music at Virginia Theological Seminary.

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One thought on “O Sing unto the Lord a New Psalm

  1. Another terrific resource is “A Hymntune Psalter,” a collection for the three year cycle by Carl Daw and Kevin Hackett, published by Church Publishing. The choir sings the verses to a psalm tone (supplied) and the congregation sings a refrain after most verses. The refrains are from the lesson inserts and are set to familiar hymn tunes (hymn #s also supplied). Great for the choir and easy for the congregation. We have used this collection at Emmanuel, Middleburg, with a small choir and small congregation, for several years.

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