To Sing or Not to Sing Communion Hymns

People receiving Communion

Recently, CLM director Ellen Johnston did some crowd-sourcing on the Episcopal Church Musicians Facebook page, asking the following question: “Tell me about communion hymns in your parish. Do people sing them? If not, why is that? What have you found to be successful?” This provocative question elicited a wide variety of responses. Some said that the congregations they served did sing (audibly!) during communion. However, a number noted that they found communion hymns difficult to pull off, at least in terms of hearty congregational participation. Of course, there is no one “right” way to offer music during communion, but it is at least worth exploring some various options. Based on the responses received, as well as observations in a number of parishes, here are some ways to think about music during communion.

1) Schedule a series of 2-3 hymns (based on congregational attendance) that cover the amount of time needed for the administration of communion. It’s important to note that the majority of responders to Ellen’s post said that they found this type of hymn-singing during communion to be rather ineffective, largely due to the practical aspects of getting up to receive the Sacrament.

2) Program a simple piece of music that is repetitive in nature and easily memorizable, so that parishioners can sing while they proceed to receive communion. One example would be music from the Taizé community.

3) Plan one communion hymn that functions as a post-communion or ablutions hymn. This hymn would be sung after the majority of people have received the Sacrament and would theologically be a response of thanksgiving for receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, while also practically providing music during the ablutions.

4) Schedule no hymn and have the organist improvise during communion or play a composed organ piece. The focus could be meditative reflection on reception of the Eucharist.

5) Have the choir sing the communion minor proper and/or a communion motet or anthem. The organist could improvise while the choir receives, or silence could be kept. A post-communion or ablutions hymn could be sung following this.

Obviously, the way in which music is implemented during communion depends on a number of factors. If a parish is small, it might be best for the musician to provide instrumental music. If the parish has a substantial and experienced choir, a communion anthem or motet would be ideal. Additionally, organ music during communion would vary based on the comfort level and skills of the musician. For example, not all organists would feel comfortable improvising for 10-15 minutes during the administration of communion. On the other hand, this could be a wonderful skill to practice and develop, and it would alleviate many of the complications of a lack of singing of communion hymns.

At the end of the day, though, what liturgical purpose and theological statement do communion hymns provide? Are they viewed merely as “filler” while people receive communion? If so, that rationale hardly seems justifiable. Why not have silence during communion? It is not theologically defensible to consider liturgical music as “wallpaper.” Moreover, the practice of a post-communion or ablutions hymn makes a strong statement, one that speaks of an assembly of thankful people giving praise to God for the gift of Jesus Christ recently received in the Eucharist. Music in liturgy should never be perfunctory and should always have a purpose and meaning. Silence, at times, is never a bad thing. In fact, the Book of Common Prayer upholds the value of silence in several rubrics. Ultimately, what to do musically during communion is up to thoughtful and theologically insightful musicians and priests to determine based on context. The most important question to ask is “how does music assist the assembly in offering praise and thanksgiving in the liturgy?”

 

Kyle Babin is Administrative Assistant for the Center for Liturgy and Music.

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One thought on “To Sing or Not to Sing Communion Hymns

  1. Thank you for an interesting and comprehensive overview. I would add that “silence” in the liturgy can play out in different ways: a positive practice of stillness, or the mere absence of deliberate sound-making. “Silence” during the reception of communion often, in practice, falls into the latter category, accompanied by all the sounds of walking, kneeling, murmured words of distribution, and so on. This John-Cage-like “silence” could in principle have its own beauty, but often instead builds into a concentration-breaking hubbub, so well-chosen and -implemented music of some kind might be a better and more focusing choice.

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