Monday, April 23, 2012

Sing to the Lord some new old songs!

A new issue of Liturgy has arrived! How exciting!  Our new topic is Singing the Psalms, and the articles are amazing! The editor for this issue is David Gambrell, associate for worship in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Theology and Worship and editor of Call to Worship: Liturgy, Music, Preaching, and the Arts, and he has assembled a wonderful collection of writers who have thought deeply well about the the place of the Psalms in the public worship of the church.

The first article, “Crosses and Sweet Comforts: Singing Our Lives through the Psalms” by Michael Morgan, focuses upon the rich tradition of congregational singing of metrical settings of the Psalms. He gives a brief history of english-language metrical psalmody, including the challenge faced when psalmody gave way to hymnody in many churches, an account of his experience creating new metrical settings for the Psalms, when existing ones did not meet the needs of his congregation (eventually published as The Psalter for Christian Worship, and a review of some exciting new collections of psalm settings.
Though Morgan is careful not to make any blanket statements about all congregations everywhere, he does address both historical and contemporary reasons why some congregations have preferred metrical psalmody over responsorial psalmody. Referring to current congregational sensibilities, he tells the following story.
Almost as soon as Dr. Theodore Wardlaw... arrived in Atlanta to become my pastor and colleague at Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, our worship staff began talking about ways to reclaim those historical elements of our Reformed tradition of worship that we had lost over the years... Early during the Lenten season in 1995, Ted asked me to look at the lectionary psalms for Eastertide to see if I had any metrical versions in my library that we could sing each week.After examining perhaps fifty different versions, I confessed to Ted that I couldn’t find any that really worked well. They were all either too long or too archaic in the language to be anything other than amusing distractions in our meticulously planned worship. To my lament, Ted voiced the challenge that Isaac Watts’s father gave him so long ago: ‘‘If you don’t like the old ones, write some new ones!’’ That challenge led me to paraphrase the seven psalms to get us through Pentecost that year. Our congregation had never warmed up to singing responsorial psalms, but it is a great hymn-singing congregation. Thus, setting the psalms to tunes they could sing by heart was the perfect compromise, and they were most enthusiastic.
How does your congregation “do” psalmody? Are the Psalms read, sung or generally omitted? If they are sung, how do you sing them? Is metric psalmody makig a comback in your area of the body of Christ?

Michael Morgan is seminary musician at Columbia Theological Seminary and organist at Central Presbyterian Church, Atlanta. He is the author of The Psalter for Christian Worship (Louisville: Witherspoon Press, 2010).

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