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We need to sing hymns and carols, virus or not


The Midweek Hymn is taking a break until after Christmas. In the meantime A Carol a Day is returning tomorrow with some new songs and some repeats. Edward Dowler introduces the series with a look at the importance of singing in the Christian tradition.

A FEW months ago, I went to assist my bishop at the licensing of the new Vicar of a parish in a deprived part of the area I serve. Music was played both by the organist and 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. Although muzzled by their masks and visors, the congregation started quietly singing along: they literally could not stop themselves from echoing the tunes that were being played.  This was not some co-ordinated act of disobedience: they were aware of the rules and not deliberately seeking to disobey them. 

I realised at this event 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).

The great Advent hymn, Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth (in its original Latin version, Veni Redemptor Gentium) was written in the fourth century by St Ambrose, the great bishop of Milan. Here it is sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge:

Its verses describe Christ’s own career: the son of God, who proceeds from the Father and, eventually returns to him, having accomplished his purpose.

From God the Father He proceeds,
To God the Father back He speeds;
His course He runs to death and hell,
Returning on God’s throne to dwell.

I hope it will not seem too far-fetched to say that in this respect, the act of singing mirrors Christ’s own journey as we celebrate it in this season. Like Christ, a song originally proceeds from God the Father; like him, it enters into the human world of bodies, lungs and vocal cords; and like Christ, it returns again to God, having accomplished what it was sent to do.

If what I’m saying here is in any way correct, in a Christian context, singing, and in particular the singing of sacred hymns and songs is not just a pleasant seasonal activity; it has a christological shape to it: that is a shape that deeply mirrors who Christ is, and what he has done; perhaps that’s why for so many people, singing and Christmas belong instinctively together.

And, if singing is an intrinsically theological activity, it is also a deeply human one. Writing in his landmark work on the human brain The Master and his Emissary, the neuroscientist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist has a surprising take on it. We 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. 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?’ (p 102)

The weight of the evidence is that music came first: God put a song in our mouths long before we used them to speak.

The latest government guidance on carol singing uses the unlovely terminology to which we have now become accustomed: ‘singing, shouting and physical activity increases the risk of transmission through small droplets and aerosols’. A crumb of comfort is that singing is allowed outdoors, so long as the singers are distanced by two metres, and choirs (though not congregations) may perform indoors. 

Government advice acknowledges that singing produces no more aerosol than speaking at the same volume, especially when done from behind a mask – although the effectiveness of these is of course debatable. But the basic problem is moral rather than scientific: we are being schooled that when we and our neighbours engage in an activity that is both deeply natural and deeply graced, we are first and foremost machine guns of potential toxicity.  Carol singing, an activity that only last year expressed mutual togetherness, is now seen as a vector of mutual harm. I hope and pray that we will one day be able to forget this lesson. In the meantime, we’ll need to sing louder than ever this year, if perhaps internally, Veni Redemptor Gentium!

A version of this post was originally published in the All Things Lawful and Honest blog.

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Edward Dowler
Edward Dowler
The Venerable Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings and priest-in-charge of St John’s, Crowborough.

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