Starting singing again in church

A long and winding road

We are slowly easing back towards normality in our parish, but it’s taken a long time and we still have a long way to go. There have been long periods when many of us couldn’t go to Mass in person, either because it wasn’t allowed because of lockdowns or because somebody in the family was self-isolating. We all got used to Masses on-line, or gave up altogether and hoped for a better future, but I don’t want to go in detail through all the stages of that gloomy period.  My memory of it is thankfully fading, and I don’t want to sit down and work it all out in detail again.  But we have now reached a stage when we can look back in general terms, I think.

a long and winding road…to get back to where you started from
Silence in the pews

It seems almost like a bad dream, so I may be a little out in my sequencing, but as I remember,  we went from nobody being allowed to go to church in person,  – to being allowed to attend Mass, but only in small numbers and no singing,  – to a small group (six) people being allowed to sing on behalf of everyone else,  – to less emphasis on the numbers, but still compulsory (according to the parish itself, no longer by law)  masks in churches.  So we had more people allowed in the churches, but no congregational singing.  Different countries  (like different denominations) have had different patterns of Covid precautions; some churches have had some music as part of their recorded Masses, some live, some from CDs.  It’s been very confusing, very patchwork and rather unhappy.  Some church musicians have done heroic work, like my friend in Adelaide in Australia, who has been singing a daily psalm at the Cathedral Mass all the way through the pandemic, whenever it was allowed (I know about this because she emailed me to ask for settings of the weekday psalms, which is why there are more of those in the Australian version on the website than for any other country).

Swans singing
Hunting for extra voices to boost choir numbers
Bringing things back to life

I want to think about how we can get the machinery of liturgy and church music grinding back into action, and what it feels like as we are doing it.  So here’s an account of what’s been going on in one of the Sunday Masses in one parish in England, and how it feels to be doing it.

Starting with hymns

When we were finally allowed, and those who would be constituting the choir wanted, to start singing again, there were immediately problems because you were allowed only six singers and we could not even muster those.  Many singers were either still self-isolating or had not returned to Mass in person yet.  But we had an organist, a few (double-jabbed) voices, and a deep sense that even limited music was a good idea.  So we started just with hymns, and nothing too ambitious.  We did not even try to sing the Mass; the usual Mass setting for that particular Mass previously was an old one in English (from before the ‘new translation’, so the words were not the current version), and in four parts, which we certainly couldn’t manage.  So we just had hymns, and quite short ones, too, because the time needed at Communion, for example, was much reduced as the congregation was so shrunken.

Little organ
teamwork makes the dreamwork
Humming along

Just starting with the hymns was touching, because the congregation didn’t have any hymn books and wasn’t supposed to join in anyway, although there was a bit of audible humming from behind masks.  What struck me, though, was how they patiently stood and waited at the end until we had finished.  They clearly didn’t see the music as a mere accompaniment, or a sound track to their leaving the church,  but an integral part of the service, and several people said how glad they were to have it back.  Of course there are people who don’t like any singing at Mass, but there are several Sunday Masses available, and only two have any music, so people do have a choice.

…but which hymns?

Choosing the hymns : now is not the time for interesting new versions and unfamiliar tunes.  If you pick fairly well-known ones, the congregation will hum along, and some of us even remember the words, having an alarmingly good memory for hymns with short lines, nurtured by years of school assemblies (no hymn books because they are too hard to sanitise).  But we are also trying to avoid anything too dirge-like.  In our church there are even too few singers to manage parts or some of the big hymns reminiscent of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  We’ll get there, but for now, we’re thinking more of gentler hymns which encourage a prayerful atmosphere and make people feel comfortable and reassured.  He who sings, prays twice; especially if the words are good and you enunciate them clearly.  I shall stop sitting on the fence and offer some solid examples : anything by George Herbert, anything translated by Catherine Winkworth or E. Caswall, anything with an old German psalm tune, and don’t forget the old favourites like Soul of my Saviour, and the familiar psalm-hymns (The Lord’s my shepherd, All people that on earth do dwell, O God our help in ages past).   The words are very important!  They have to make sense and not just be emoting, because people are actually going to be listening to them.

Youths singing
only six singers at a time
Then the Alleluia and the Responsorial Psalm

Moving on from the hymns, we wanted to reintroduce singing the Alleluia, and then the Responsorial Psalm.  We did the Alleluia first because it is one of the shortest elements, especially if you don’t repeat it at the beginning.  The congregation still wasn’t supposed to join in, so we limited the number of repeats, and avoided using the lectern and making eye contact.  This all felt very peculiar, as usually what you are doing is desperately trying every body-language way you can think of, to communicate that you do want people to join in.  Now in contrast we were just doing a pared-down version of these parts of the Mass, on everyone else’s  behalf, which felt like quite a responsibility.  Some of the time there were gaps, pauses and hitches, as the readers tried to remember which parts they were no longer doing, but that’s fine, I’m sure God does not expect a perfectly choreographed offering every Sunday! 

Last week we sang the Response to the psalm just the once, as we had been doing since we restarted the singing, and went straight on into the verses, only to hear the congregation trying to repeat it (still with masks on).  The rules about congregational singing, though a bit unclear, have apparently been eased, so next week we will reinstate the repeat and see how it goes.  That coming psalm (53/54) has a nice easy Response, too.  The Lord is on our side.

Snail shell with person emerging
encouraging the singing (once it’s allowed)
Singing the Mass (or bits of it)

For the last few weeks, we have been singing the Kyrie, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei out of my Mayfield Mass setting, with just the tiny choir singing it and the congregation listening.  It is a new setting for this congregation, but I’m actually delighted to be able to introduce it in this way, as they are learning what it sounds like without any risk of embarrassment over making mistakes, and I think they will move into singing it with no trouble (we’ve had some positive feedback, and I’m delighted to say that the congregation toddlers are swaying to the Agnus Dei, which I love to see).  It will probably be a while until we can tackle the Gloria, but there’s no rush.

mediaeval dancers in a line
Hold hands and keep together : another group of six
Still a work in progress

We are still a scanty congregation.  This week we put the pews back to the way they used to be instead of bunching them up and labelling them so that people had to sit two metres apart.  It looks very strange, even though we know it never used to.   The pews look astonishingly close together,  and the Communion queues bunch up and spread out unexpectedly as people try to remember what version of social distancing is current.  I’m more comfortable with the uncertainty than with those who ostentatiously push for going faster,  because we are in fact still being asked to wear masks and keep some distance in our church.  I would like there to be more open doors, and to have the fans in use.  I know we usually keep them only for summertime, but they are an easy way to encourage ventilation, and our church is modern and low, not one of the soaring Victorians with a big ceiling space.

Singing hopefully on the journey

Repeating the Response and the Alleluia seemed to run smoothly, so we’ll keep those going.  Our aim is to glide smoothly into more singing, letting people join in as much as they feel able to.  A church choir is meant to lead but not replace the singing by the congregation, at least since Vatican II.  It is going to take a while, even as the pandemic restrictions have taken a while.  Christians have always sung together,  borrowing psalms from the Jewish tradition and writing their own hymns from the earliest days.  Singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (nice distinctions, there),  as St Paul urges in Ephesians 5.19,  is for many of us a completely natural and integral part of the Mass.  We have missed it.  It is wonderful to hear it coming back.

Church choir
all singing together : something to look forward to

Virtual Corpus Christi, corporeal computer

Corpus Christi online

We have had Easter online, Pentecost online, Trinity Sunday online, and now here we are at the celebration of the physical reality of Christ’s presence…….still mediated through a television or a computer screen. It does not feel the same, and this is a feast where the lack of Communion really stings, a digital celebration of the unavailable Eucharist.

God presiding over an early Eucharist
One of the older ‘added’ feasts

I vaguely thought that Corpus Christi was a Counter-Reformation feast, but in fact it’s much older, dating from the thirteenth century and pushed for by Thomas Aquinas.  In some countries it’s a public holiday, in others a holy day of obligation;  those against the Pope got rid of it in England at the Reformation, but for two hundred years it had been the date when the mystery plays were performed in York.  Nowadays if it isn’t a holy day of obligation, it is transferred to the next Sunday, which is why it’s the Sunday after Trinity Sunday, and why we are celebrating it this week before we pick up Ordinary Time again.

Melchisedek at altar
Melchisedek and Abram, brass altar piece, 1181
Fun local customs for Corpus Christi
another version of a liturgical procession

There are various local customs attached.  There always used to be Corpus Christi processions with the Sacrament when I was little, and there still are in some countries, as well as parts of the US.  There are various fascinating and baffling local customs associated with the feast in different countries, though some seem to have slipped over from other dates.  The baby jumping in Castile sounds to me to have links with the devil figure in the St Nicholas celebrations in Eastern Europe and the Krampus in Austria.  I am intrigued by the Catalan dancing egg, but I’m not sure where it comes from.  But this is obviously a significant and beloved feast, with lots of attached traditions and fun, like May Day.

Corpus Christi and Adoration
Melchisedek Athos icon
Athos icon of Melchisedek

Liturgically, it is the celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, simply a chance to celebrate the fact of the Lord being still here bodily in the form of consecrated bread and wine.  It is the feast of his presence.  In my church we are lucky enough to have Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for a substantial amount of time, and I have always felt that Corpus Christi is the festival which specially celebrates this.  It celebrates the physical reality of God in an almost shocking way: the Lord is still here and he looks like this.  Our flat screens will feel even more unreal and two-dimensional than ever.

Celebrating the Body, when bodies are in danger

This year, our physical evidence of religion feels totally housebound.  We will have no processions; we will have Masses only via computer;  there is currently in the UK a chink of hope that churches might soon open for private prayer, but I don’t know whether that is going to mean we can go back to having Adoration.  Social distancing would not be a problem, but doorways are always bottlenecks, people touch pews, and our priests are mostly elderly and vulnerable, so this will all need to be worked out carefully.

Digital problems

My family has had trouble even accessing Mass on line (except the big, professional ones, which leave their recordings up).  We aren’t allowed to watch them live, as we don’t have a television licence (or a television), but when we try to watch a local Mass, or one from a place we know, it quite often goes wrong.  It makes me laugh when we find our recording stopped on the grounds that it is ‘adult content’, but this is a glitch we can’t get past (it seems to cut in just before the sermon).  And we are good with tech and have access to children who are even better, so there must be a lot of people out there having even more trouble.

The desire for Communion

Intellectually, I know that weekly Communion is a very modern phenomenon for the laity (it used to be very much more restricted); I know that you can’t have weekly Masses even online in large parts of the world.  Our current pain should make us much more sympathetic and empathetic to those who have to live like this, and I think for the laity it does; but it’s difficult for those who still can get to Mass to feel it as much.  And as the laity, especially the invisible female laity, we have no say in how any of this develops, we simply have to do as we are told about not going to church, not participating in Mass except digitally, not having communion.

Psalms for Corpus Christi

However, some of you are lucky enough to be going back to church already, so you will be celebrating Corpus Christi on Sunday.  The readings for the feast vary across the three years of the Lectionary cycle, but they are all good psalms : Year A, Ps 147; Year B, Ps 115/116 (The cup of salvation); and Year C, Ps 109/110 (A priest like Melchisedek of old). 

Melchisedek bringing forth bread and wine
Psalm 147 for Year A

The psalm for Year A is a four-square solid little psalm, which we sing almost in its entirety (there is one other stanza, about the Lord hurling hailstones).  It has a very brief Response, but it’s the first line of the psalm, and feels like an arrow prayer, so it works.  The whole psalm is a joyful celebration of God’s goodness and protection, simple and direct, so it’s a simple happy tune which runs into the Response each time without a pause.  The Response should just emerge each time like a flower, or a firework if you’re feeling more explosive (but in a good way).

An alternative to the ‘Act of Spiritual Communion’

I’d like to offer one other suggestion for the feast of Corpus Christi.  We have been encouraged to use the ‘Act of Spiritual Communion’ Prayer, but I’m sorry to say that I don’t find it works for me. The language is too alien, and I am uncomfortable with addressing the Lord as ‘my Jesus’.  Here is a possible alternative, which is one of the prayers for the priest before Communion  (just after the Lamb of God) out of the previous version of the Missal.  I’ve loved it for years; I committed it to memory years ago, because it expressed exactly what I wanted to say, and I now find it helps more than anything else to bridge the awful gap in the middle of digital Masses, when we can see someone else receiving Communion, but know that we can’t.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God / by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit / your death brought life to the world./ By your holy body and blood / free me from all my sins and from every evil. / Keep me faithful to your teaching, / and never let me be parted from you.

That prayer is still there in the new version of the Mass, but it’s much more wordy and less elegant, so I stick with the old version.  It couldn’t be more appropriate for Corpus Christi, with its specific references to the body and blood, and I find it very comforting.  It makes me feel part of the Body of Christ in a way that nearly everything else doesn’t, at the moment.  If we are all there, not to be parted from him, we are all together, even if we can’t see or touch each other; and he will keep us safe.

separated from the feast, but still there, and still listening

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