Colossians 3:16

Music is an important part of many people’s lives—and, of course, most of us have our favourites. But it’s also true that most of us have our pet hates too. But then music tends to be divisive. Because what I may like, you might dislike detest—and vice versa. Having said that, our particular loves and hates in music may reflect more than just the music and the words. Indeed, music can conjure up images in our minds—of events of which we have the fondest memories, or of times we would rather forget.

Music, then, can be a very powerful medium and can evoke a variety of responses. And just as that’s true for individuals, so is it true of the church. And it’s hard to believe the number of arguments that the church has had over music, particularly church music.

Because, firstly, there has been the argument over the purpose of hymns, and why we sing at all. And to me the answer is obvious, because not only do we have the practice of the Old and New Testaments to follow, but it is part of us giving God our all as well.

Secondly, we’ve had the argument over the content of hymns. So, for example, Augustine in the fourth century insisted that hymns should only be in praise of God, and were not to be used for meditation, description, exhortation, or teaching at all.

But against that we have the background of the New Testament church to consider. Because in the New Testament we have examples of hymns that were intended as songs of praise, such as “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty” recorded in the book of Revelation (Revelation 4:8). We have the example of hymns that were intended to teach, such as those recorded in Luke recalling the past works of God—including the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-56). We have hymns that were specifically written to form part of corporate worship, such as the various doxologies that some churches sing at the end of their services. And although we’re not specifically told what was being sung, we have hymns that were used outside of normal worship, such as whatever Paul and Silas sang as they were locked in prison, as recorded in Acts (Acts 16:25).

Thirdly, we’ve had the problem of including things that aren’t specifically mentioned in the bible. As a consequence, the Roman church around the twelfth century would not allow the singing of any songs whose words were not taken directly from the scriptures. The reason being, was a fear of heretics using hymns for their own ends. As a consequence, it was the practice of the Church of England in the fifteenth century—a practice which continued for two centuries—where only the singing of Psalms was allowed.

But against that, we have the example of the early church again. Because the Apostle Paul tells of three types of singing in New Testament times. The Psalms—which probably meant the Old Testament Psalms, supplemented with things like the Song of Mary, the Song of Zechariah, and the Song of Simeon, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel. We have hymns—specifically Christian compositions—praising God, of which there are fragments scattered throughout the New Testament. And we have spiritual songs, which in effect means anything musical which in any way can be described as ‘spiritual’.

Fourthly, we’ve had the problem of language. Because for the first thirteen centuries the words to church music were either in Greek or Latin. And it was only from the thirteenth century onwards that a move began to put the hymns, as well as the services, into a language that people could understand.

And, fifthly, there have arguments over the style of music. And in that there has been much resistant to change.

Musically in the New Testament—Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs—would have been very different to what we know today. Apart from being more of a chant, it took until the fourth century for more ‘catchy’ chants to be introduced—which made it easier for people to sing. It then took until the thirteenth century for the great leap forward of plainsong melodies to come into acceptance. And it was only in the nineteenth century that the ‘traditional’ style of music of which we are more familiar began to be popular.

And one book in particular was responsible for revolutionising church music in the nineteenth century, and it brought the strands of what had become acceptable together. It merged plainsong, psalm-tune, chorale, and old church-tune together. And it added some very modern music for its time. It was, perhaps, one of the most radical books introduced in the history of church music. And if you haven’t guessed what it was called, it is Hymns, Ancient & Modern, published in 1861.

When we consider the debates over music and church music in particular, today, they are nothing to the fights that the church has seen in the past. But it’s like the church has come full circle as far as music is considered. Because while the history of the church has seen quite a few hiccups on the way, the church has finally returned to the New Testament model of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, that it should never have lost.

So today we have access to all kinds of church music. Indeed, we can still use the Psalms in song. And even if there is not the tendency to chant them these days, we still have a remnant from the Psalm book that was adopted by the Church of England in the fifteenth century: the hymn ‘All people that on earth do dwell’—a fifteenth century version of the Psalm 100. We have hymns based on those recorded in Luke’s gospel. Hymns like ‘Tell out my soul…’ We have hymns, some of which were written during the period where the Church of England would only sing Psalms. Hymns like ‘Let us with a gladsome mind’, John Bunyan’s ‘Who would true valour see’, and Samuel Crossman’s ‘My song is love unknown’. We have hymns written by people like Charles and John Wesley, and others around their time. We have other more modern songs. And, in addition, there some churches encourage the singing of more spiritual songs as well.

So when it comes to music, we may all have favourites, we may all have our pet hates, and some of us might like the older stuff while others might like the new. But whatever our likes and dislikes, Church music should give us the opportunity to express our praises to God. Church music should teach us regarding our faith. Church music should form one of the aspects of our worship. And church music should provide us with something that we can sing to ourselves to give us hope, even in times of despair.

Posted: 13th May 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis