Saturday, December 8, 2012

Why aren't we singing?

I noted in the ROCOR news section that there was a talk scheduled in Munich, the Open Orthodox Seminar, which is an annual event in Europe. One topic piqued my interest. I emailed the speaker and was told her talk would be given in Russian, but that a talk in English was given at a recent Orientale Lumen conference. I happily post it below.

“Participatio actuosa (Active Participation of the Faithful) in the Context of Orthodox Liturgics” by Nun Vassa (Dr Larin, Vienna University)

In the 20th century, the Liturgical Movement in the Roman Catholic Church declared the need for participatio actuosa, or active participation, by the people in church services. Pastoral interest in such active participation was expressed at Vatican II, and inspired a whole series of liturgical reforms by that council. In her lecture, Nun Vassa will examine the principle of active participation in the context of Orthodox divine services, asking the question “Is the principle of “active participation” of the people—and not simply the clergy and choir—important in Orthodox services? Has there been pastoral concern in the history of Orthodox liturgics and the Typikon for the active participation of the people, and if so, what form did it take?”


  1. Having experienced 'congregational singing' in several parishes, I can attest to the fact that it is a wonderful way to stymie church growth and drive new people straight out on their first visit, not to mention annoy everyone else. The worst singers are the loudest, followed by those with hearing impairment who can't hear anyone else once they start shouting. You can direct a choir, you cannot direct a mob... particularly a mob made up of people who will immediately 'feel wounded' if you try to teach them how to sing. Once the expectation is set, people stop showing up to practices to actually learn, and will rely on their own memories (with input) from 30 years ago, better known as 'what it should sound like.' Your grandma singing off-key at the top of her voice is endearing, but listening to someone else's grandma squealing is positively annoying. These discussions need to be tempered with a little less idealism and a lot more common sense. We don't use big organs, and churches should not rely on speakers and electronics to drown out the drowning...

    1. My experience differs dramatically, Father.

      I would say that in some jurisdictions this is quite true. This is certainly true after the Italian alterations of the 17th century were injected into the Russian Church's liturgical life. Such polyphonic pieces do not bear much resemblance to the Znamenny or other chant families that did provide for easier use by the people.

      In other chant families (e.g. Prostopinije) congregational singing makes use of monophonic and simple melodies that can easily be sung with very little exposure. Certainly the cantor can lead the people in the tropars, kondaks, prokimena, etc., but the normal Sunday liturgy can be sung - from memory - by everyone in attendance.

    2. I have not seen a jurisdiction that is 'bad-music-proof'. They all have their problems. Like I said, once you get beyond a 'select few' there is little about the untrained human voice that can be anything but distracting. The people there might be used to it, but for newcomers it often sends them running. that's was the feedback I got from many of our one-time visitors. Since our music has shifted from the congregation/participation mode (using both Byzantine and OCA settings) to a real choir using standardized music, we are awash with newcomers who are staying. Now, new people like our music... largely because we are no longer doing it to please ourselves...

  2. [note: I have not had a chance to listen to the whole broadcast]

    I have listened to Sister Vassa's lecture on "Why study the history of the Liturgy?" and it was very good. (link: The subject of "congregational participation" is one on which I have trouble being objective coming from a Catholic background. I am inclined to run screaming, but I do want to hear what Sr. Vassa has to say on the subject.

    That being said, however, I think that we have to examine the purpose of attending Liturgy (from the Orthodox perspective) in order to examine whether or not there is participation going on or not. In the Catholic Church participation usually means singing (and I highly recommend Thomas Day's book "Why Catholics Can't Sing") but it also means 'bringing up the gifts', joining hands around the altar, liturgical dancing, etc. I get the creeping horrors when I think of Orthodox churches emulating Catholic churches in this way. God forbid.

    Just speaking on the singing topic, I have great sympathy for choir directors (or simply members of the choir) who are trying to carry on in a certain tempo when one or two people in very loud voices are carrying on in another one altogether. Also, the more people in the congregation who are singing, the faster you tend to go flat, another annoyance. However, I think the whole topic is related to the size of the parish in question. In very small missions (and I've been in several), you really need those extra voices even if someone is not standing in the choir. Most of the time people will not attempt to sing a complicated Cherubic Hymn along with the choir (there are always exceptions, alas), however singing along with the creed, Our Father, litany responses, parish patron's troparion, etc., is good and I think should be encouraged. In huge churches where the choir is separated from the people in a loft it is a little harder. No one in the nave can see the choir director so it can be hard to stay with the choir. I have only visited churches this big and have not actually been a member in any.

    I think this is a question that is best answered on a case-by-case basis. In the end, we have to remember that we do not go to church to be entertained by a concert and we are all sinners and need the Church, whether musically gifted or not. Yes, there can be situations where you have someone very deaf who is finishing six beats behind everyone else (and such a person sat behind me in our previous mission) but let's be kind and forbearing. I think that if someone is visiting an Orthodox church for the first time the Holy Spirit stops their ears and they only hear the angels singing. Granted, this sounds fanciful, but there is no other explanation for the many times I have heard a visitor talk about how beautiful and heavenly the music was when in reality it was an absolute shambles and I was ready to cry. I myself experienced this the first time I visited an Orthodox church. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the music, but later when I had become Orthodox and was actually singing in the choir I cringed in horror at the screeching and we went flat so quickly that it made your head spin.

    1. While I overall get your approach, Matushka, I'm going to take issue with your missions portrayal. Missions are where we have our biggest disasters, largely because they end up designed as missions rather than 'parishes in the making.' In a mission, it is important to lay down the foundations for a parish by establishing good habits right off the bat. Form a choir, and make it a choir, not 'everyone' doing the choir's job. What will happen is that the mission will hit a 'tipping point' but can't move on because its 'mission design' has become 'parish tradition.' Change is exceedingly hard to execute, and most often requires the removal of the priest in order to accomplish it. That's been my experience. I've been sent into two parishes in order to make such changes, and it was very difficult even with the backing of the priest and the acknowledgement of the people that the parish was dying. Our seminaries are doing a horrible job of teaching basics (if the priest has gone to seminary at all), and as a result we have 'permanent missions' all over the US. A lot of it has to do with dreadful worship and an 'our thing' mentality among the people. Both of these conditions are aggravated by 'congregational singing.' Yes, it is very difficult to get a real choir going in a new community... but it is absolutely essential. I think congregational singing, which is encouraged by our various missions departments, has stymied our evangelization efforts and stunted our growth.

    2. Some of those "permanent missions" are permanent because of their size. Not every area of the country will support a large parish. I've never been in a mission, no matter how small, that didn't have an established choir, but, for instance, there have been many times that "the choir" consisted of me and my children (at least the ones not serving in the altar) because no one else was there.

      I think I disagree with your over-generalization of missions. Could you be more specific with your distinction between "mission" and "parish in the making"? As far as "establishing good habits right off the bat", what suggestions do you have for priests coming into a mission that they did not start? The three missions in which we have served we came to after they had each suffered a pastoral disaster. In each case we had to pick up the pieces. You can't just come in and change everything in the first few months or even the first year or two. Gross liturgical abuses have to be fixed ASAP, I'll grant you, but it can take considerable time to iron out other problems and that includes music.

      I think your experiences have been very different from ours. I have found that people in other parts of the country are only partly aware of the challenges of mission work in the rural South. Certainly none of those challenges was addressed in seminary.

      [A footnote to my original post: The choir I mentioned which was so abysmal has, 14 years later, turned into one which is working on their second CD. In that case it took time, the addition of a huge family from another church (all of whom sang beautifully) and a new choir director. The same priest has been there the whole time.]

    3. When I was at seminary, we received a talk from the OCA's missions director, and he talked about the problem of 'permanent missions.' Most are small not because of any particular environmental problems... they are small because they choose not to take actions that would make them grow. They become 'self-obsessed' and drive out newcomers with a cultish attitude. This invariably effects worship.

      I did not, nor do I ever, advocate instant changes when a new priest comes in. Yes, gross violations must be handled, and also the Bishop needs to inform the people that he expects the priest to make changes and won't entertain whinging or crying. In my own assignments, I was told by the Bishop that he expected me to 'clean up' the situation, and he also told the people what my priorities are.

      The real conflict has to do with two mindsets: one of standardization, and the other of localization. The 20th century in America was one where localization was often the encouraged model. Parishes were allowed to develop, on purpose rather than by accident, their own liturgical alterations to the Typikon and use whatever music or translations they wanted.

      What it has led to is a service where the language style throughout the service varies dramatically, along with odd changes to the services that often cannot be explained in terms of present need. I've known replacement clergy who visit some parishes and get lost because what they do is at such variance from common practice.

      All missions are 'parishes in the making.' The Church makes no distinction of 'missions.' You don't know if the parish will grow large or small, and so all of them must follow the same principles. We must be cautious with the idea of 'missions' and not think of them as some other kind of animal.

      The same is true of priests: I don't think a priest should be sent to do missionary work until he has served in an established parish and been properly formed. Too often, missions work sounds like a wonderful escape for young priests who don't want to be hassled by the demands of an established community which they will invariably have to trade some of their idealisms in order to survive in. Some priests want missionary work because they will be able to live out all of their ideals and create a community that won't challenge them. I have seen this ruin a number of young priests, who create mission parishes that are often permanently stunted as a result.

      Fr. John, you know that there is more to participating in the Liturgy than singing or making noise. If we reduce participation to that, then we have missed out entirely on what is really going on during the services.

  3. The word Liturgy means the work of the people. The faithful should not be spectators, but should participate actively in the Divine Liturgy. Naturally, there are some things that can only be sung by the choir such as the Cherubimic Hymn, or a complex chant by a trained chanter. The services should not become a priest and choir concert, but must involve the Faithful as well. Certainly the responses to the petitions should be sung by the people with the choir leading them.

  4. Also as a former Roman Catholic, be careful what you wish for . The Catholic Church I grew up in would have gasped in horror at some of the happy, clappy, very un-theological nonsense that is sung today.
    There is no longer any reverence etc etc. instead it must be singable by everyone.
    Interestingly, a bit of good sense is growing and there is great interest in traditional Gregorian Chant and it is often the younger parishioners who like it the best.
    I agree with Father John, the faithful need to be involved in worshipping God and not merely observing - but let us not fall into the trap that is waiting there of making the Liturgy more singable than worshipful.

  5. It's not just about singing. Here is Sister Vassa with ideas that may be a little discomforting to some because we lack the big picture: