Remember the Roseberry – Courtney wedding a couple of weeks ago that sparked The Great Sacred Space Debate of 2007? It was also at that wedding that I saw again John Wesley’s Directions for Singing that he wrote in 1761 and placed on the inside cover of his “Select Hymns” book of that same year. Those instructions for congregational singing have appeared in the exact same form in the front of every Methodist hymnal since, even to this day.
I come across this historic set of instructions every couple of years or so — at a friend’s wedding or a community funeral or while browsing old book stores and antique shops. I saw them again last Saturday inside an old song book at a booth in Canton and I wanted to run them by you in case you’ve never seen them and to remind those of you who have.
There’s tremendous wisdom in these directions. A part of me (not all of me, but a pretty big part of me) would like to see these rules plastered in the fronts of our song books, too — those of us who still use song books, I suppose.
- Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.
- Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.
- Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.
- Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
- Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
- Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before or stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
- Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
What do you think? I’m curious.
The rules certainly stress a congregational focus. Learning these songs that our church sings the way our church sings them. It’s clear that Wesley is committed to doing things in a way that will best encourage the entire congregation to enter into the singing. If a song is sung differently every time it’s sung, a lot of people will stop singing for fear of missing the cue or singing the wrong words at the wrong time or tempo. Unannounced surprises squelch full congregational participation.
Singing together — the same words, the same notes, the same tempo — embodies a rich theology of singing in that all the members combine to form one beautiful sound. All the different voices, all the ranges, all the skill levels and talents come together as one just as all of God’s different people with different backgrounds and different gifts form the one body, the Church. I’m reminded of Ignatius’ writings on congregatioanl singing in 110 AD while on his way to being martyred in Rome:
“It blends all voices together and causes one single fully harmonious chant to arise; young and old, rich and poor, women and men, slaves and free, all sing one single melody…all the inequalities of social life are here banished. Together we make up one single choir in perfect equality of rights and expression whereby earth imitates heaven. Such is the noble character of the Church.”
I especially like the instructions to sing with gusto, with passion, with enthusiasm. Don’t drag them out. Sing them like we used to. And make sure you’re singing these sacred hymns of praise and encouragment with the same passion and energy you sing your school’s fight song. Right?
Aim at pleasing God, not yourself or the person sitting next to you. I see older people all the time who refuse to sing a song based solely on what year it was written. And I see teenagers do the exact same thing. People my age will sulk and pout if there are a few too many “thees and thous” in an inspirational hymn. If the aim is to please God with our sacrificial servant hearts, song selection stops being an issue.
Anyway, I’m curious as to your thoughts. Hit the comments line at the top of this post and let me know. Is some of this stuff too strong? What parts are especially relevant today, 250 years later?