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“Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’” Exod. 33:18

Music, art and worship space

Are there guidelines for what kinds of music are appropriate in Presbyterian worship? Whose responsibility is it to decide … the pastor, the session, the musicians or choir director?

A photograph of a man and a woman playing classical instruments in front of a window.

Susan Morrissey and James Buxton played at the 219th General Assembly Moderator's Reception. Photo by Tony Oltmann.

There are several sections in the Directory for Worship that are particularly relevant. First, on "Artistic Expressions" in worship, the Directory says: "The Reformed heritage has called upon people to bring to worship material offerings which in their simplicity of form and function direct attention to what God has done and to the claim that God makes upon human life. The people of God have responded through creative expressions in architecture, furnishings, appointments, vestments, music, drama, language, and movement. When these artistic creations awaken us to God's presence, they are appropriate for worship. When they call attention to themselves, or are present for their beauty as an end in itself, they are idolatrous. Artistic expressions should evoke, edify, enhance, and expand worshipers' consciousness of the reality and grace of God" (W-1.3034 2).

Here we see two important principles that are sometimes in tension with one another: a profound appreciation for the creative gifts of the Spirit and at the same time a healthy acknowledgement of the human tendency toward idolatry (that is, art that deflects our attention from God as the sole focus of our worship).

A second section that might be useful is this statement on "Music as Prayer": "Song is a response which engages the whole self in prayer. Song unites the faithful in common prayer wherever they gather for worship whether in church, home, or other special place. The covenant people have always used the gift of song to offer prayer. Psalms were created to be sung by the faithful as their response to God. Though they may be read responsively or in unison, their full power comes to expression when they are sung. In addition to psalms the Church in the New Testament sang hymns and spiritual songs. Through the ages and from varied cultures, the church has developed additional musical forms for congregational prayer. Congregations are encouraged to use these diverse musical forms for prayer as well as those which arise out of the musical life of their own cultures" (W-2.1003).

It is evident here that our tradition values song as fully embodied prayer and praise to God and that we encourage the use of musical forms from a variety of cultural settings. Indeed, our songs must arise from our own cultural and historical contexts if we are to worship God "in spirit and truth" (John 4).

The following paragraph deals with the role of the choir in particular: "To lead the congregation in the singing of prayer is a primary role of the choir and other musicians. They also may pray on behalf of the congregation with introits, responses, and other musical forms. Instrumental music may be a form of prayer since words are not essential to prayer. In worship music is not to be for entertainment or artistic display. Care should be taken that it not be used merely as a cover for silence. Music as prayer is to be a worthy offering to God on behalf of the people" (W-2.1004).

Here the Directory for Worship points out that the choir has a special responsibility to lead the musical prayer of the whole people of God. The choir's primary role is to empower the participation of all the people, not to showcase the talent or enthusiasm of the group or individual singers.

There is also a section on "Enacted Prayer" in worship: "In the Old and New Testaments and through the ages, the people of God expressed prayer through actions as well as speech and song. So in worship today it is appropriate (a) to kneel, to bow, to stand, to lift hands in prayer, (b) to dance, to clap, to embrace in joy and praise, (c) to anoint and to lay hands in intercession and supplication, commissioning and ordination" (W-2.1005).

As one can see from this section, we affirm the biblical model of active, lively participation in worship even though that hasn't always been the practice of many Presbyterians! Again, however, all of our actions in worship should point to God as the only one worthy of thanksgiving and praise, not draw attention to ourselves.

Having said all of this, it is important to note the special responsibilities the session and pastor have for the oversight of music used in worship. Concerning the role of the session of elders, the Directory for Worship says: "The session shall make provision for the regular ... offering of praise to God in song. ... The session has authority to oversee and approve all public worship in the life of the particular church with the exception of those responsibilities delegated to the pastor alone. ... It is responsible ... for those who lead worship through music, drama, dance, and other arts" (W-1.4004 d, e, and j).

With respect to the pastor, the Directory for Worship states: "In a particular service of worship the pastor is responsible for ... the music to be sung [and] the use of drama, dance, and other art forms. ... Where there is a choir director or other musical leader, the pastor and that person will confer to ensure that anthems and other musical offerings are appropriate for the particular service. The session should see that these conferences take place appropriately and on a regular basis" (W-1.4005 a4, a5 and b).

The point here is that the session and pastor(s) are charged with the important task of caring and providing for the worship of the church, including its ministry of music. This is part of their calling as leaders in the church.

In summary, then, there is nothing in our Presbyterian guidelines for worship that would expressly forbid drums, joyous processions or exuberant praise. If we said no to that, it would be hard to pray the psalms with any authenticity or integrity! (See Psalms 100 and 150, for instance.) However, there is a strong concern in our tradition that all of our worship (and indeed all of Christian life) be for the glory and honor of God alone. Elders, pastors and ministers of music must work together to see that God is glorified through Christ in the Spirit, in ways that are:

    1. faithful to the biblical witness and rooted in the Reformed theological tradition,
    2. true and authentic to the diversity of cultures and customs of the body of Christ and
    3. responsive to the gifts of the Holy Spirit in this time and place.

    What should we take into consideration when arranging our worship space? The Directory for Worship says, “When a place is set aside for worship it should facilitate accessibility and ease of gathering, should generate a sense of community, and should open people to reverence before God. It should include a place for the reading of Scripture and the preaching or exposition of the Word. It should provide for the celebration and proper administration of the Sacraments, with a font or pool for baptism and a table suitable for the people’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The arrangement of space should visibly express the integral relation between Word and Sacrament and their centrality in Christian worship” (W-1.3024). What’s the difference between liturgical art and idolatry? The Directory for Worship says, “The Reformed heritage has called upon people to bring to worship material offerings which in their simplicity of form and function direct attention to what God has done and to the claim that God makes upon human life. The people of God have responded through creative expressions in architecture, furnishings, appointments, vestments, music, drama, language, and movement. When these artistic creations awaken us to God’s presence, they are appropriate for worship. When they call attention to themselves, or are present for their beauty as an end in itself, they are idolatrous. Artistic expressions should evoke, edify, enhance, and expand worshipers’ consciousness of the reality and grace of God” (W-1.3034 [2]).
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