Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts. (Ephesians 5: 18-19)
I have just returned from a week singing in Tewkesbury Abbey as part of the choir for the Musica Deo Sacra or MDS festival of sacred music and liturgy.
This is something I have been doing for over a decade. It began as something of a busman’s holiday when I sang in the Cathedral Choir in Bristol. But in the years since I have been ordained it has taken on a different role for me.
Of all the things that changed for me personally on ordination the thing I found hardest to give up was the opportunity to sing daily in a Cathedral Choir. This was something which I found more musically and spiritually satisfying than any other type of music making during my life. With a few honourable exceptions this is not a daily activity which is compatible with ordained ministry.
However, in the MDS week I have found an opportunity to return to this activity, and in so it is a week of personal and spiritual refreshment for me. It is my week of personal retreat each year.
As you might imagine for a festival of sacred music much of the preaching focuses on the place and role of music in the life of faith. It was therefore not a surprise that our reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was used in the first service.
Its evocation of the deep spiritual power of music, and singing, offered a powerful guide for the week that lay ahead.
Although there was a small level of irony and amusement from choir and congregation alike at Paul’s warning us not to be drunk on wine as those gathered thought about to the wine receptions and general conviviality which would follow many of the services of the week!
This aside, what Pauls picks up on in this verse is a deep reality that singing is good for the soul.
In recent months Scott Mills, the presenter of the Radio One Breakfast show, has been offering a daily “Assembly Anthems” – giving modern twist on the hymns and songs that his listeners remember from the "Come and Praise" hymn books of their school days. When I meet with couples preparing for marriage and we talk about the music they very often ask for something everyone will know and will sing.
This is not a comment on the quality or value of specific hymns or others, but an instinctive recognition that when we sing, when we join together in song, particularly in the context of worship something important and transformative is happening.
On a purely physical and psychological level singing is good for the soul. If you sing and sing well you stand more up right, you breath more deeply. If you have a friend with confidence problems the best thing you can get them is a course of singing lessons. From nowhere a voice will emerge they did not know they had, and they are changed by this.
But singing is seldom a private act.
As the death of Aretha Franklin this week has reminded us the singing of one person can unite us all, drawing people together across traditional barriers of race, religion, and education.
And this becomes amplified when we sing together. The point of singing in worship is that we do it together. We stand and breath and become one together in this song. Want to know what it means to be one body, to be the body of Christ together? Look no further than a congregation singing together.
Singing is though more than simply a psychological or communal act. Singing lies at the heart of our worship.
One of the things that marks out Christian worship is that we sing. Our singing week by week draws us back to hymns of the Wesley’s and the Reformation, through the Psalms and Chant of the medieval Church, and to the hymns and Psalms and spiritual songs which Paul encourages the Church in Ephesus to sing.
And it does not stop there.
From Paul’s injunction we are drawn to hymns sung by the first Apostles on the day of Pentecost, through the worship of the Temple, to the songs that David sang in front of the Ark of the Covenant as it was carried in triumph into Jerusalem, back again to the songs of liberation sung by Moses and Miriam as the people of Israel found their liberation on the far bank of the Red Sea.
Song lies at the heart of worship.
But this is not simply to draw us together, but because through history we have come to know that in our worship we join with the praises of Heaven.
As we encounter the great visions of Heaven the books of Isaiah, and Daniel and Revelation they all come with a sound track, with the constant worship and singing of the great choirs of heaven.
Perhaps one of the greatest human renderings of this heavenly soundtrack comes in Charles Hubert Henry Parry’s great anthem Blest pair of sirens. Parry, perhaps best known for his music for the hymn Jerusalem, died one hundred years ago this year, and fittingly we sang Parry’s anthem of these words during the MDS week.
This anthem sets John Milton’s poem At a Solemn Musick. It begins with that image of the music and worship of heaven:
That undisturbèd Song of pure content,
Ay sung before the saphire-colour'd throne
To him that sits theron
But then Milton’s words do not simply describe the songs or the worship of Heaven. Through his genius Milton builds on this image. Music becomes not simply a symbol of our unity, or our worship, but also a metaphor for our salvation. That to be saved, to be drawn into the life of God is to be ‘in tune with Heaven.’
In this extended metaphor the original sin of humanity was to break with this harmonious unity. That in the Fall:
Jarr'd against natures chime, and with harsh din
Broke the fair musick that all creatures made
Music then becomes the means and path to our salvation. The way in which we can bring ourselves back into the deep harmony of God’s love.
Singing is a wonderful thing. It makes us feel better, it draws us together communally and worshipfully.
More than anything else singing is, quite literally, good for the soul.
As Milton’s great words conclude:
O may we soon again renew that Song
And keep in tune with Heav'n, till God ere long
To his celestial consort us unite,
To live with him, and sing in endles morn of light.