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What’s With That Chanting? Is it Lutheran?

Some have asked about the chanting in our Divine Service. I hope the following article via Gloria Christi Lutheran Church (Greeley, CO) will be of a benefit in explaining both the history and practice.

A Brief Explanation of Chanting Among Traditional Lutherans

Very often when a congregation has not been accustomed to liturgical chant (at least in the pastor’s parts of the dialogue) some will have an emotional reaction to it and declare it “Roman Catholic”. This is, of course, not completely accurate and represents an uninformed opinion. Liturgical chant has a long history from the time of the founding of the Missouri Synod and other synods in North America, to the time of Luther in Germany and Scandinavia, on back to the early church and indeed into the worship of the Old Testament believers in the Messiah. It is nothing new and it is not uniquely Roman Catholic at all. Among Christians one not only finds chant among Roman Catholics but also Anglicans (Episcopalians), Eastern Orthodox, more liturgical Presbyterians, and many Lutherans. Historically speaking, it is representative of the majority of worshiping Christians throughout the centuries. As is clear from Martin Luther, his liturgical reforms sought only to revise what was in error and leave intact and cleansed what good gifts were passed on in the churchs tradition that were unproblematic (i.e., if it isn’t broke, dont fix it!). Both of the Divine Service orders produced by Martin Luther featured chant prominently (Formula Missae and the Deutsche Messe). It is also historically known within The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, as this quote from C.F.W. Walther, first Missouri Synod president, testifies:

Whenever the divine service once again follows the old Evangelical-Lutheran agendas (or church books), it seems that many raise a great cry that it is “Roman Catholic”: “Roman Catholic” when the pastor chants “The Lord be with you” and the congregation responds by chanting “and with thy spirit”; “Roman Catholic” when the pastor chants the collect and the blessing and the people respond with a chanted “Amen.” Even the simplest Christian can respond to this outcry: “Prove to me that this chanting is contrary to the Word of God, then I too will call it `Roman Catholic’ and have nothing more to do with it. However, you cannot prove this to me.” If you insist upon calling every element in the divine service “Romish” that has been used by the Roman Catholic Church, it must follow that the reading of the Epistle and Gospel is also “Romish.” Indeed, it is mischief to sing or preach in church, for the Roman Church has done this also . . .Those who cry out should remember that the Roman Catholic Church possesses every beautiful song of the old orthodox church. The chants and antiphons and responses were brought into the church long before the false teachings of Rome crept in. This Christian Church since the beginning, even in the Old Testament, has derived great joy from chanting… For more than 1700 years orthodox Christians have participated joyfully in the divine service. Should we, today, carry on by saying that such joyful participation is “Roman Catholic”? God forbid! Therefore, as we continue to hold and to restore our wonderful divine services in places where they have been forgotten, let us boldly confess that our worship forms do not tie us with the modern sects or with the church of Rome; rather, they join us to the one, holy Christian Church that is as old as the world and is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. [Der Lutheraner, July 19, 1853, issue, volume 9, number 24, page 163].

A helpful point of comparison may be vestments. Vestments are the various traditional garments (e.g. alb, chasuble, cassock, surplice) worn by the clergy and other liturgical assistants in churches that follow a form of the historic liturgy. The purpose of vestments is to cover the person so that we do not focus on the individual but upon the means of grace (Gospel and Sacraments) and the office that person holds. It is also to indicate the office the person holds by virtue of call, ordination or consecration. And so a pastor wears a stole and/or a chasuble to indicate his office and the particular order of service that is being conducted. An acolyte may simply wear a cassock and cotta. Another purpose of vestments is to adorn the liturgist and assistants to indicate the reverence, joy, and holiness of the Divine Service. This brings us back to chant in the liturgy of the church.

In many ways chant serves as a “vestment” for the voice. Chant, as a kind of combination between singing and speaking, serves to de-emphasize the idiosyncrasies of the person conducting the liturgy or assisting and helps to emphasize the mystical and sacramental unity and communion between Christ and His Bride, the Church. In this way also, chant serves as a kind of vocal “uniform” like the basic liturgical vestments or even the clerical shirt and collar. Theologically speaking, personality doesn’t then matter much from one pastor to another so long as the Gospel is preached purely and the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution (Acts 2:42; Augsburg Confession VII). Chant helps convey this uniformity in office and the transparochial nature of the church’s ministerium. This means that it points to the continuity of the church beyond simply our own local congregation and beyond the moment and century that we live in now.

When both pastor and congregation chant their respective parts of the liturgical dialogue the simple fact of the liturgy as a dialogue is made abundantly more clear. The dialogue or conversation takes place in the same mode or genre, if you will. It is rather odd when the pastor speaks his parts and the congregation sings theirs. Imagine an opera or a musical conducted in such format. Or imagine a conversation in daily life like this! Why this supposedly makes sense to some in regard to worship is very likely due to repetition of a less-than-preferred liturgical practice thought to be “old Lutheran” or “conservative” which may really be Pietistic, protestant, or may simply demonstrate the lack of liturgical training and understanding on the part of a previous pastor or musicians. This is the same kind of misunderstanding which believes that Lutherans cannot have communion more than once per month or make the sign of the cross, and that old Lutheran clergy wore chiefly black gowns in the liturgy. In these instances of speaking pastors and chanting congregations, the two parts seem hardly to go together and understanding the liturgy as a grace-delivering-and-receiving conversation is lost. It may be a conservative and institutionalized liturgical version of what is often called “talking past one another.”

Likewise, chant helps to emphasize that the Divine Service is heaven coming down to earth in the means of Christ’s grace (Revelation 4,5; Isaiah 6:1-7Acts 2:42; I Corinthians 11; Luke 22:27). It communicates the divine mystery of this transaction of the means of grace and faith. Chant clothes and elevates the words that are spoken so that the message is the main thing, rather than the personality quirks of the messenger (see I Corinthians 1,2). For we do not preach ourselves but Christ and Him crucified. This vestment for the voice adorns the liturgy with the joy of song in a way that also accommodates the characteristics of regular speech. The Lord’s presence is a cause for rejoicing in song, even in this gift’s delivery. And yet this is to be in such a way that it is not entertainment, but a high and holy encounter with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who condescends to be with His redeemed people. In short, chant carries benefits from both song and speech in one form. This is what was understood by both the editors of The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) and Lutheran Worship (1982). This is also understood in the recently published Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. However, this understanding was somewhat lost inadvertently when the pastor’s chant was not included with The Lutheran Hymnal but put into a supplementary volume of Music of the Liturgy.

While many pastors are reluctant to chant and express some shyness toward the idea of it, most pastors can, with practice and a moderate amount of training, chant quite proficiently the basic parts of the liturgy that are in our hymnals and agendae. Most pastors are not “tone deaf”. A rare few are lacking of those created gifts and those pastors should probably not chant, out of mercy. A pastor could start with the salutation, the preface to the Communion liturgy, and perhaps the Benedicamus and Benediction. Later he might add the Words of Institution, Proper Prefaces, and other prayers. Or he might vary such things as suggested by the festivals and penitential seasons of the Church Year. A pastor should practice it regularly. Chant affords additional variety that is also traditional. In addition there are many chants that the parish choir might also sing, not so much as a performing “anthem” choir, but as a working liturgical choir (Introit, Gradual, Verse, or special settings of the ordinary of the liturgy). A liturgical deacon might also help with such things.

In our consumeristic culture of contemporary worship and “praise bands,” chant runs against the Zeitgeist and carries its own culture that is shaped by time-tested forms rather than the liturgy du jour. The church is in the world and yet not of the world. Chant helps to emphasize this. Chant has been evident and valued in the more confessional periods of Lutheran history. May our churches be such oases of the holy Triune God’s grace that we may say with one of our hymns:

Here Thy praise is gladly chanted,
Here Thy seed is duly sown;
Let my soul, where it is planted,
Bring forth precious sheaves alone,
So that all I hear may be
Fruitful unto life in me.
["Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty", TLH #1]

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