Why Should Episcopalians Have All the Good Chants?

What I am about to write will put me in awkward company since both James Jordan, the godfather of visions federal and David Koyzis, one of many keepers of the Kuyperian flame, have also advocated chanting psalms. But I am not afraid of the genetic fallacy that attributes guilt by association. I have very little sympathy for Jordan’s musings or for Koyzis’ opposition to dualism. But I do agree with them that chanting psalms is a better way to sing them than any available to the modern church.

But I don’t need to go Federal Visionist or neo-Calvinist to find support for chanting. The good and reliable singers of psalms, the Reformed Presbyterians, also include a page in their Book of Psalms for Singing on how to chant. Their reasons for chanting are as straightforward as their tips for singing are helpful. What is more, Reformed Presbyterian arguments don’t dabble in the exotic, trendy, or liturgical. For them, the point is to sing psalms as given in Scripture.

Chanting has several advantages over metrical Psalmody, stemming from the fact that in chanting, the music completely serves the text. The music is not difficult or interesting in itself, but has character and meaning only in conjunction with the words. The meaning of the text is thus more immediate, and the parallel structure of the Hebrew poetry is more apparent. The difficulties of translating ancient non-metrical poems into sensible English rhyme are rendered unnecessary. Chanting encourages the use of entire Psalms rather than selections.

The one advantage that I’d call attention to is that chanting frees modern congregations from having to sing songs that rhyme. My own tastes in poetry are pedestrian, and I like poems that rhyme. I am particularly attached to the limerick and sometimes write them. My main challenge is finding words that rhyme. (Heck, I have enough trouble finding the right word when it doesn’t have to rhyme.) But I see no reason why the songs we sing in worship need to rhyme. And I sometimes see the toll that rhyme schemes take upon the constructions (or their translations) of poets for whom rhyming was unknown.

Adding to the burden of metrical psalms is the tune. Each song has a certain number of beats per line, which means that each turn has a specific meter. Modern hymnals devote one of their many indexes to meters, such as, so that you may find all tunes with that meter and sing texts with the same meter to any of the listed tunes.

This means that psalm translators for metrical purposes not only have to find words at the end of lines that rhyme, but must also use translations that have the right number of syllables per line. Which means that a metrical psalm is several steps removed from the genuine article.

Now, of course, the genuine article would be to chant the psalms in Hebrew, but that would prevent worship in a known tongue to anyone in the United States other than obsessive seminary students.

So why not remove the entire rigamarole of awkward translations fitted for conventions of modern poetry and find a good English rendition of the psalms to chant? The music of chants are flexible and, contrary to the RPCNA’s advice, are often beautiful. Four-part chants are down right stunning. And chants aren’t that hard. The conservative Presbyterians with whom I commune sing well any number of complicated tunes. If Episcopalians, a group hardly known for vigorous congregational singing, can chant, why can’t Presbyterians?


29 thoughts on “Why Should Episcopalians Have All the Good Chants?

  1. I’m sold… more or less. Any good resources on how to learn to do it well or teach it to a congregation (other than the RP hymnal you refer to)?

    What chanting psalter would you use?


  2. I can’t express how much I love this post. I spent five years at a very conservative ECUSA church in Savannah where the main Sunday service is Morning Prayer (Matins) and the canticles are chanted by the congregation. The Psalm of the day is always read antiphonally but the chants used for the canticles are no less difficult than those used for Psalms at choral Evensong. Presbyterians could indeed learn a great deal from the Anglican chant tradition; it just takes exposure and practice. Step one- remember that the text is what’s important and that chant is basically speaking on a note.


  3. Darryl:

    Darryl says: “If Episcopalians, a group hardly known for vigorous congregational singing, can chant, why can’t Presbyterians?” Nonsense, a group without vigourous congregational singing? Hahaha! Stick to history, something you know…or, at least at segment of history. Or, start reading on the history of music in the English Reformation. I won’t even rebut this point.

    Order the chants of the Psalms from St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, for starters. Cambridge Press has some good works on Psalm-singing in the Anglican Churches.

    Some of the finest congregational singing I’ve ever heard was at my home parish, Mariners’ Anglican, Detroit where the Choirmaster/Organist trained and served at Chichester Cathedral, UK. With eleven choristers–seven with doctorates in music and the other four in doctoral programs for music. Attend there–and places like it–and one will be a little more cautious.



  4. I believe the Book of Common Prayer has a complete Coverdale psalter in it and the text “pointed” out that one would know how to break the text up to chant it. After that it would just be a matter of learning the music. The one “Anglican” chant music book I have seen doesn’t lay out its music in a standard format.

    I have observed that “Anglican” chanting tends not to be as ornate as Benedictine chanting. Benedictine chanting tends to hold one syllable of a word and goes all over the musical scale. When English texts are chanted Benedictine style it doesn’t sound right. Benedictine chanting is more made for Latin.


  5. Darryl:

    Nope, never heard the congregation of Bar Harbour. Long, the music historian (not near my library or I’d post the reference), does speak of some Anglican choirs where there was “raucous bawling.” Even a congregation attempting to outdo another. Long is merciless about it and quite funny. So, yes, there are places of incompetence, but music has had a grand Cathedral and parish tradition. Thankfully, we did not toss the grand Cathedral and Collegiate traditions in the Reformation…and we have a long history of grand classics to show for it. We did not irrationally toss choirs and organs either.

    Again, commending St. Paul’s entire set of Psalms through St. Paul’s, London, a set to that grand Reformed Prayer Book, the 1662. In a classical Anglican tradition–now largely gone–those Psalms were sung. If followed in any given day, every day, one can expect to sing 10-15 Psalms EVERY day. I know. I use it daily.

    Tell me, what’s worship like at Westminster these days? A hymn, sermonette and prayer…without exposure to (any) liturgical worship or Psalm-singing?

    I’ll grant the WCF at most places, but won’t yield on the 1662 BCP for the Puritans, nor give up that grand and great tradition of worship and song.



  6. Durrell:

    Cranmer’s dictum was “one word per musical note,” rather than polyphonic or multiple notes per word. The idea was–as Cranmer was as a Pastor–to educate England with the Psalms.

    Glad to have my Anglican chants, 1662 BCP, my Reformed Confessions and the English Bible. If I did not have these, I’d be prey to all these quixotic voices of chaos and apostasy–especially in my orbit.



  7. Darryl:

    Aside from my justifiable chastisement of the single point so ruefully made by you, I fully support the wider thrust of your commendable post. That must overshadow my justifiable chastisement, to wit, the vigourous support of you larger point. Let no one think that I disagree with you.

    I say this by way of perspective.



  8. D. Philip, you seem to be boasting about Anglican choirs, not Anglican congregational singing. I’ll give you the English’s church’s musical tradition as one of the loveliest in the history of the world (only rivaled by those crazy and deep-throated Russians and Estonians). But my point is about congregational singing. And I’d put contemporary sideline Presbyterians up against any other set of laity, not to say that the competition is all that fair since most laity these days have to stand and watch the “band” sing in a warm and filled way.

    I am not talking about liturgy.


  9. Interesting post. Having grown up Roman Catholic chanting is not all that strange to my ears.

    The other day I read a comment on a Lutheran blog and it referenced the woman’s husband as a cantor in her congregation. That sparked my memory about Lutheran worship and indeed, there is a movement to recover that practice among confessional Lutherans. Here is one recent post on the topic about LCMS churches and chanting:



  10. At the Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli, PA, we have great congregational singing, at least at our 9 AM Eucharist. However, we don’t chant the Psalm appointed for the day at that service. However, at our 11:15 service, we chant the Psalm (with the choir) for the day usually using the arrangement based on the Ionian Psalter as arranged by a musician from the cathedral in Seattle. In my own daily prayer, I have begun to use the RPCNA Psalter hymnal to sing the psalms for the day.


  11. If you can get the entire OPC to ditch the Trinity Hymnal in favor of chanting the Psalms exclusively then great. I won’t hold my breath though. What I am unconvinced of though, is your unstated, but implied idea that the slippery slope of worship decline in the Presbyterian churches all started with the horror of the Genevan Psalter.


  12. Darryl:

    1. Not about to argue here. Am a Confessionalist with emphatic support for Dr. R. Scott Clark’s “Recovering the Reformed Confessions.” A tremendous contribution by Scott. I refuse to read moderns, but Scott’s work–a modern–was a “must.” Ergo, lest there appear to a fundamental difference between us on “Psalm-singing,” I wish to minimize that. As a Presbyterian, however, like your colleagues at WTS, you are seriously limited re: Anglican history…a fact. Same for the west coast. The entire faculty has little experience in Prayer Book Churchmanship…another fact. A lamentable loss in terms of worship. I suspect we are agreed that the CCM-praise band crowd is an half-witted crowd.

    2. Having said that, am a 1662 BCP man and ain’t yielding otherwise. Darryl, the Anglicans dislike my refusal to yield on the 39 Articles, Lambeth Articles of 1595, the Irish Confession of 1615 (half of which–verbatim–was taken over into the WCF), and substantial tracts of the WCF. In short, nobody likes me fully–but hoohey on em.’ Retired , am self-supporting, and need no one’s affirmation.

    3. Having said that, Psalm-singing, in fact, characterized Anglican churches for a good 200 years after the English Reformation…starting point 1552. Then came the hymnodists, including the staunch Calvinist, Rev. Augustus Montague Toplady, but enough there. This was a set-back in my estimation.

    4. We shall do well do return to the singing of Psalms predominantly, including other canonical texts, e.g. Magnificat. I post one among others used in our great, godly, Protestant and Reformed Prayer Book. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LUWKSTysnpg&feature=related Yes, this is singable when exposed to it.

    5. Want more Bible? Sing it. As for Psalms, as is used daily here at Camp Lejeune by this forlorn exile in the Anglican Babylonian Captivity and retired Marine, commending the Psalter-set attuned to the 1662 BCP. The set from St. Paul’s, London, is set to the Coverdale Psalter…verbatim and without metricalization. Yes, these chants are learnable too…as generations of Anglicans used them.

    6. Thank God for my home church, Mariners’ Anglican, Detroit. We sang and sing with great congregational energy. I will put the congregational singing up against any sideline or mainline church anywhere, anytime, or under any condition. It is a 39-Articles Church. We spent $1 million and won–to be free of the loons in ECUSA/TEC.

    7. Again, posted without any opposition to the major point–time to “man up” and sing Psalms. Yeah, and canonical texts. I would add the Apostles and Nicene Creed. Even the 3FU and Little Catechism (WSC). Perhaps the 39 Articles, but that might overload the capacities of amnesiacal Bishops.

    8. Good post by you. While I rightly chided you on one sentence, that by no means undermined the central and correct thrust of your post. Side-by-side with you in this matter.

    D. Philip Veitch
    Camp Lejeune, NC


  13. D. Phil. Okay, then. We need to have a congregational sing off. But I am glad to know that Anglicans held on to psalm singing so long (which is what my own research has indicated). And I agree that the hymns came from — well, er, — the Calvinistic Protestants (as opposed to Reformed Protestants). Since I am so close this semester (in Hillsdale), I should try to visit your parish.


  14. Dave,

    It looks like the Higher Things article was about the Lutheran pastor’s chanting, in which we’re trained at our seminaries. This is traditional in the Lutheran Church, although our generally Protestant environment in America makes many of our people touchy about it, seeing it as “Roman.” I do wish that Lutherans chanted more of the Psalms, but if you look in our Lutheran Service Book, there are both Psalms and tones to chant them (of which I wish we did more in our services). We commonly use only a part of a psalm unless it’s shorter, e.g. the Hallel psalms.


    You are right that Gregorian chant is more difficult than Anglican chant. Again, in an example from Lutheranism, things like the Te Deum or the Psalms assigned for congregational singing are set in Anglican chant, while the pastor may intone the Words of Institution or one of the collects in Gregorian chant.


  15. Darryl:

    Am with you on the re-establishment of Psalm-singing. While some may prefer metrical Psalms, OK, I’m–as previously noted–influenced by the Anglican chants from St. Paul’s, London. In my orbit, I’m really up “against it.”

    Sir, it is a daily thing here at Camp Lejeune, not an ethereal matter. I sing these Coverdale Psalms from the 1662 BCP. Thank God for St. Paul’s set. And…groan…I live in SBC land in the south. Camp Lejeune, NC. I pray this may be re-established far and wide.

    Also, saw one of your books on amazon.com. I am as cheap as the proverbial Scotsman, but will break for it.

    D. Philip Veitch
    Camp Lejeune, NC
    Eastern USA


  16. I spent my college years at Purdue worshiping at the West Lafayette RPCNA. The chants were part of the Psalm-sing repertoire. We’ve tried to introduce them into every church we’ve been to since. I’ve recently gained an appreciation for Gregorian chant through the Liturgical Studies professor here at Colorado State (Dr. Joel Bacon). We’ve now used chant on occasion at our CRC here in Fort Collins, but mostly as “presentational” rather than “congregational” singing. You ought to check out “The Emergent Psalter” by Isaac Everett. Not precisely chant but at least a modern renewed interest in Psalm singing. The CRCNA worship folks have a Psalm project as well that looks very interesting.


  17. “Gregorian” chant (I use quotes because many forms that aren’t strictly Gregorian get lumped in together these days) is especially beautiful when sung by a congregation. The church I grew up in does especially well with ‘Of the Father’s Love Begotten’ (take that John Frame). Also, it’s good to hear that Psalters are becoming readily available though I confess that I’m immediately turned off by anything with “Emergent” in the title.


  18. Darryl:

    While several good chants are on youtube, these Psalter chants–en toto–are on that valued Psalter-set from St. Paul’s, London. Quite a substantial aid for Psalm singing with the 1662 BCP, ordered for daily and evening offices. Here’s a few URL’s.

    Psalm 8—York Cathedral

    Psalm 42–Canterbury Cathedral (my wife has been professionally associated with–worked with–the Choirmaster/Organitst of Canterbury)

    Psalm 46–Wrea Green Anglican Church

    I think of our discussion daily as the Psalms are sung. A very necessary matter to be recovered.


    Donald Philip Veitch
    Camp Lejeune, NC
    Eastern US


  19. Oops, forgot Psalm 42 above. The URL:

    A few more:

    Psalm 24

    Psalm 67, sung every night at Evening Prayer following the reading of the NT lection:

    Psalm 91


  20. Darryl:

    A terribly important point under review, the renaissance of singing the Psalms and canonical texts. You’re a Presbyterian. I am Anglo-Reformed. Other issues to the side, Englishmen were Psalm-singers till the rise of hymnody…which I in no way oppose.

    However, my view? “Good God, restore, Thou Holy One, the singing of Thy Word. Through His Majesty’s mediation, our one and only Advocate, Christ Jesus.”

    I’ve seen it before, but reviewed again tonight. A salutary and salubrious practice.

    It may be time to have a one-year Sunday School class on Psalm-singing, yes, 45- minutes of singing with intersparsed comments, e.g. brief context/commentary, with singing. Why not?

    As always, singing the Psalms with the Anglican chants by way of the 1662 BCP with the daily and evening aid of St. Paul’s CD-set. What else can one do while in this forlorn geography of–at least his–an Anglican Babylonian exile.

    These Presbyoes got one thing right–singing the Psalms. (Yes, an Anglican who will not yield on the 1662 BCP for the non-Conformists and will not yield on the WCF for these forlorn Anglilcans. Darryl, draw comfort from this. No one likes me and I suffer the “slings and arrows from both side.” But ain’t yieldin.’)

    Best regards,
    Donald Philip Veitch


  21. These Presbyterians give hope. Great Granddad’s Bible, from Glasgow, Church of Scotland…a few feet from me. All 150 Psalms, of course, “metrified and paraphrased.” But close enough. And transcendent by leagues above the chaos, confusion and doctrinal bizarreness in this CCM-world. Also, paraphrases of Genesis through Revelation. Great Granddad’s church in Glasgow actually “sung” Isaiah 1.1-10.

    Darryl, I post the KJV of Is.1.1-10, although in the old Glasgow Bible it was paraphrased. But close enough. Imagine singing this in divine worship?

    Isaiah 1:1-10 (King James Version)

    Isaiah 1
    1The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

    2Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the LORD hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.

    3The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.

    4Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward.

    5Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.

    6From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment.

    7Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire: your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers.

    8And the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.

    9Except the LORD of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah.

    10Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.

    The moderns have no clue. I am still stunned by this. They actually “sung” this.

    Have a hankering to head to Phillie and take a few courses with you and Carl. Still reading and with many questions here.

    Best Regards,
    Donald Philip Veitch, a old and very retired US Marine


  22. Darryl:

    I continue to “excogitate” the matter, day by day.

    Update. Unabashedly, from this scribe’s blog at: http://reformationanglicanism.blogspot.com/2010/12/compare-and-contrast-psalm-46.html

    “Compare and contrast, goof-bagging puerility in the first URL with serious Churchmen, the Scots Reformed, in the second URL. The CCM-boys need to stand down. This “guitar-pluckerists” compared to the majesty of Ps.46. Away with these loons…these emergent children without roots, lads and lasses. Compare and contrast the two URLs. Good God, deliver us.

    Away with these modern CCM-illiterate `pluckerists.’ Good God, who can abide this worship-idiocy of the CCM-loons. They are worse than the Pentecostalist-idiots. Who can abide it?”

    Darryl, methinks my view is clear. We must have a musicological reformation. Luther understood, as did the Anglicans, the “power” of music.

    All good regards,


  23. An additional note, Darryl:

    “I am an old and retired US Marine. Tired of guitar-pluckin’ dudes pawning themselves off as musicians and theologians. The CCM-gig is up. Listen to the the next URL. We salute the Scots Reformed. We do that as Anglican Churchmen too.”

    Darryl, my entire city is suffused with CCM-loondom. A southeastern city, Camp Lejeune, NC, about 180K folks. All Anabaptist loons. Going nuts here.

    :”Not gonna take it no moe.'”

    I got a few ideas. CCM-lunacy ain’t in the plan.


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