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?