As congregations return to regular gatherings, they are facing urgent questions of how to continue in worship, and churches with choirs are having to decide: Is choral singing too risky in a culture wary of contagion? Are the typical demographics of choirs too vulnerable? Are church choirs outdated anyway and COVID-19 their inevitable death knell? Perhaps contemporary styles are more pragmatic: a soloist can stand safely apart from the congregation and electronic instruments are certainly more sterile than human breath. Although choral ministries may seem impractical in the post-pandemic era, they remain important as reflections and reinforcements of communion. It is no coincidence that, in stifling the breath of its victims, COVID-19 revealed and aggravated ruptures in Christian communion, which Rowan Williams defines as “shared life in His holy breath” (Williams, Tokens of Trust, 94). It follows that, if we are to return to shared life following a diseased, distanced, and digitalized era, we must breathe together once more. Composed of coordinated breath, choral singing offers a powerful manifestation of communion and may be a vital prescription for reviving unity in the body of Christ.
The Apostles’ Creed presents the communion of saints as emanating from the work of the Holy Spirit, and it is clear from Scripture that singing is an essential component of Christian life and community:
iLook carefully then how you walk … do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Eph 5:15-21 ESV)
Paul presents singing as the faithful alternative to drunkenness and disorder. He commands the Ephesian church to prioritize singing as an orderly, interpersonal practice that is at once a solution for and symptom of their community. Such singing testifies to the work of the Spirit in reconciling Christians to God and one another in communication, thanksgiving, submission, and reverence.
In addition to the special revelation of God’s Word, the general revelation of God’s world testifies to the power of organized song. Group music making is considered one of the earliest marks of civilization because it indicates and contributes to community building, and secular choirs often express that they achieve oneness through the “spirit of music” (Jonathan Arnold, Sacred Music in Secular Society, 43). Research also indicates that, as choristers breathe together, their heartbeats actually begin to synchronize, physiologically paralleling the work of the Spirit (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00334/full#h6). For believers, singing together not only indicates community but incarnates communion, becoming “the sounding image of the unified Church” (Steven Guthrie, “The Wisdom of Song,” in Resonant Witness, 284-85). Furthermore, harmonious singing demonstrates the submission commanded in Ephesians, for it requires vulnerability and sacrifice as singers share their very selves for the sake of mutual upbuilding, giving, and receiving their breath as intimately and generously as though members of the same body. What could be more effective in reviving “shared life in His holy breath” than this?
As pandemic restrictions are lifted, the need to engage more people in live worship is increasing. Unfortunately, many who desire to serve may not be permitted due to limited places on praise teams. By contrast, choral ministries create opportunities for advanced vocalists to share their gifts, as well as for others to grow in music and relationship. While contemporary bands provide impactful leadership, choirs not only direct worship but demonstrate fellowship. As in the communion of saints, choirs admit no distinction or hierarchy other than those that generate beautiful harmonies and are beneficial to the ensemble as a whole. An excellent melody or talented individual can certainly glorify God, but harmony and mutuality may be more effective at exemplifying the diverse unity of Christian communion. In this, choral singing is not only participatory but anticipatory; as believers pursue unity, they themselves become the image of a living choir, joined in charity toward one another. Ignatius of Antioch writes that “Jesus Christ is sung” as saints grow in relationship with Christ and one another, and that, through this, they are transformed into “a choir … harmonious in love” (Guthrie, 384).
Just as music moves through time toward a cadence that is not yet realized, singing together here and now reminds believers of their promised end: eternal relationship in Christ. Throughout the ongoing pandemic, many Christians have come to anticipate this future with greater expectation, but just as many may have lost heart due to division and disconnection. In choral singing, such dissonance must resolve as participants reunite physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually through shared breath and song. In this, singing together may inspire Christians to realize their certain hope as the body of Christ, in which every singer is gifted a unique part and all rejoice together in magnificent polyphony. Worshipping as a choir prepares participants for the life to come, serving as an earthly rehearsal for the celestial chorus of “Holy, Holy, Holy!”
If church choirs were merely a matter of musical taste, it would be reasonable to let them fade as echoes of the pre-pandemic era; they require people to stand too close, to breathe recycled air, and to sing increasingly unfamiliar repertoires. While style and execution must adapt to current health codes and comfort levels, choral singing should be reinstated as an essential component of worship and a potential incarnation of communion. To abandon such singing is to abandon a scriptural tradition, to dismiss it as inessential is to ignore its role in spiritual formation, and to discard it as dangerous is to disregard it as an image of eternal life. Adjustments will have to be made, but it is worth preserving church choirs as a remedy for Christian harmony in a dissonant age.
This post first appeared in The Big Picture, a publication of the Kirby Laing Institute. Ryanne McLaren Molinari is a professional pianist and organist, and an avid writer with a growing body of work, much of which can be accessed on her site, ABookishCharm.com.