The role of music in Anglican worship

September 29 2021, by Toby Wright

For centuries, music has had an innate connection with religion. Worship songs, psalms and hymns, for example, have played a major part in many people’s childhoods. Making music has always seemed to have been an integral part of Anglican worship, whether in a school assembly or in church. Indeed, there are a huge variety of reasons why music is used in liturgy. From the sheer power and resonance it can have to bringing people together, it has a key role in services across the world. Three reasons as to why music can be considered important and widely appreciated by many can be explained as follows:

To highlight important moments in the liturgy – music and singing, in particular is significant because it is inspirational and is an elevated form of speech. It brings variety and has the ability to ‘lift’ and raise parts of the liturgy above the rest. This interest and positivity which singing creates is really shown when indoor congregational singing was banned and choirs limited to six people as part of the Covid-19 restrictions. 70,000 choirs across the country couldn’t meet up and sing in the usual way and many musicians shared their frustrations online via social media. Anna Lapwood, Organist and Director of Music at Pembroke College, Cambridge, stated that: “This is ridiculous and another blow to our industry. Why are people allowed to eat in crowded restaurants when choirs can’t meet socially-distanced in well-ventilated rooms?” The health benefits of singing as a group were also mentioned and the uniting ability of choral music could not be experienced as it had been in normal times.

To encourage and motivate members of the Church – music can unite, bring together and help the views and beliefs of a group of people and is also important because it nourishes, supports and inspires the individuals taking part in the liturgy. This demonstrates the significance music has in bringing different cultures together and how a group of people making music together can both unite and facilitate change.

To respond to and interact with God using the universal and inimitable language of music – the liturgy of the Anglican Church is, at its core, for the worship of God and the people. Music and singing, then, is a way of returning and giving back to God. Individuals often feel the need to honour God in any way possible and a congregation raising their voices in a hymn is uniting and inspirational. Due to music being a universal language, it can convey a huge range of emotions, such as joy, sorrow and thanksgiving – themes often reflected in the Anglican Church. The Lord’s Prayer, for example, is often set to music and said or sung at the majority of services in the Anglican Church.

The occasions when music is often used within the Anglican Church’s liturgy is in services, for example the Eucharist, where the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament are used. These both contain feelings and dynamics which music can help to convey.

The Liturgy of the Sacrament contains two fundamental parts called the Sanctus and the Amen. The Sanctus is said praise by the church people and the Amen is a conclusion to the prayers of individuals. The Sanctus is said to be the climax of liturgical action and worshippers celebrate their faith through this expression. This is concluded by the Amen which brings the prayers and thoughts of people to a reverent and formal close. This is an ideal opportunity to use music to highlight these important moments of worship.

The Liturgy of the Word contains spoken parts such as gospel readings and the Sermon but also has sung psalms, canticles and acclamations. These are moments of intensity and emotion because their message is shown much clearer than that of the spoken parts of the liturgy. This emphasises how music creates a lasting effect and definition in worship which helps the participants are more aware of the hierarchal shape and meaning of the liturgy that they are a involved in. In addition, utilising music to highlight parts and acclamations of the Gospel is an effective way of alerting the people witnessing the liturgy that something is about to occur, for example a fanfare.

The reasons why music is used as well as why it is important can also explain when it is used. For example, the closing hymn of a service can often be a loud, heartful and joyous experience for a congregation to conclude the service and send them on their way. This is a great example of when music can unite people as well as being able to interact with God because they may feel closer to him if they are so inclined.

A wide variety of music has been written for use in liturgy and large amounts of it has been composed since the 4th century. Composers from Mozart to Andrew Lloyd-Webber have composed oratorios, requiems and pieces which have all been used in worship for many years.

Much of the music used has been hymns from a variety of hymnals, such as the New English Hymnal and anthems by composers such as Herbert Howells, Thomas Tallis and Orlando Gibbons. These are well-known and well-loved by many choirs and congregations and traditional English hymn tunes by composers such as Ralph Vaughan-Williams are regularly used throughout the calendars of many Anglican churches. The worshipping church has always required music to be written for it and exists in conjunction with the development of the arts and inspiring and encouraging musicians.

These are rather similar to the reasons why music is used in liturgy but in addition to this, many artists, congregations and musicians are inspired and motivated by the music used in the liturgy of the Anglican Church.

There is such feeling and beauty in music which can add so much to liturgy that simply spoken words cannot. For example, the hymn ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say, come unto me and rest’ was written by 19th century hymn writer Horatius Bonar and he was inspired to produce these words to serve the needs of the churches he served. It has become a favourite for many churches and contains a strong message that emphasises the strong link between music and the liturgy. This further illustrates music’s integral role within the liturgy and demonstrates how it adds a special and unique dimension and emotion to worship.

To conclude, I think music is of enormous importance to the liturgy. The experiences felt by participants confirms the power, beauty and unity it possesses.

Toby Wright, U6

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