Together We Sing image

Together We Sing

Last week's extension of the coronavirus lockdown regulations in England, and the restrictions in some parts of Scotland were a blow to those of us who are longing for the day when we can sing together again in worship. (The Welsh were given permission this week to sing with masks on.)

It hasn’t been as bad as I expected thus far, to be fair. I have felt able to enter into the times of worship-with-music (because, of course, all of life, let alone the service, is worship…!); it hasn’t just felt like standing around watching a performance. And yet, it isn’t the same.

My twitter feed has been buzzing with people outraged that football fans are allowed to sing in support of their teams while we are not allowed to sing with greater social distancing, more ventilation and considerably less raucousness than a train-carriage full of happy footy fans.

And now the Government is urging schools to make children sing an odd little song tomorrow about how united Britain is, how much we love each other, and how we have ‘‘opened our doors and widened our island’s shores”. And of course, our pride. Mustn’t forget that word.

Setting aside the significant faux pas of asking all the nation’s schools to sing it on a date after most of Scotland’s schools have broken up for the summer, why a song? Why is it important to get children to sing together at this time? And why do Christians set so much store on singing?

Setting a message to music makes it far easier to learn. The memory verses I learned to music as a child have stayed with me far longer than those I simply memorised by rote. I can remember the slogans and phone numbers of companies who put their radio adverts to music that I heard decades ago far more easily than I can remember important information that I read yesterday.

And music seems to be lodged in a different part of the brain than other things we hear and learn: a lady with dementia at my parents’ church could play hymns on the piano long after she had lost the ability to perform far simpler tasks.

Music connects in a way other sources of information don’t.

But add in a congregational or collective element, and it has even more power. A ragged, too slow, too high rendition of ‘Happy birthday to you’ may not be the height of musical prowess, but we sing it year after year, embarrassing the birthday boy/girl, but communicating in our rough and ready way something that hasn’t been communicated sufficiently by us all showing up, buying thoughtful gifts, sharing a meal together and generally showering the celebree with attention. Together, collectively, we combine our love and felicitations and bestow them on the person lit by a candle glow (before he then propels his germs neatly across the surface of a cake for us all to participate in). It’s quite a weird tradition, when you think about it.

But singing together unites us. It always amazes me how crowds are able to sing together at football matches, how, out of the general melee of noise, suddenly a unity emerges. Who starts these things? How do they catch on? How do they travel so quickly from one bloke and his mates to a mass of thousands of strangers? It is magical.

Singing together has been found to increase our sense of community and belonging. Some suggest this is an ‘evolved behaviour’, though of course, to the Christian it sounds more like a gift of God - especially when we remember that God gave us a whole book of songs to praise and worship him with, and recorded many other songs throughout the Bible. Singing together builds community, it strengthens our bonds with one another. And it can bring life to one another.

My friend Alianoree Smith explained on Twitter earlier this year:

There are a lot of things I miss about in-person church.

But recently, I’ve been feeling acutely the loss of holding and being held by others’ faith - in liturgy, in song, in prayer.

The ‘*we* believe’ of the creed, even when you’re not sure whether *you* believe it right now.

The inkling that by singing ‘Great is thy faithfulness’ that little bit louder, you are holding up the faith of the friend standing next to you who can’t quite remember what God’s faithfulness feels like anymore, and somehow praying with them that, soon, new mercies they’ll see.

The communal confession and absolution of sin - knowing that we are all sinners together, but God’s mercy is bigger than we dared imagine.

I miss those moments that form our hearts and secure our faith, and remind us that we’re not taking this strange ol’ road alone.

Singing together binds us together, but what we sing matters, too. The songs we gather around express who we understand ourselves to be and embed those identities within us. That’s why most countries have a national anthem - singing a song together about the glory of our country or its leader both expresses to others what we value and reminds us of it, it reorientates us around what we believe in (or at least what the authorities want us to believe in).

Hence a song for OBON Day (yes, I know).

OBON wants to create a spirit of inclusion with a collective purpose and a common future where we all seek to eliminate hatred, intolerance and discrimination of any kind so that all our people can feel and develop a strong and shared sense of belonging in order to showcase their pride, passion and love for our great nation.

And the most effective way of doing this is by singing a prescribed song together.

This is why churches are so bothered about singing together. It forms us and shapes us around the truths we sing about our God, his salvation and his call on our lives. It embeds those truths in us and binds us to one another in a way that no other practice can. And it is wonderful.

Let us hope and pray that the government will join the dots in its thinking and recognise that singing in Christian worship is not just a warm-up act for the preacher or an opportunity for performance, but is an essential part of the process of being a believer, growing in faith and becoming the bride of Christ.

I can’t wait!

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