A small but ever-growing group of seminarians gathers twice a day in a small chapel on Asbury Theological Seminary’s campus to pray the morning and evening Daily Office found in the Book of Common Prayer. Recently, we have begun chanting some of the canticles and prayers found in those daily offices, and that has brought me to a few reflections about the value of chanting as a form of worship. And since how we worship reflects what we believe, the message behind chanting may be more significant than you might expect.
1. Chanting is foreign, and so is our faith.
The North American church is often trapped in being people pleasers. Some congregations must have a traditional hymnody in worship, otherwise it isn’t worship. Others don’t feel the spirit moving unless a cajón is being thumped somewhere. Rather than try to make everyone happy – or as we might often hear it, to “make worship accessible” – what if we pushed believers to operate well in discomfort? The form of our worship does matter, but the form of our faith has never been its selling point. How many people felt great about the form that the Messiah came in? Even his disciples had a hard time buying the whole dead messiah deal, much less the idea of dying themselves. Since following Christ into humility and death will always feel uncomfortable, we should work to be a people that feels at home in discomfort, so long as that discomfort points to Christ. We don’t have to punch people in the face when they visit our church for the first time, but the sooner we make it clear that this whole journey is going to be strange and foreign to them, the better.
2. Chanting requires cultural and personal self-denial.
If you love singing and hearing harmony and highly stylized music, this kind of self-denial is for you. If you’re incredibly self-conscious about how you sing, this self-denial is for you. Chanting is a great equalizer. The rule of thumb is to sing as you would speak, so that you put a natural speaking rhythm to a simple and repetitive melody. That means getting over all your singing talents and preferences and just singing the plain notes in unimpressive ways. It also means getting over your insecurities, remembering that worshiping is not about you. It is to the glorification of God and the edification of the body.
This is where chanting flies in the face of our culture of individualism and pluralism. Another basic tenet of chanting is to follow the lead of the cantor (the leader of the chant). If the cantor sings in a way displeasing to you, too bad. Chanting models a relationship of conformity. Much as the chanters conform themselves to the cantor, so we the body conform ourselves to the head which is Christ. If we do not practice our self-denial in every aspect of how we relate to Christ, how can we expect ourselves to step up when true trials come? Best of all, all these things that we deny ourselves in chanting are rewarded with better things.
3. Chanting is a fantastic memory aid.
I sing the chants while I jog in the morning. These simple tunes get stuck in your head whether you want them to or not. The words we chant are often scripture themselves, so you will find yourself grateful to be able to recite Mary’s song after learning she will bear the savior of humanity, or Zechariah’s song after finding out who his son will be. You will also learn by default beautiful prayers passed down through the centuries.
4. Chanting calls us to simplicity.
Imagine worship with me: Take away all the instruments, cajón and organ alike. Take away the worship leader. Take away the harmony. Could you consistently worship without all of this, only ever singing the simple melody of a hymn, and still feel that you are worshiping God, loving him with all your heart, mind, soul and strength? Without all of these aids in setting the atmosphere, would you praise your God as mightily and personally? Chanting teaches us to worship simply. Instead of getting caught up in the building energy of the worship band, carried away by the voices of harmony around you, choked up by the organ pipes you’ve known since childhood, you can get caught up, carried away and choked up by the content of what you are singing. There just isn’t as much to be distracted to by, since chanting by necessity points to the content it carries.
5. Chanting equips each person to worship wherever they go.
Do you worship at home? Not just pray and read scripture, but do you praise and worship your God at home with friends and/or family? Could you go to an impoverished region, in the U.S. or abroad, and worship God with nothing but the instrument he made himself: your voice? In its simplicity and repetition, chant is perhaps the most accessible and effective tool we have to teach scripture, doctrine, and equip believers to worship wherever they are.
6. Chanting sounds and is beautiful.
Over time each canticle and prayer we chant has become more beautiful to me. They are simple and repetitive, but their melodies are nevertheless moving. More importantly, no instrument is as beautiful as the human voice. Stripped of accompaniment and pride, chanting can be our more humble and genuine offering to a God who desires exactly that.
Do not take me to be idolizing chanting. It is a means to an end. Yet, our faith is incarnational, so we believe that form cannot be separated from content. It mattered how Christ came to us, and it matters how we come before him.