Singing a New Song in the Free Church of Scotland

Since its establishment in 1843, the Free Church of Scotland gave a prime place to the singing of psalmody in its worship, and since 1905 the Free Church admitted only the singing of unaccompanied psalms to its worship. Exclusive use of the psalter, sung without instrumental support, was considered to be “inspired praise,” an important category for this Presbyterian/Reformed body of about 120 congregations in Scotland, England and North America. This stance allowed for the maintenance and growth of a rich corpus of a capella metrical settings in a lively choral tradition. Video clips offering examples of psalms and interesting commentary, taken from the Fhurch’s DVD “Sing a New Song,” are on the Free Church’s website. Also available elsewhere on the site are audio clips of a number of psalms.

This past week, the Assembly (governing body of commissioners) of the Free Church of Scotland met in an extraordinary “plenary” session to consider the findings of a Report on Worship by the Free Church’s Board of Trustees. This report came on the heels of five years of deliberation (and, at times, dissent) about the nature of worship in the Free Church and what Scripture permits in worship. Although the report recognized that a variety of positions were held by leaders and others in the Church, it recommended maintaining status quo. Yesterday (Friday, November 19), however, the Plenary Assembly in a narrow (98 to 84) majority voted to allow extra-biblical texts to be sung in worship, with each Kirk Session (somewhat equivalent to a vestry or parish council, though the members are “ordained” when installed in office) being free to determine whether or not instruments will be used in worship.

The General Assembly ordain that, with regard to the sung praise of congregations in worship, each Kirk Session shall have freedom, either to restrict the sung praise to the Psalms, or to include paraphrases of Scripture, and hymns and spiritual songs consistent with the doctrine of the Confession of Faith; that each Kirk Session shall have freedom whether to permit musical accompaniment to the sung praise in worship, or not.

— Findings of the Assembly, par. 7

Incomplete transcripts (still valuable from the liturgical historian’s point of view!) of the Plenary Assembly’s debates can be found here for Thursday, November 18, and here for Friday, November 19.

The Findings of the Assembly (the decision and its rationale) can be found here.

Additionally, a number of theological and “position” papers on worship in the Free Church of Scotland are available here.


  1. I was pleased to find in the final report an acknowledgement that charity and “brotherliness” was evident throughout the debate and decision-making process. How lovely, in this day and age.

    The question in my mind as I read the post was answered by a quick look around the web: yes the Free Church of Scotland is the same as the Wee Free Church of Scotland. Or is it perhaps the case that they are distinct groups with the same website?

    At any rate, thank you Cody for drawing attention to this special phenomenon of singing only psalms. I had no idea of it. While I cannot regard the singing of hymns and songs as anything less than biblical, I do feel a little thoughtful about what may be lost in the change. Is homogenization of church musical cultures inevitable? Is maintaining a music tradition because it’s distinctive–if it’s no longer considered a necessary corrollary of the faith– enough? Or does this become mere antiquarianism, rightly set aside as they move forward?

    What would be really interesting is to see whether those who were brought up in this tradition and now have more options will make musical choices that continue to be distinctive.

    I think the problem, however, is that church music provides so little of our musical culture overall. Thus I suspect they will assimilate to the experience of the larger churches.

    1. Rita, you’re quite right (rite? — one never knows around here!): the Free Church of Scotland is the “Wee Free Church,” though not to be confused with the “Wee Wee Free” Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The Free Church (Wee Free) emerged as a Presbyterian reform of The Church of Scotland, (the Presbyterian State Church); the Free Presbyterian Church (Wee Wee Free) were a subsequent reform movement emerging from the Free Church.

      The only familiar comparison I can draw is the movement from the Cluniac Benedictines to the Cistercians to the Trappists. All in the same family, with similar but distinct reforms resulting in similar but distinct bodies.

      1. And yet what makes them distinct will now soon, sadly, be lost – wait for the ‘feel good’ hymns (Novus Ordo attendess will be familiar with them) to come in, in confidence that this, this surely will attract the young people…..

        I have Effie & Murdina McDonald’s almost indescribably beautiful Gaelic psalms from the Isle of Lewis on CD. Just wait for that culture to be lost (oh, no it will have ‘pride of place’ I am sure….)

        You can hear snippets of exactly what this tradition sounds like here:

        But, no, we must have progress, must be relevant.

        Oh wait, that must be the hordes of young people at the door now…excuse me…och, it was only the wind…

      2. Ceile, what do you think, though, about the basis for preserving the practice? Does the claim that it is scriptural stand up, in your opinion? I really mean this question. Are you implicitly asking them to take a different set of principles than the ones they own by their confession? That is, are you asking them to make this decision based on tradition when they wish to base it on the Bible?

        A passionate belief that singing must be done a particular way because God requires it, and scripture testifies to it, seems to be the sine qua non for this discipline. Failing that, can it be upheld? You are suggesting that they are groping for relevance, younger members, etc. I wouldn’t judge them too harshly if there is some of this in the mix. Probably every Christian denomination on the planet would like more members, and many are puzzled by the absence of younger folk. But the root question, by the principles of their confession, is really quite different. Is it scriptural? Does God require it? They are not set up to preserve a cultural patrimony. Too bad, perhaps, but the preservation of cultural patrimony is not an article of their faith.

  2. Rita
    you make good points -as in your first post. My issue is, of course, partly one of taste which is by definition subjective. But also partly a concern that a wonderful, powerful form of worship will risk being lost because it is easier to buy in ready made hymn books that, although stating nothing wrong, leave all the difficult bits out (sins of omission if you like): until now, Scottish Presbyterians performed a great service to the church universal by their refusal to gloss over sin and depravity. Also, and this is not perhaps a concern on this blog in the strict sense of the word – but it will encourage congregations to rely on more cheaply produced foreign works in English instead of more expensive to produce Gaelic works at home – thus promoting language shift to English (something of an ecological issue for Gaelic speakers like me). I don’t doubt their right (or rite, as noted above) or motives – but I fear the effects. By the way, had you a chance to listen to the music clips? (they grow on one, I swear!)

    1. Ceile,
      Thanks for your follow-up. About the clips, are you kidding? I love that stuff! If they slip out of singing in Gaelic as a result of the change (I see your point about the economic pull) that’s a double loss. I agree with you too about not glossing over sin and depravity; I admire the more severe forms of Calvinism which so clearly reflect strains of biblical thought that others pass over (though, admittedly, I’ve never had to live in such communities myself). Even reading the reformed theologian James Torrence, who is very ecumenical and pastoral, one can see traces of a stern regard for the inadequacy of human beings to please God unaided by Christ–I find it bracing, and more frankly Christian than the self-help vision of faith so common today. Still, I appreciate their dilemma. And communities do change, unless one becomes like the Amish or the Hasidim. To what extent does music make communities or communities make music? I understand the Huguenots were constituted very much by their hymns.

      1. Rita, even the Amish and the Hasidim change — though definitely more slowly (and perhaps more deliberately) than the rest of us.

        My hope is that the attention this development in the Free Church of Scotland has garnered in the media world wide (I first learned of the story via MSNBC) will open their tradition of unaccompanied psalmody to the larger ecclesial oikoumene. While I’m not a proponent of overt or forced eclecticism in liturgical music, I do believe that the various churches all have some positive contribution to make to the rich tapestry of music for worship; in this case, a contribution of a rather superior sort.

  3. Thanks Cody for this post and the beautiful links both in sound and sight.

    Perhaps the idea of singing only Scripture has a future in this age of Ecumenism, people searching for new congregations, and the religious Nones.

    The psalms are a wonderful form of Ecumenical song. Given that the Liturgy of the Hours has almost disappeared from our Churches, it would be wonderful if we could develop a Liturgy of the Hours format composed exclusively of scriptures, psalms and canticles. I thinking of the model of the Christmas Eve Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, only with psalms and canticles substituted for the carols.

    There are a great variety of ways of doing the psalms spread across the various traditions, from plain chant to polyphonic to metrical and a great amount of elaborate solo music suitable to cantors. I like the Christmas Eve model because they always have some carols that everyone can sing, some more difficult music for the choir, and usually a newly commissioned piece.

    This ecumenical liturgy of the hours should have no clergy and no homily, just scripture and music, lead by a choir with some cantors and a director. As a non-denominational service it should be something that all participants could feel that is there own, not the property of the sponsoring congregation. Indeed people might be welcomed to join the service choir without joing the congregation. Perhaps it would become popular even with the religious Nones who don’t like denominations but do sometimes attend church services.

    It could be followed by an opportunity for a variety of conversations and fellowship across religious backgrounds, including opportunities for those who wish to become more acquainted with the local congregation.

    Survey after survey has shown that the majority of Americans pray daily and believe that the Bible is inspired. So such a service may have great common appeal if well done.

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