Protestants Worshiping at Hymn Society

I’m at the Hymn Society conference in Redlands, California, this week. I’m on the editorial board of The Hymn which met yesterday before it all began.

Hymn Society is ecumenical and there is a good representation of Catholics, but we are a small minority compared to all the Protestants put together. It is always a pleasure and an inspiration to experience Hymn Society daily worship which is, broadly speaking, Protestant. (Well, one year they had me do a rather monastic-style Morning Prayer each day, and this year Sister Judith Kubicki is doing daily Night Prayer, so Catholic influences are certainly there, but I gather that the daily worship otherwise tends to reflect Protestant practices broadly speaking.)

Two observations I’ve made over the years.

1. Protestants talk louder. Have you ever noticed this? When there is responsive reading, or any spoken alternation between leader and all, the people really speak their parts loudly and with spirit. Catholic corporate speaking is still rather rapid and quiet, driven I think by Rosary practice. We can rattle off 10 Hail Mary’s quicker than they can do one Psalm 23. I like the Protestant way. They say it like they mean it! A visitor from planet Mars would wonder at Catholic Mass whether the people really believe what they’re saying. They do, I’m sure, but not in the same way and with the same intentionality as our Protestant brothers and sisters. Which is to say, I’m not sure we Catholic have yet an ethos of corporate worship, or a spirituality in which the manner of expressing corporate texts reflects what they mean to the participants. (Maybe turning the priest ad orientem will help all that? Haha.)

2. Protestants talk too much. I hope I have enough ecumenical cred that I can let loose with this one from my perhaps overly monastic and thoroughly Catholic liturgical background. Thank heavens our liturgy is pretty much set, and thank heavens commentators, popular immediately after Vatican II, have gone away. And chattiness in priests is mostly going away, thank heavens. When it comes to worship, I’d really rather just worship and not have someone talk me through worship.

Here’s what I’m trying to say: worship leaders should relentlessly check every word of explanation before saying it, and, if it’s not necessary, don’t say it! This, for example: “Now please join in singing the hymn as found in the booklet.” Really? My booklet had a hymn in it and – guess what! – I already had reason to think we were now going to sing it. I didn’t think we were going to hum it or imagine it or discuss it or tear it out of our booklet. Such explanatory words from the leader clarify nothing.

Or this: “And now we’ll recite the psalm responsively, in alternation between leader and all, as indicated in the booklet.” Well, those of us who can read can figure that out and hence gain nothing from the explanation. Those of us who can’t read the directions probably can’t read the responsive reading either and won’t be needing the explanation.

 I suppose it doesn’t matter that much and I’m being nit-picky. Fine. It’s an aesthetic concern (no one reads the stage directions at a play, which would be aesthetically appalling), but also a spiritual one. It is nice to move graciously from word to silence to song, in and out, back and forth, without the distraction of needless words.

OK, I said it. Dear Protestants, I really like you all! I love worshiping with you! I feel like I need to say that before signing off.



  1. I am one of the Roman Catholic minority attending the conference, and agree with Anthony’s observations. I’ll just add that at least one year, possibly two, night prayer was done in Lutheran tradition, using Gregorian chant.

  2. ” . . . we’ll recite the psalm responsively, in alternation between leader and all . . . ”

    I hear these very same words at University Worship at Methodist-affiliated Emory University.

    They make the announcement, among others, for the benefit of any persons in the congregation who might be there for the first time, out of hospitality. Inevitably there is always one or a few first-timers.

  3. On point #1, local culture matters. I’ll lift up St John’s, Savannah. I don’t like to use labels, but it’s basically a “traditional” Episcopal parish. They use the old Prayer Book exclusively, the organ is magnificent, and the choir professional. When priests there celebrate communion, they face the altar. The congregation booms the responses and sings every hymn loudly. I’ve seen progressive parishes where the volume is also true. I’ve also seen traditional and progressive parishes where people mumble.

    On #2, over-narration drives me batty, too, and risks putting more attention on the narrator (or overly loud cantor) than on the actual worship act itself. Some of this tension is an American thing. We’re often consumers. We so often want our products immediately accessible. I figure it took me years to learn to tie my shoes, and I didn’t complain. How much more should I be eager to spend a month or two learning the liturgy!

  4. Remember that for so many of us of a certain age, we were taught to be absolutely silent in church. The very idea that you could speak — and indeed speak up — in church remains foreign to our DNA. I still remember just how daunting it was the first time I was a lector at Mass in 1968, even after years of service at the altar.

    1. @RP Burke:

      Absolute silence?

      We used to recite this aloud:
      “Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam”
      in response to
      “Introibo ad altare Dei.”

      as well as the “Suscipiat”
      and, of course, the “Domine, non sum dignus”

      before Vatican II.
      We sang the Mass setting by Oltrasi.
      No “absolute silence” at Mass in my childhood.

      1. @Vic Romero:
        You must have had “dialogue Mass,” which was not universal. In my Boston parish, dialogue Mass was only for special weekdays and for the school only. Sundays? Every hour on the hour, and dialogue Mass or high Mass were nowhere to be seen – they would take too long. We went to Mass not with our families but with the school, earlier than school itself opened, and the sisters who taught us attended right with us to be sure not a sound was made.

  5. We have between 40-65 people at daily mass and we are often louder than Sunday Mass with 300 people. Why is this so? Possibly because we are so familiar with each other and we really make a special effort to be there.

    There is no doubt that both Catholics and Protestants can, and should, learn a lot from each other.

  6. I’ve been to Episcopal and Lutheran services and was hugely impressed by the singing in both. The Episcopalians sang robustly with no cantor or choir to lead them, only an organ (it wasn’t the main service with choir), and the cantor in the Lutheran church only started singing with the congregation for half of the first verse before going into a descant or something.

    It should be noted that both groups would have developed their admirable vocal participation well before versus populum became common in either denomination.

  7. As a Lutheran Pastor who came from the pre-Vatican II tradition in a mostly ethnic Polish parish in the 1950’s and who experienced Vatican II in a more suburban parish in Milwaukee, I bring what many folks call my “Catholic style of presiding” at Mass, I too love the singing (I was involuntarily pressed into service in my suburban parish with a new Mass book, and in front of a microphone by the organ to “encourage people to sing”. As a teen with the inability to read music and with a very average voice, the only encouragement for the congregation to sing was to drown out me at the microphone) in the Lutheran parishes I have served over the years. Once trained they sang the Ordinary in ways that put my Roman Catholic friends to shame.

    For the record, I too despise those wordy stage directions as much as I despise those “meaningful sounding introductions” to the appointed Holy Scripture lessons by well meaning Assisting Ministers and Presiding Ministers. For a Tradition that values the proclaimed Word as a Means of Grace, our inane explanations as to what God meant to say through the inspired authors is disrespectful and disrupting to the proclamation of the Word.

    I used to be mellow and am now becoming curmudgeonly from presiding at these “contemporary” services sans vestments so as to be more “inviting” to those visiting, presumably. Being an Emeritus Pastor means filling in at parishes that have clearly lost their catholic identity and practice. AARGH! Why can’t my local Roman bishop just Ordain me so I can help with Masses that overworked priests are offering to the full parishes around the Phoenix area? I’d be happy to serve…any takers?

  8. If one wants to find a participatory congregation, one need go no further than the interfaith service on a Saturday afternoon at the Memorial St. Adium at the local university. There one will hear 100,000 voices raised for the opening hymn, be it The Eyes of Texas or Fight Fiercely Harvard, and lusty, appropriate responses throughout the service even without having to follow along with the written program.

    Strange somehow that we don’t quite get the same enthusiasm when it’s “only” our God we’re worshiping.

  9. #2 is not the exclusive domain of Protestants. In several Catholic parishes I attend, the assembly is beset with exactly the kind of redundant/helpful invitations mentioned in the post.

    The one that particularly jars is “please join *us* in singing the …,” as if the song belonged to the cantor/choir/band who were condescending to share it with the rest of the assembly.

    Having said all that, it does seem to me that very little of this is actually improvised; it tends to follow the same pattern each time, such that it takes on a ritual quality not far from the prescribed invitations in the missal.

    1. @Michael O’Connor:
      I learned many years ago from Jim Hansen that if you simply announced, “the Opening Hymn is”, the unspoken message was that people were expected to sing. The exception might be a wedding or a funeral, and then it might be more hospitable to announce “we invite your to join in singing”

  10. Those who will sing without being invited or prompted–“Please join in singing . . . “–will sing anyway.

    Those who will not sing even if invited or prompted will not sing anyway.

    But there are a few, however few, that will pick up the hymnal or liturgy aid and sing out, when they hear the invitation.

    Liturgy is like a lot of other things in life. Full of trade-offs.

  11. To some extent, I think that Roman Catholics still operate out of a minimalist/mechanist view of their corporate prayer. In other words, if the right person (the priest) says the right words (of institution) at the right time (consecration) then it “counts” toward fulfilling my obligation. [Also why daily Masses tend to out-decibel many larger Sunday Masses; being there due to desire vs. obligation.]
    I was the musician for a number of Eugene Walsh, SS’s “teaching Masses” with Sunday congregations. He did a number of things that drove me crazy, but I loved the way he used to have the congregation sing the Great Amen at the conclusion of the eucharistic prayer 3, 4 or more times. He’d out and out tell them that the prayer needed their seal of approval before we could continue.

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