Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Lofty Arguments! Should the Choir Be In Front of Us or Up High Behind Us?

We all know the horror story. You are away from home and have to go to a local church for Mass. Without any additional information about the church’s liturgical leanings, you assume the worst - that the music will be dismal - and so choose the 7am in the hope that it will be spoken. Then as you enter the church your heart sinks when you see that even for this one, the drum kit, amplifiers, and electric guitars are in there, between the sanctuary and the congregation, ready for their enthusiastic owners to entertain us at Mass (perhaps even bathed in pale blue electric light). Then what seals the nightmare is when several nuns stroll over and start playing!

But this does raise the question in my mind: where should the choir be - even when the music and liturgy are properly ordered? There are some who advocate for the choir loft only, in order to preserve the humility of the singers so that they do not become performers. I do not. In fact, I think that the choir should be just where that rock group currently resides.

Without knowing the history of the choir loft in church architecture I am guessing that this is a relatively recent development, perhaps post-Baroque, or even a Protestant innovation?

I can't think of a single Gothic church with one, for example. If there is a choir as an architectural feature, then it is beyond the altar in the sanctuary. You can’t get more front and center than that!
I haven’t examined the oldest churches in Rome, but I am guessing that they do not have choir lofts either? Readers can no doubt help me here.

If the choir - talking now of the body of people - is giving a performance, then it makes sense that they be out of sight. However, I think the answer is to stop the tendency to attention-grabbing performance, rather than accommodate it, which is what the choir loft might do. Just as with the problem of the showman priest facing the congregation, in which the answer would be to turn him around, so also with the choir. Let’s make them visible, but turn them around too, ad orientem. In both cases, catechesis helps too!

If the choir is worshiping, ad orientem, or facing inwards as in a monastic arrangement, then I would say that they should be visible to the congregation as models of dignified lay worship in front of them, quite literally leading the congregational worship.

There is a difficulty in that I wouldn’t want women in the sanctuary, but I would want women in the choir. You could have the readers in the sanctuary and the non-readers outside with the altar rail running through the center of the cluster of people. Preferable to this, (again assuming we have women in the choir) would be to move the whole choir outside the sanctuary, between the celebrant and the congregation, where the piano, guitars, and drums currently sit.

If the members of the choir are the leaders in worship, then it would very likely need a modification - probably a simplification - of the musical repertoire, so that congregations could sing at least some parts of it. It would not work to sing a full polyphonic Mass every week for example. I would encourage them also to adopt the appropriate postures and engage with the sacred art as they worship in the manner that I have described in earlier posts, again in a way that the congregation sees them and so is inclined to join in.

As far as possible, the men in the choir might be ordained as Readers (I recently met someone who held this position in a Latin Mass in the San Francisco Bay Area). These men would wear cassocks and so would be, quite visibly, leading the choir. Every member of the choir should be catechized to worship as they sing and be in communion with the Church.

And if you don’t think this can work, this is exactly what I have seen in Eastern Rite churches and the effect on the congregational worship is always beneficial, in my observation.

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