Singing in Church

So today was the second consecutive Sunday our church agreed to abide by the restriction on group or congregational singing because of COVID. It’s a new guideline put in place by our provincial government on account of the rise of COVID cases in our province due to the Omicron variant.

After the service, one of my 12 year old sons asked me, “Are we allowed to talk to each other in church?” When I told him we could, he asked a follow up question, “Then how come we can’t sing?” He couldn’t see the logic.

I confess I’m finding it hard to see the logic too.

And while it’s always possible to make adjustments to a worship service, the last two weeks of no group singing have simply felt bizarre.

Having me “lead” worship by singing the first verse of “Great is Thy Faithfulness” solo certainly isn’t the most inspiring experience! Given we don’t know how long this restriction on singing will be in place, we will have use some liturgical creativity!

But then there’s the matter of the restriction itself. And the most troubling aspect of this particular restriction is the wording. It says singing as a congregation is “not permitted.” Did you read that? Not permitted. The government has taken it upon itself to tell churches that when they gather they cannot sing together as a congregation.

They are not asking us to refrain from singing.

They are not strongly recommending that we refrain from singing.

No, they are saying we are not permitted to sing.

Not permitted? Really?

It’s this particular wording to which I take great exception.

Let me be blunt: the government has absolutely no jurisdiction or authority over whether or not a congregation sings as a congregation.

I get that our province is still in a “state of emergency.” I get what’s going on when it comes to COVID. I get that there’s a lot of fear. I get that government and health authorities have an enormous responsibility.

But they can’t order us not to sing.

A church can consent to abide by this guideline. A church can voluntarily opt not to sing as a congregation. But the government altogether lacks the legitimate authority to say group singing is “not permitted.”

Please notice carefully what I am saying and what I am not saying. I’m not saying churches should ignore this restriction. I’m not saying we shouldn’t abide by it voluntarily. My point is the issue of authority, and when it comes to this specific question, the government has none.

In fact, if for some currently unfathomable reason the government were to enshrine this restriction into law, it would be an altogether illegitimate law.

Chances are the language of “not permitted” is there to stress what they believe is the adequate seriousness with which they want us to take the situation. Fair enough. But it’s also careless, unthoughtful language. It stretches the boundaries of how the state can encroach upon religious communities. If it doesn’t violate the Canadian Charter of Rights of Freedoms, it definitely flirts with the edges of doing so. While listing freedom of religion and conscience as one of the fundamental freedoms, our Charter doesn’t elucidate this any further. Presumably because to spell out what this freedom can look like in practice is by definition to reduce it to what the state “permits.” But of course no government can give us any fundamental rights; they can only acknowledge them and protect them. Such freedoms pre-exist the state.

Now here’s the thing, most Canadians—certainly most Atlantic Canadians—are congenial, go along to get along people. This is true of most church goers. We want to do what’s right. We, of course, want to abide by the law. We want to have a positive and good relationship with governing authorities. And many are no doubt much more naturally trusting of government than I tend to be.

Add to this the concern churches have over being fined for not following guidelines. Things can become complicated. Even a larger church isn’t necessarily in the financial position to deal with such penalties. So when a lot of churches are significantly smaller, the potential burden of a substantial fine provides incentive. Out of fear, to be sure, but incentive all the same. Think what you will about this government tactic, but it seems effective in at least the pragmatic sense.

Of course, I’m still a local pastor. My congregation is a small one. The people in my church are like any church people anywhere. They want to get through this. They want to make wise decisions. And in all of this, they want to live out their trust in God in faithful, everyday ways. My calling in part is to help them do this. Even if this means figuring out what it means to gather for worship when our government asks us not to sing as a congregation.

That said, I will say this. Singing is one of the primary means—one of the fundamental spiritual practices—by which the body of Christ expresses its hope, its longing, its faith, and its trust in the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Indeed, Scripture commands us to sing. A quick perusal of the Psalms makes this clear enough. Lifting our voices and giving our faith a melody is not an option. Because it’s not about mere music. No, there is something that happens in music—when people of faith, hope, and love open their lips in praise, thanksgiving, and even lament. God inhabits the praises of his people. Indeed, we’re not called to make a pleasant noise but a joyful one (good thing, given my attempt to hit the high notes in a couple of hymns this morning!). And we all know how uplifting and encouraging sacred music can be, even if we’re not the best singers or most able musicians. Music penetrates our souls in ways spoken words cannot always manage.

Consider these words of the apostle Paul:

Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

Colossians 3:16

Implied by Paul’s words is this mysterious power of music to stir our hearts while reminding us of the truths of our faith.

So let’s be honest. We need worship songs and hymns. They may not be the lifeblood of congregational worship, but often they serve as the veins.

There’s a reason God says, “Sing.”

So, yes, we can in this time of COVID voluntarily refrain from singing as congregations for what is hopefully a short season. We can pivot in order to include the blessed power of music in other ways. We can respect what our health authorities are asking of us. But no government should be under the illusion that they can order us one way or the other. Nor should any church or pastor or Christian believe they can.

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