I grew up with the tradition of responsive readings, long before litanies were printed in our Baptist order of worship. It was the only time I could talk during the service without getting in trouble! By listening to the voices around me, I learned how to read in unison, when to pause, where phrases began and ended, and how to keep pace with the other readers. It was a new and different kind of conversation.
The musical counterpart is called responsorial singing, which is most often a brief refrain that is interwoven or alternated with Scripture, prayer, or song. Traditionally a cantor or choir sings a refrain that the congregation repeats. The cantor or choir then sings (or speaks) a verse, followed by the congregation singing the refrain again. This continues throughout the entire psalm or hymn.
Responsorial singing is part of our ancient religious legacy. The earliest example in the Bible occurs in Exodus 15, when Miriam sings the refrain to the song of Moses. Some authorities believe that this tradition came from exposure to Egyptian practices during Israel’s captivity. It later became a large part of the African-American slave experience, where spirituals evolved as a form of solidarity, signifying both shared lament and despair with hope and expectation. This type of singing is well suited to manual labor; the rhythm keeps everyone working at the same pace. During my childhood, I heard prisoners sing these songs as we drove past the cotton fields where they worked under the watchful eyes of prison guards.
Both Catholic, and some Protestant traditions, include responsorial worship, both in spoken liturgy (e.g. the Prayers of the People) and in singing. Some chant the Psalms, or sing modern settings of them.
This musical conversation can take several forms. It may be call and response, where the call asks a question and the response answers; a statement that the response echoes or completes; or an invitation that response accepts. It can be structured as verse and refrain or alternating verses or lines of verses. The Taizé tradition often uses a canon to form a cyclical repetition.
There are several benefits to this type of singing. It can be learned without written material, especially in short form through repetition. It is a way to reclaim our religious musical heritage. Perhaps most importantly, it represents the conversational nature of worship: the horizontal dialogue between each other and the vertical dialogue between ourselves and God. It is a communal experience.
I only recall one example from my Baptist upbringing. We sometimes sang the chorus Hear Our Prayer, O Lord after the prayer.
Here are some ways you might introduce this tradition to your church:
- Sing a hymn with verses and a refrain. (Example: For the Beauty of theEarth –– The choir sings the verses and the congregation responds with “Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.”)
- Sing a hymn with repeated lines in the body rather than a refrain. (Example: All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name –– The choir sings the first half of the song, and the congregation sings the last two repeated lines of each verse.)
- Alternate lines of the verses. The choir and the congregation alternate singing the lines of each verse before joining together on the chorus.
- Instead of singing the refrain, the congregation sings the repeatedphrase in a hymn. (Example: All Creatures of Our God and King –– The congregation sings “Alleluia!” each time it occurs.)
- Does your hymnal include a Psalter section that has gone unused? Give it a try; instructions usually appear at the beginning of the section.
- Try reading a passage of scripture, punctuating it with a refrain or line from a hymn that exemplifies the theme (Example: He Leadeth Me and Psalm 23 –– The congregation sings the refrain. The pastor or worship leader then reads Psalm 23 and the congregation concludes by repeating the refrain.)
Try one of these in your worship service; encourage your congregation to enter into a musical conversation with each other and into a larger conversation with God.
Editor’s note: Please enjoy this recent anthem from Pamela Stewart and Brad Nix.