New Patterns for Worship

D Psalms and Canticles

Stories from the four churches


At St Ann's the worship planning group have been giving some thought to the fact that theirs is one of many churches where people are reluctant to sing psalms to traditional Anglican chant because they want the worship to be accessible and 'user-friendly', especially to those unfamiliar with traditional worship. At one stage they hadn't the musical resources anyway. They went for a couple of years without using the psalms in any regular way at all, and were in danger of becoming unfamiliar with the riches they contain. So they explored the ways in which other churches are using the psalms musically today, ways which are adaptable to different levels of musical expertise and resourcing. As a result, they're using a metrical psalm in today's Sunday service.Metrical psalms have been popular since the sixteenth century, and many have been written recently, including many worship songs based on psalms. Any congregation that finds hymn singing valuable can sing psalms in this way, though hymns and songs vary considerably in how closely they stick to the written text of the psalm itself.


Today St Bartholomew's are using Psalm 66 from this section of New Patterns for Worship. The two sides of the congregation are saying alternate verses of the psalm.They have not much in the way of musical resources, and so have been studying a variety of ways of saying the psalms (see page 126).They have tried some of these approaches with the canticles too, but have realized that some of them are different from the psalms, in that they do not necessarily follow the parallelism of Hebrew poetry. Therefore the verses don't have to be said alternately, which sometimes destroys the sense. Some canticles are best said all together. Some might be sung by a cantor with responses.


At St Christopher's there is a cantor (someone with a strong voice who can give a lead and sing solo) who sings the text of the psalm to a simple' tone' or melody. The congregation then sing a simple response, which can begin and conclude the psalm, or be repeated after each verse or group of verses. This works well unaccompanied but today the organ is used; other instrumental accompaniments are also used. There are many books available which contain this sort of simple chant. Some use a similar approach but with a more 'worship-song' style of melody for the response. Another approach they have tried at St Christopher's is to speak the words of a psalm over a background of quiet instrumental music, using either suitable pieces of music found by the organist, or published resources specifically designed for this.


The board outside St Dodo's advertises Choral Evensong. For a while, when they had no organist, they set up a gramophone (as they called it) on the chancel steps and had the choir singing along to a record of a famous cathedral choir while everyone listened. This evening there is an organist and a robed choir of five people, and they sing the psalms to the New Cathedral Psalter, but to an unfamiliar chant pitched very high and too irregular for
anyone else to join in. It is difficult to hear the words, which are different from those in the Common Worship books, because the organ is so loud it is drowning out their voices, which is perhaps as well, because it sounds as if they are having a competition to see how many words they can get on to one note…


Saying the Psalms: what St Bartholomew's considered

Saying the Psalms is perfectly acceptable, and not necessarily a poor substitute for singing them. Here are some approaches to consider:
* solo voice for the main text, with an unvarying congregational response after each verse or after a group of verses (see, for example, Psalm 8 below);
* splitting the congregation into two parts (two sides of the building; men and women; adults and children; or whatever is appropriate) and having each part take alternate verses of the psalm; alternatively, give the groups half of each verse- this is especially effective if the psalm utilizes the technique of 'parallelism', where each verse contains the same idea articulated in two different ways (Psalm 66, below, could work in this way);
* using the same approach, but splitting the psalm between leader and congregation (see, for example, Psalm 141 below);
* saying the whole psalm together congregationally (see, for example, Psalm 118a below);
* listening while the psalm is read by one or more solo voices (see, for instance, Psalm 70 below), perhaps with a quiet, reflective instrumental accompaniment on a flute, acoustic guitar or soft keyboard at a distance.

In each case it will be important to consider the particular style and genre of the psalm in question to determine the most appropriate way of using it. Such considerations will also have implications for the manner in which the psalm is recited:
* shouted loudly, by a standing congregation, for a psalm which is an act of praise to God;
* recited quietly, slowly and reflectively, with the congregation kneeling or seated, for a psalm of lament;
* proclaimed loudly from one part of the congregation to another for a psalm which is a call to worship;
* listened to quietly, followed by silence, for a psalm which articulates the psalmist's anger and frustration etc.

As the Introduction to the Psalter in Common Worship: Daily Prayer says, 'some psalms, or parts of psalms, lend themselves to one method rather than another, and those leading worship should consider carefully which will be best in each instance'.


Singing the Psalms

Psalm and canticle texts can be sung in four different ways:
* by everyone;
* in dialogue between two groups, or between soloist and everyone else;
* by a soloist (or choral group) with refrain for everyone else;
* by a soloist or choral group, with everyone else listening.

The nature of the music will depend whether the text is metrical or irregular prose. Metrical texts can have hymn- or song-style music; irregular prose texts need some form of repeated melody that can be adapted to irregular patterns of words.

As with saying psalms, some ways of singing them may be more appropriate for different churches, for different contexts of worship, or for different psalm texts. There are many permutations and possibilities, and a whole range of musical styles.

Here are some options.

Psalm and canticle paraphrases (metrical psalms)

Hymn style, sung by everyone (or shared alternate verses).
Song style, sung by everyone (or shared alternate verses).
Song style, with solo or choral verses, and refrain for everyone.
Song style, sung by a cantor or choral group.

Psalm and canticle texts

Stressed prose (e.g. the Grail Psalter)
* Sung to a simple chant by a cantor, or choral group, or by all, with or without refrain for everyone (these include the psalms and canticles set by Joseph Gelineau).

Unstressed prose (e.g. Common Worship Psalter, ICEL Psalter, Book of Common Prayer Psalter)
* Sung by a cantor, or choral group, or by all, to a simple, modern chant, with or without refrain for everyone.
* Sung to a plainsong tone by a cantor, or choral group, or by all, with or without refrain for everyone.
* Sung to Anglican chant by a cantor, or choral group, or by all, with or without refrain for everyone.
In all these examples, the refrain can be sung in the style of a chant, or can be a hymn- or song-style setting.

Psalm or canticle settings (paraphrase or prose)

* Intended for singing by a soloist or choir, and to be heard by everyone else.
A sung repertory of psalms and canticles needs to be built slowly, so that everyone is comfortable and confident.

The large range of psalms specified in the lectionary means that it may not always be possible to sing the psalm specified as part of the Liturgy of the Word. There are, however, opportunities to use a psalm text in other parts of the service where there is singing.

It's often easier to sing psalm paraphrases (metrical psalms) to familiar hymn and song melodies.However, prose psalms and canticles can become part of the musical repertory of a congregation, particularly if the number of psalm or canticle texts and chants used is reasonably small.


How to construct a psalm or canticle response

Both here in this section, and in the Psalms and Canticles in Common Worship: Daily Prayer, some responses are provided for the congregation, but alternative responses may be used for particular occasions, for instance to fit with a particular season or theme.
* A verse or half-verse from within the psalm or canticle may be appropriate, or a text from elsewhere may be chosen.
* Remember that the main aim of the response is to provide an opportunity for reflecting on the theme.
* Responses should be short, memorable, and capable of repetition.
* The response should support and not interrupt the flow of the psalm or canticle, either in its rhythm or in its sequence of thought.

Notes to the resources

1 The note on Psalms from A Service of the Word (Note 6) gives considerable scope for variety and flexibility in the use of psalms. It permits:
* saying or singing the psalms in traditional ways;
* using a metrical version (that is, a hymn or song based on a psalm);
* using a responsive form, or a paraphrase.

In addition, permission is given for the use (on occasions) of a song or canticle taken directly from another part of Scripture to replace the psalm.

2 In this section we have provided a small selection of material taken from, or based on, psalms and canticles. There is a variety of style and presentation, and we have tried to consider the needs of a congregation saying the psalms as well as singing them. One of these examples might replace the psalm set in the lectionary on suitable occasions. Each of them could be further adapted, and they are intended to encourage local creativity.

3 These examples, apart from one instance, do not follow the Common Worship Psalter.They are drawn and adapted from a variety of translations of the Bible. Some are much closer to paraphrase than translation. In doing this we have tried to keep in mind the needs of children and of worshippers who are familiar neither with church, nor with echoes of traditional translations or biblical passages.

4 For one of the psalms (Psalm 34) and some of the canticles (Venite, Jubilate, Magnificat) we have deliberately included a number of alternatives, to demonstrate the wide range of styles in which psalms and canticles can be spoken or sung. Metrical versions may of course be spoken as well as sung.

5 We have tried to provide psalms which connect with particular 'moods' (such as joy, thanks, lament, struggle, praise, anger, reflection, questioning, etc.) as well as with particular seasons.

Texts for this section