Learning about Catholic Liturgy from an Old Protestant Tradition

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Sacred Harp singing
If you are a Catholic liturgist and need to be reminded why what you do matters, consider the Sacred Harp singing, a form of 18th century, shape note, a capella hymnody that took root and flourished in the American south.

I’ve been singing Sacred Harp music every day for the past week, and reflecting on what this Protestant tradition has to say about Catholic liturgy.

I’m writing this on a hot Alabama night. I have tasted – again, as in my childhood – ribs and fried chicken and fried okra and pimento cheese and chow-chow and fresh peaches and just-picked tomatoes and coconut cake and blackberry cobbler. I’ve been singing Sacred Harp music every day for the past week, and reflecting on what this Protestant tradition has to say about Catholic liturgy.

There are respected customs and traditions, kept for the sake of good order.

Time is kept. An all-day singing is a vocal marathon. We need to start on time, take planned breaks and end on time. The diva wanting to sing all known verses of “The Dying Californian” needs to rethink that choice.

Place — the sanctuary the singers create with their bodies — is respected.  Tenors sit on side of the square, directly across from the altos. The trebles sit to the tenors’ right and the basses sit directly across from the trebles. The leader stands in the middle, facing the tenors. The tenors’ front row, “the bench,” beats time along with the leader, thus making it possible for every singer to know what’s expected. The square works acoustically, helping the singers to hear the part and the whole.

Singers need to come prepared. We bring our books, our water, our cough drops. We have four or five songs ready to lead, and everyone is expected, at some point, to lead.

There is a way to lead the singing, palm out, keeping the time in a prescribed manner based on the time signature.  This is for the singers, who only know if we are going to slow or speed the tempo or follow or ignore the repeats based on the leader’s moving arm. Any individual flourishes must stay within established bounds, because the leader is not there to dazzle, but to lead.  Fingers splayed “jazz hands” style may mean something to the performer, but not much to those who wonder how long we’re going to hold the fermata.

Speech that does not have to do with the work is kept to a minimum. We’re here to sing; we can hear about your father issues later.

There are expectations around dress. A certainty uniformity of dress takes the attention away from the individual and puts it back on the assembly. I heard a scholar of the tradition explain why they discourage tee shirts at singings: so often the shirts come with slogans. “We’re here to sing,” he said, “and our differences are put aside before the texts and the tunes.”

Sacred Harp singing is not performance.  There are no Sacred Harp concerts, just singings.  Visitors are welcome to listen, to what is, truly, the public work of the assembly, and not a show.

There is a fixed canon of hymns. Singers quickly realize that a lifetime is barely long enough to learn these hymns.  Even in familiar songs, lines of the texts surprise and challenge and comfort and guide us, and one never knows just how the words will fall on the ear and pierce the heart.

Because it is not a show, mistakes happen. Tunes once keyed have to be re-keyed.  Tempos have to be slowed down or speeded up.  Sometimes a fugue wanders and sometimes the chord is discordant.   The singing goes on.

The ill and the homebound are always remembered, and the dead are always named in the memorial lesson.

There is always food, and it is always shared. It is better to bring something you have grown or cooked or baked yourself, because the emphasis at a singing is on the works of our hands and our voices. It is good to taste what God has given and human hands have made.

Sacred Harp hymns remind us we will die. The final song is always a hymn of farewell. We sing our parting and our prayer to meet again, while acknowledging that we may not meet again on the earth. We keep time, but we do not assume time. 

God is always before our eyes and on our lips. This, even though we do not all share a common creed.  At least three of the people with whom I spent the week are Jewish.  My teacher this week is a Primitive Baptist.  I think her reaction to the new pope is the same reaction she had to the last: horror that we would have one at all.  I say “think,” because that is not a discussion we had or will have. We were far to busy singing to debate.

Fred Pratt green, a 20th century composer, might have been describing a Sacred Harp singing:

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried

– Melissa Musick

(This article originally appeared in Celebration, the liturgical resource of The National Catholic Reporter.)