November 2012
Liturgy, Music, & Leadership

Finding Our Voices

What does your voice sound like to you? To others? How well do you listen? How well do you hear? How do you nurture your voice to be of greatest benefit to the community? Are you able to ask for what you need, and offer what you have to deepen your spiritual life?

What if a part our liturgical work is to pay attention to what God is birthing among and between us, and to deepen our experience of the holy through interaction and possibly even play? What if all creation is co-creation?

Is there a connection between finding – and raising – our voices and the Holy Spirit?

Singing and chanting together in worship is about more than praising God and making a joyful noise. If we allow singing and chanting to work their magic, they can be lifelong spiritual practices that enable us to join with others in deepening our ability to trust one another. They can allow to let go and reassess our perceptions and expectations of what it means to walk together in faith. And, they may help us to see the face of Jesus in the faces of those we encounter.

Begin with a New Song

I recently worshipped in a very traditional church in upstate New York. They’d decided to take a tour of Prayer Book liturgies from around the Anglican Communion, and the liturgy of the day was from the Kenyan Book of Common Prayer. I had been invited to help them with the music. Throughout the service I was reminded me how uncommon and beautiful common prayer can feel.

When people entered the church that Sunday, they found the back half of the church roped off so that we all could sit closer together. This led some to be taken out of their comfort zones before they even sat down. The choir was spread out throughout the assembly, sitting in small groups or with their families. The music director sat toward the back, where he could support the singing, and I was at the front.

The priest was nervous, but supportive and curious.

When I introduced the music, I mentioned that no one knew the tunes we were about to sing, or what was going to happen, so they would need to listen closely. I added if they needed help, the words were printed in the bulletin and they could turn to their neighbors and listen, as everyone in the room had a piece of what was needed to make this service as amazing as it could be. I encouraged them to take turns improvising other parts. Finally, I reminded us all to try thinking of this morning as group spiritual practice. I noticed they began to turn and look around at their neighbors. Then we made church.

We sang new songs in four different languages after only a one or two sentence explanation to convey pronunciation and translation and a few sung vocal cues that were already built into the hymns. We sang the Psalm over a drone (C-G), and a short while later we improvised underneath the Prayers of the People on the same drone. There was deep listening and graceful harmony. The singing of each tune became more confident as it progressed, and the end of each service felt like the last hallelujah in the Hallelujah chorus! There were many joyful, thankful, and teary people amazed at the beautiful experience they had made together. For some it was the first time they’d been encouraged to interact and sing together in church.

Helping Others to Sing

Sometimes God sends us to people: Are you willing to be changed by the people you meet? Sometimes God sends people to us: How do you stay open to the people God sends along? How do you invite and encourage them?

What if the joy we find singing our favorite tunes can be magnified by helping others to sing their favorite tunes?

Being open to and trusting the people whom God has sent us to work with can be the antidote to any discomfort that arises. When we find ourselves standing in a roomful of people we don't know very well or are asked to sing words we’ve never said before from a pew we don’t usually sit in, we can get very anxious and self-conscious. By letting go of our discomfort we free ourselves for a deeper connection with God and those God has sent to us.

Singing and chanting can help us to find our voices. Singing together with intention can help us to stay present and give us a place from which to practice staying open and curious. When we lend the strength of our heart’s voice to a community in song, the self-consciousness that we often bring to singing falls away, our walls fall away, our egos fall away. The anticipation that something transformational might happen shifts to the realization that something wonderful is already happening and we are a part of making it happen.

We have an incredible opportunity in worship services to travel with a group of people committed to a weekly gathering where discernment of gifts and lifelong spiritual growth can be invited, encouraged, and practiced together. Let’s sing it from the mountaintops.

We come to join in
the banquet of love,
let it open our hearts
and break down the fears
That keep us from loving each other
- Dominican nun’s grace

Ana Hernandez is a composer/arranger, writer, workshop and retreat leader. Her passion is using sound to transform prayer and build openhearted, engaged communities. She has produced seven CDs, and is author of The Sacred Art of Chant: Preparing to Practice, about the use of chanting as a spiritual discipline. Her music has been published by Church Publishing, Inc. in Music by Heart: Paperless songs for Evening Worship, and Voices Found Hymnal among others. She also accepts commissions for the musical composition of hymns and chants.


This article is part of the November 2012 Vestry Papers issue on Liturgy, Music, & Leadership