Some people believe sincerity the sole criterion. I’ve just had one of those fraught discussions of church music and you’re always at a disadvantage in trying to argue for some decorum in worship (e.g., people singing close to in tune) when someone responds that Miss Elma Mae Wombat just loves praising the Lord and so what if she does it out of tune and in a screech — God doesn’t care. Only a snob would mind.

The objection, a friend involved in the same discussion pointed out, isn’t snobbery. It’s that people can’t help but react to discord. Unless you can manage more obliviousness to the sounds around you than can the average man, Miss Elma Mae Wombat’s enthusiasm will disrupt if not destroy your ability to praise God in song yourself. There are people whose voices are less pleasant than the sound of fingernails scraping down a blackboard.

So I’m not sure that God doesn’t care. And not just in the sense that singing in tune represents something of the glories to which we shall come, and is a good in itself. Singing in church is a corporate act, which means more than everyone doing the same thing at the same time, but in their own way. The defense of Miss Wombat’s singing seems to assume that whatever anyone feels led to do must be okay, and everyone else can just deal with it. But most of us can’t deal with screeching.

Worship like everything else is a school for charity. If your singing disturbs others, you should sing very quietly, no matter how much you want to belt it out. They, on the other hand, should try to think of your good and the joy singing brings you more than their own jangled nerves. Remember St. Paul and meat dedicated to idols.

Ideally, the local church should be the sort of community in which people could tell someone “You can’t sing” and he will thank them. Since it probably isn’t, the rest of us are left to work on willing the good of those who can’t sing, so that we can see even discord as a joyful noise unto the Lord.

But we shouldn’t defend bad singing just because it’s sincere.

A Methodist friend in the same discussion sent John Wesley’s rules for singing, in which Wesley balances piety and quality. The list is said to be from his Select Hymns of 1761, though I didn’t find a definitive source on the web.

I. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.

II. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

III. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a single degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.

IV. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, then when you sung the songs of Satan.

V. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

VI. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing to slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

VII. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.


Here is something I did find on the web, which you may find of interest, from Wesley’s preface to A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists .
May I be permitted to add a few words with regard to the poetry? Then I will speak to those who are judges thereof, with all freedom and unreserve.

To these I may say, without offence, 1. In these hymns there is no doggerel; no botches; nothing put in to patch up the rhyme; no feeble expletives. 2. Here is nothing turgid or bombast, on the one hand, or low and creeping, on the other. 3. Here are no cant expressions; no words without meaning. Those who impute this to us know not what they say. We talk common sense, both in prose and verse, and use no word but in a fixed and determinate sense. 4. Here are, allow me to say, both the purity, the strength, and the elegance of the English language; and, at the same time, the utmost simplicity and plainness, suited to every capacity. Lastly, I desire men of taste to judge, (these are the only competent judges) whether there be not in some of the following hymns the true spirit of poetry, such as cannot be acquired by art and labour, but must be the gift of nature. By labour a man may become a tolerable imitator of Spencer, Shakespeare, or Milton; and may heap together pretty compound epithets, as “pale-eyed,” “meek-eyed,” and the like; but unless he be born a poet, he will never attain the genuine spirit of poetry.

. . .   That which is of infinitely more moment than the spirit of poetry, is the spirit of piety. And I trust, all persons of real judgment will find this breathing through the whole Collection. It is in this view chiefly, that I would recommend it to every truly pious reader, as a means of raising or quickening the spirit of devotion; of confirming his faith; of enlivening his hope; and of kindling and increasing his love to God and man. When Poetry thus keeps its place, as the handmaid of Piety, it shall attain, not a poor perishable wreath, but a crown that fadeth not away.

Articles by David Mills

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