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Prayer of the week

by
18 October 2013

Ben Stephens prays that what he sings with his lips he will believe in his heart

ISTOCK

Bless, O Lord, us Thy servants, 
who minister in Thy temple.
Grant that what we sing with
our lips, we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts, we may show forth in our lives.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

From The Choristers' Pocket Book (1934)

ANYONE who has sung in a church choir should know this prayer, which seems first to have appeared in this version in the Choristers' Pocket Book of 1934, published by the School of English Church Music - the precursor of the RSCM.

It is likely that it was written by either by the sometime organist of Westminster Abbey, musical editor (and chairman of the proprietors) of Hymns Ancient and Modern, and founder of the School of Eng-lish Church Music, Sir Sydney Nicholson; or by Nicholson's supporter in the cause of raising the standards of parish music, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang.

I first encountered the prayer at school, and how well I remember standing by the cassock cupboards, waiting to process into chapel through rain, snow, or sunshine, while our much-loved Director of Music, now gone to his rest, led it from memory.

The prayer seemed to follow me through life, and I soon realised how ubiquitous it was in churches with choral traditions. Many who have sung in a choir could probably recite it by heart, without ever having consciously committed it to memory.

The Choristers' Prayer, as it has become known, stands in a long tradition of invocation of blessing on those who have a singing-leadership ministry in the Church. It was certainly not new in 1934: as early as about 398, the Fourth Council of Carthage declared that those exercising the ministry of cantor should be blessed in a similar way; and, after the Council of Trent (1545-63), the Roman Church included a similar blessing in the rite of priestly ordination. Similar prayers reappeared in the Church of England in various forms with the choral revival of the mid-19th century.

The prayer contains three invocations. The first is a simple request for blessing on those about to lead worship, in the same way that a priest about to celebrate the eucharist says prayers while assuming the sacred vestments.

The second is less straightforward: that the words that the members of the choir form with their lips - leading the congregation in both singing and the spoken responses - may in turn be written in their hearts; and that public performance may not be to the detriment of personal belief.

The third part pleads for help with the hardest part of all: that sincere personal belief may lead to the proclamation of the gospel in and through our everyday lives. How difficult that can be: consummating our pious intentions in church by active Christian discipleship in the communities to which we belong.

Those who sing praises to God praise him joyfully by their very act of singing, St Augustine of Hippo writes in his commentary on Psalm 72 (the attribution to him of "he who sings, prays twice" is apocryphal). For Augustine, the act of singing was also one of love: the praise-filled proclamation of one confessing faith in God was at one with a lover singing to his beloved.

So, if you are a church musician, spare a thought in choir practice for the act of love in which you are pouring yourself out. And, if you are not, please remember to include those who minister to you through their music in your prayers.

Dr Ben Stephens is a freelance writer and theologian.

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