Consider the Choir

There are few topics of discussion that are as fervently debated as those pertaining to music in worship. When the time arrives to build a sanctuary there are NO topics as misunderstood as where to locate the choir. It is estimated that as many as 80% of all churches in America array the musical forces across the front of the sanctuary. Could all of those building committees have been wrong? In a word, yes, especially if those churches were at all concerned about the real traditions to which the theology of the Reformation gave birth.

It must be stated that this is a very involved topic, which is given only a brief overview below. Thus wrote Donald Bruggink and Carl Droppers in “Christ and Architecture” (Eerdmans Publishing, 1965), one of the most significant books on worship in the Reformed tradition and how it relates to church design. We can surmise from the book of Exodus that this is a subject of importance because of the way that the arrangement of the tabernacle is actually part of the message about God to His people.

I will narrow this discussion to the question of whether having music in the front (the “east” end) or rear (the “west” end) of the sanctuary is indeed a matter of preference or theology.

First, we should be able to agree that in the Reformed tradition, Christ communicates with His people through Word and Sacrament. This is in stark contrast to the centuries of Roman doctrine wherein the answer is “through the Mass.” The Roman view says that the altar is “Christ’s throne on earth”, and is therefore the pre-eminent architectural feature in Roman Catholic architecture. Hence, we should avoid any visual confusion on these points. Any arrangement that harkens back to the separation of the clergy and the people should also be avoided, as the Reformers affirmed the priesthood of all believers and the centrality of the Scriptures. On this last point our tradition affirms the central pulpit (the Word), rather than a divided arrangement. Not merely a legacy of the Reformation, this can be seen in the basilicas of the third century. There are good acoustic reasons for a central placement as well. The side placement appeared in later centuries. The communion table and baptismal font should likewise be prominent and visible upon entering the sanctuary. After agreeing upon the most important visual elements, let us consider the following questions:

  1. Is the choir part of the clergy?
  2. Is the choir an independent unit whose participation is special?
  3. Is the choir part of the congregation and therefore most logically placed with this element?

The divided chancel arrangement is not the most ancient or proper method of seating the choir, as it dates only from 1130 at Canterbury. Prior to this the choir (usually monks) were seated in the eastern nave (not the chancel). The church was divided into the chancel (for the officiating clergy) and the nave. In the divided chancel arrangement the choir (now part of the clergy and not laymen) and the officiating priests were separated from the people in the nave. The congregation in the nave watched as the Mass was celebrated by the clergy. This separation was reinforced by the practice of only allowing the people to commune once a year while observing daily the priests partaking of the ele- ments. Moving the pulpit to one side aided the people’s view of the celebration of the Mass.

At the time of the Reformation the idea of a separate area for priests and choir was rejected entirely, and it did not reappear until the Cambridge movement of the early 19th century in England. This movement, following on the heels of Rationalism, called for mystery, feeling, and experience rather than reason in worship. Its methods found resonance in an age of Romanticism through pseudo-Romanist decoration and mysticism. And what of churches that were of genuinely Gothic or Medieval origin? The Reformers used the choir stall and chancel area for corporately celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and the pulpit was relocated to the side of the nave where the people could be gathered around to hear the word preached. There was no longer a need to have both pulpit and lectern.

The uniquely American practice of reuniting the divided chancel and arraying the choir and organ across the front of the chancel (behind the the clergy and altar/communion table) is only a century old. This was a compromise between the desire of a truly Protestant communion table rather than an alter/reredos against the rear eastern wall and the desire to be entertained by both choir and clergy in the age of Dwight L. Moody and, later, Billy Sunday. The Romanesque revival embodied in Trinity Church of Boston (1874) resulted in a veritable plague of mediocre imitations all over America. The colorful Biblical scenes depicted in the windows, woodwork of golden oak, and highly decorated organ facade, walls, and ceiling promoted the sense of awe and supernatural mystery sought by the Tractarians of the Cambridge movement in their journey towards Medieval Gothic. Neither, however, is a suitable framework upon which to worship the God that is described in the Scriptures and the Westminster standards.

Through the eyes of the Reformed faith the choir is NEVER seen as part of the clergy. Throughout almost the entire history of Christendom, lay choirs have sung the praises of God and aided their congregations from a position of humility and service rather than in full view. The chancel location is a stumbling block to choir member and congregant alike. To the chorister, it both builds the ego to be seen as one “performs,” and it literally separates one from the congregation one should be supporting. It visually distracts from the preaching of the Word, and it tempts the congregants to critique the appearance of the choir and especially any extra musicians that have been shoehorned into the “choirloft” for special occasions.

The Reformed model of worship is one of dialogue between God and man; God (in the office of pastor) speaks, and the people (congregation and choir) respond. From the time of the Reformation until the 19th century the preferred placement of the choir and organ was in a western (rear) gallery. This was the plan adopted by Sir Christopher Wren in his churches following the great London fire; it was the normal placement on the Continent, and it was typical of the churches built in America during the Colonial period. The responsive aspect mentioned above is reinforced when the choir speaks with the congregation rather than at them. This relationship is more apparent when the choir speaks on (Consider the Choir, cont. from p. 2) behalf of the people, such as when offering an anthem of praise to God, rather than to an audience. Further, the director has the freedom to lead the singers without distracting the congregation, the seating can be movable to accommodate special needs, and the choir is afforded the same view of the pastor’s face as the other worshipers are. Acoustically the rear position is preferable. The organist is best able to accurately judge the balance between organ and choir or congregation (a virtual impossibility in a divided chancel). Any good organ builder will prefer a gallery position, and voices resonate best from this position, hence most effectively aiding the corporate singing and praises. The maintenance on an organ in chambers in the front will be higher than one enclosed in casework in the rear due to temperature and humidity differences, plus the fact that a roof leak on pipework and windchests can go undetected until much expensive damage has been incurred. I am aware that there are those whose desire for “tradition” is pure, but the message of Holy Scripture is that Christ communicates Himself to us in Word and sacrament. For the choir to take an equal position with these elements confuses matters of architecture with the means of grace and furthermore enables it to abdicate its only proper role, which is to lead the people of God in their sung response of gratitude to Almighty God.

Rich Mays is a professional choirmaster and organist