Music of the People

The use of music in Celtic Christianity.

In our last column I summarized some of the contributions Celtic Christianity offers (“Three Celtic Gifts,” April 22). John Bell presented and applied these “offerings” in a recent conference sponsored by the Wisdom Centre in Calgary.  

Bell’s description of Celtic Christianity and his applications of it to our setting mean changes to worship, especially in song. Although often profound, trained choirs of semi-professional musicians are not the primary focus in worship: simple response choruses – often composed or arranged by Bell – are accessible and profoundly simple in expressing interactions with God and each other. 

New songs should be introduced well, but not elaborately. It is the manner of encountering a song that may influence acceptance of it. For example, for someone who remembers World War II experientially, the largo composed by Haydn often called AUSTRIAN HYMN might have been encountered for the first time when occupying troops sang it as “Deutschland, Deutschland, Über Alles,” and thus be devastated by singing “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” to that tune. 

Bell’s emphasis on music of the people, by the people and for common praise reminds me of the Calvinistic emphasis on congregational singing made possible for those without musical training. Congregational singing as Bell describes it reminds me of the traditions of singing Scottish psalms, the English folks songs arranged for hymnals by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the more complicated Genevan psalms and Welsh hymnody. In fact, Bell’s emphasis on music of the people reminds me of the inclusion of so many hymns found in the 1986 Psalter Hymnal written by the Christian Reformed Church members who were “part of the family.” 


The conference also caused me some degree of despair – despair that the fresh and exciting, creative insights I encountered will be difficult or impossible to incorporate in worship in local congregations. The power of the popular music industry, especially in evangelical and Reformed circles, is daunting in its ability to limit the worship response: worshippers are sometimes overshadowed by microphones, instruments, strong vocalists, screen and power-point visuals. In liturgical traditions, the power of ecclesiastical structures – professionalism and clericalism, i.e., ministers, priests, choirs, liturgies and traditional practices – may nearly blow out the flame of creative responses by the common folk. 

It is such common folk to whom Bell’s (and Graham Maule’s) contributions to worship music are dedicated. As the two say in the Introduction to Known Unknowns: 100 Contemporary Texts to Common Tunes, their lyrics are for the common people who worship with deep, complex simplicity. These texts “are put together here especially for the kind of churches we particularly want to encourage – churches where there is no musician; churches where there is a reticence to sing new songs, or churches where the praise of God has been kept separate from the concerns of the world.”

In the end, however, I came away from this conference freshly motivated to encourage, support and participate in worship and life that is fully human, reflecting the incarnational presence of Christ in his world. As Lent progressed, I thought of John Bell and the firmly rooted faith of Calvin’s Seerveld’s lyrics to Psalm 22. After singing unabashedly of being forsaken by God, the Psalmist leads us in a final, triumphant, statement that I take as somehow normative for congregational music:

I thank you, my LORD, I may sing with your folk
to seal here in worship the vows which I spoke, 
so new generations shall pass on in faith
that you, O my God, keep your children all safe!

Psalm 22, verse 10: Psalter Hymnal, 1986 


  • Curt Gesch

    Curt Gesch and his wife lead the singing via Zoom for a combined service of small United Church congregations in central B.C. each Sunday morning. In the afternoon, they lead a Friends and Family Zoom worship from their home. If you'd like to join that service, please write Curt at moc.liamg@36hcsegc.

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