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Rediscovering The Psalms In Our Churches: David Lee


How long, O Lord, will we forget?

We all know the theory. That all scripture is inspired by God for teaching truth and for refuting error, so that we may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Those of us from evangelical or non-conformist traditions place a very high emphasis on the supremacy of scripture. While most of scripture is basically God speaking his message to us, the Psalms by contrast are the very model of our imperfect message to him: of Christian worship, praise and intercession.

But when we plan our routine weekly service patterns and when we debate our choices of hymnbooks and songbooks for our churches, is our uppermost thought how we can use scripture’s own such resource, the Psalms?

What fraction of our churches today make a conscious effort to sing from the Psalms in some form, any form, in all their variety, on a planned, weekly basis? The typical local church in recent decades seems almost entirely to have let slip their systematic use: an alarming contradiction penetrating right to the heart of the life, worship and mission of our churches, which ought to worry us profoundly.

Why are Psalms no longer regularly sung in today’s churches?

Why do Christians, who love singing hymns and songs, so astonishingly fail to use scripture’s own provision? On those occasions when we do use the Psalms, is not our choice heavily biased towards the “nice” ones, those of obvious and overt praise and worship, the “triumphalistic tendency”? What about those of anguish and despair, which so naturally reflect our human condition? Despite our ideals of theology, our experience is often of the perceived absence of God, a dichotomy which the Psalms directly and realistically acknowledge and address.

In the English language the texts of the Psalms, whatever the translation, are in irregular patterns. They do not marry well with any of the sorts of music we encounter day by day, whose patterns are almost always regular, whether baroque or hard rock, classical or country, symphony or soundtrack.

The Psalms have come down through the ages to us in words-only form. We have no original music. But this is to our advantage: it gives us the opportunity to create a vehicle of direct relevance to our own expressions of praise, despair, frustration and worship. Yet still we try to be “churchy” even with these most human scriptures, the Psalms, wanting organists and chant forms which are respectively unavailable and culturally alien. When the pious-music bathwater has drained away, we find the Psalm baby has gone.

How may the Psalms be recovered in our local churches?

If we are to own the Psalms, we need to root their use firmly in our own cultures. For our western society we therefore need to consider versions of the texts and styles of music that are congruent to our own literature, poetry and theatre and even to magazines, television, cinema and video.

If they are to be recovered as part of our regular, weekly pattern of gathered worship, we need to recognise and respond to their variety. This requires a large number of tunes. It would clearly be a Herculean and impractical task for a small congregation to learn an entire new setting each week, but it is vital that the typical congregation usually take some active part in the Psalm singing.

Most of our churches today are quite small; their musical resources are limited. A responsorial form of psalm singing gives the congregation a short, highly singable and quickly teachable tune as a refrain. The singers and instrumentalists handle the more intricate work of the verses, learned in their regular practices. This form effectively employs the complementary strengths of each party.

The settings given here are specifically intended for the modest resources of the small church, for the average church pianist, organist or guitarist and a singer leading the congregation. Of course much larger resources may be used if available. They are unashamedly biased towards music-group rather than organ and four-part choir. That said, most can be adapted to many styles to suit local resources.


Copyright © David Lee, 1998


David Lee (b. 1956) was brought up in Didsbury, Manchester, and sketched his first hymn-tune while at primary school. He has been active in church music since his early teens, accompanying the local Crusader (now “Urban Saints”) youth group, and playing the piano and organ at All Hallows Church, Cheadle, Cheshire. During summer months in 1975 and 1976, he was Abbey Musician at Iona Abbey, which provided a sharp contrast to, and widened outlook from, his earlier largely conservative-evangelical background.

While an undergraduate at Durham (1975-78) he was a founder of the music team at St. Nicholas Church under its vicar, George Carey. Following a postgraduate year at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne (M.Sc., Computing Science) he returned to Durham to work in the University’s Computing Service, and rejoined St. Nicholas where he later became deputy leader of the music group…

…In 1995 the family settled at St. John’s Church, Nevilles Cross, Durham, where these strands and ideas of writing were actively encouraged and began weaving together. In particular these included recovering the psalms (which, worryingly, are almost entirely lost to corporate evangelical and charismatic worship) in ways sympathetic to music-groups and small churches, but still teachable with minimal liturgical intrusion, week by week.

In 1998, he was invited to present a paper Top-down or bottom-up: restoring the balance to the World Church Music Symposium in London, pleading for a recognition of the importance both of the “small church” and also of a range of music for all churches.

Following that, he was invited to join the Durham Diocesan Liturgical Committee music subgroup (and the local RSCM education group) where he is fostering a short course to give “small church” musicians a basic confidence-building grounding in music for worship.

David is a member of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, and from 2007 is serving on its executive committee. He was also an early encourager of the Christian Songwriting Organisation email group.

Various periodicals (e.g. Deo magazine, Stainer & Bell’s Worship Live and MWF’s Sing a New Song) take some of his settings from time to time. Recent entries in the St. Paul’s Cathedral Millennium Hymn Competition and RSCM competitions have been highly placed. More formally, he has had tunes published in Stainer & Bell’s Sound Bytes and was among the major contributors to the Methodist Wesley Music for the Millennium project. In 2006, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod published his new tune Elvet Banks in their new hymnal. In 2011 the Methodist Church published four tunes of his tunes in the new Singing the Faith hymn book and in 2012 the combined Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) and Reformed Church in America (RCA) published seven tunes in their Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship.

4 comments on this post:

Sue Milton said...

In All Saints Church Huntingdon ( has its own facebook page if you want to look us up ) we either say or sing the set psalm inbetween the first reading and the Gospel reading. We only have a choir of 3. When we sing the psalm it is set to a modern tune written by the Rev Canon Jonathan Priestland Young – with a response which is repeated inbetween a few verses. It is so beautiful. I can put anyone in touch if you are interested ( church web site not mine !)

26 November 2012 22:26
ramtopsrac said...

Thank you so much for posting this, which may prove to be incredibly timely as the use of psalms has been a focus of my studies at Cuddesdon this term. I will look more at David’s work when I have more time, but thought I’d add some more resources I’ve come across in case anyone is interested:

Grove Books:
B46 Using the Psalms for Prayer Through Suffering by Simon P Stocks
W198 Recovering The Lord’s Song – Getting Sung Scripture Back into Worship by Anne Harrison

and Ian White’s settings of some psalms available here

Tim Chesterton said...

Thanks for that link to Ian White – his psalm settings had a huge influence on me in the early 1990s!

27 November 2012 20:44
27 November 2012 12:01
David Lee said...

Thanks for the comments.

Notes, particularly to “ramtopsrac”:

1. What might be the pastoral implications of our loosing psalms? I suspect they might be frightening. Where the psalms were (are?) used regularly, and across the range (probably from the lectionary), we are routinely exposed to the language of lament, grief, even God-directed anger, as part and parcel of Christian worship. So when, years later, bad things happen to us, the long-sustained background is there. But, by contrast, go to churches where the psalms are, in effect, dropped (except for pick’n’choose “nice” ones), what are the effects when bad things happen? If we feel the slightest twinge of doubt, lament, grief or God-directed anger, does it not immediately make us feel enormously guilty about even imagining God in such (apparently) negative light? That, I suspect, is a major pastoral issue, but I’ve never seen anything written about it, particularly in evangelical circles where this might be “elephant in the room” prominent.

2. If you want to see some settings, see:

3. Although, in browsing my site you may see Durham appear regularly, we’re now living (in exile!) in the Deep South (Reading) so Cuddesdon is reasonably local. If you want a second opinion on the settings, ask John Pritchard. In Durham days, he was a member of the congregation where I was developing many of these.

Best wishes.

27 November 2012 22:40

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