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What is the function/intent/purpose of a choral anthem in today's mainstream Protestant worship service?

By "anthem", I mean a short composition (<10 minutes) sung by the choir rather than the entire congregation. In the tradition I come from, this is usually sung during the Liturgy of the Word. The congregation I work for is about to do a review of everything we do in our worship services. We're going to be asking, "why do we do this?", and the answer "because we've always done it that way" is simply not going to cut it. While I fully support this process, I don't want to talk myself out of a job as choir director, so help me out... why do we sing 'anthems'? (And I know full well that not everyone does.)

My best guess so far is that that it is a time during worship in which the Word is shared through music. The congregation hears a message from the choir, kind of like they do when they listen to the minister give a homily from the pulpit. The message can be used to teach, offer praise, set a mood for more teaching, and/or offer a link to the whole Body of Christ through the ages and around the world by using traditional songs & texts or songs from another place. Being sung by the choir alone rather than the entire congregation allows for more complex music to be presented, which may (or may not) speak to people in a different way than a simple song would. The choir itself functions as a small group ministry, so the preparation of the anthem has a role in the group ministry. It could also be said that the church has a long tradition as a patron of the arts, and that by singing choral anthems, we continue this patronage by purchasing music to support composers, paying choir directors and section leaders, and teaching music technique in the choir.

What say ye all?
Replies (15): Threaded | Chronological
on April 13, 2011 5:45am
An additional way to think of it is this: the gathered community at the offertory puts money in a plate/bakset. This is our offering to God of things temporal.  The choir sings an appropriate anthem as an offering to God, on behalf of the entire congregation, of things spiritual.
on April 13, 2011 6:19am
Hello Skye,
Among the reasons you have cited, I think you might include the idea of stewardship. We think of musical ability as a "gift" or "talent". It is obvious that a congregation doesn't consist of people who are all equally capable in music, rather, some are more "gifted." Our church enjoys the stewardship of those gifts by those who possess them. When we sing an "anthem", the whole congregation not only hears meaningful music, they observe the proper stewardship of the musical gifts that have been graciously placed among them.
Best wishes,
Terre Johnson
on April 13, 2011 8:08am
The Anthem, to me, is a reflection on the liturgy. Just as we don't do a group recitation of the Bible passages, we therefore don't have a group singing of the Anthem. I try to make the anthem for each service build on, add to, or reflect upon the message for that day's sermon. Often, the anthems are based on poetry or praise lyrics which aren't biblical, which offers a more secular approach to the same idea or message.
It can also serve in a similar way as the sermon. We've heard God's word from the Bible, now here we are to translate, explain, and postulate on it's meaning, using plain English, (or poetic English).
In my church, I pushed for the Anthem to be placed during the liturgy. This church had gotten used to us performing during Offertory, which to me makes it simply background music. Singing during the readings emphasised the song's message.
It's also, honestly, a bit of Theatre. Just as in a musical or Opera, a song or Aria can drive home a particular emotion or theme, and Anthem can do the same thing. One time, for example, we had selected "Out There" from "Hunchback of Notre Dame." It happened to follow the story about Jesus healing a crippled woman. The sermon, it turned out, was thinking of the healing not as a literal curing of her disease, but rather of Jesus recognizing her when so many ignore her because of her illness. The song, it turns out, fit the message perfrectly, and gave it an emotional voice, that helped to drive the point home.
You can explain to your board, or leadership, that people keep coming back to church when they feel an emotional connection to the word. Your Anthem helps to make sure that happens.
on April 13, 2011 9:52am
Quite some time ago, Skye, I learned from an educator that many times when we ask "why?" we really should be asking "how?" or "what?" because it shifts the mind from the emotions to the logical processes of the brain.  This is, however, one of those times when "why?" is as useful a question as "what?"  The "what" is fairly evident - it is a re-emphasis or expansion on the Word that people have just heard; or, in the Catholic tradition it can be a refocusing of our attention on what will happen next (the Consecration).  (Incidentally, I've sung/led music for 40 years in the Catholic Church, but also have sung in a Presbyterian community for a year and in a joint Chapel choir - Catholic/Protestant - in the Army for three years, so I have some notion of what is looked for in a Protestant community's worship.)  That said, matters spiritual address the "why" of our existence, and, as others have ably pointed out, singing is a gift (and it had better darned well be emotional vs. rational!), a bit of theatre to drive home points we might miss, a way for those who may not be visually-attuned but aurally-attuned to grasp something important.  At the risk of going somewhere that isn't meant, one of the great strengths (for me, at least) about the Catholic Church (as it was - not necessarily as it is today) was the emphasis placed on the "sensual" aspects of religion - the vestments, the sounds, etc. - as opposed to Protestantism's general emphasis on the mind - the Word.  The whole idea of liturgy in Catholicism was to engage as much of the people's realities as possible - which went too many times to excess.  BUT - and this is the important "but" - music is a language which most people respond to, and its absence in the form of a moment of focus in the form of an anthem would mean the further diminution of the community's "sensual" engagement as well as an intellectual one.  I may not be saying it well, but it's not just a "spot" in the liturgy; it is a "moment" to engage the many in yet another way.
Another way to approach it, perhaps, is to say that if the choir were to do nothing but hymns (in a leadership role, granted, but not absolutely required) or responses in a more liturgical tradition (psalms, etc.) then the choir's role is nothing more than a policeman.  "Okay, folks, time to stand up and sing this because.....????  It's time to get to the next thing!"  Ministerially, the pastor also is a liturgical policeman, after a fashion.  "Okay, now it's time for the opening prayer; now it's time for the reading of the Old Testament; now the Gospel; now the Communion service (if it's that Sunday)."  But please note, a minister gives a sermon, or homily, or reflection - why?  Because it is essential to STOP and absorb aspects of what the worshiping community has just heard - and it is aimless to simply allow people to sit there and reflect on their own (they'll be thinking about the twenty-five thousand things that concern us daily, rather than on God).  We NEED direction in our journey to God, and the sermon does that.  Well, in much the same way, the choir's anthem says "STOP!  THINK!  REFLECT!" on what has been heard, or on a step beyond what has been read and heard and reflected upon by the minister.  The choir's role in the anthem, in particular, is ministerial - directive, pointing the Way, the Truth and the Life, just like the cleric's.  And, in the end, that's what everything that happens in a sacred service is supposed to do - take us outside the mundane and the daily concerns, and dispose us to think of God and His/Her Word and what it means.
on April 13, 2011 1:28pm
Skye, (like that name)
What is (or shoiuld be) the etc. in today's church?, you ask.
The anthem (much shorter than 10") can be a simple arrangement of something right out of the hymnbook or a chorus from a larger work (you know this). Have you heqrd a good church choirin your area, or on YouTube? My experience is in the negative. Then why would a church put up with such an ensemble? Perhaps, tradition. Perhaps to please some people who have    always sung.
One denomination published(s) booklets inviting praise group establishment. "So you want to start a praise team." Another , "So you want to lead a praise team." That denomination encouraged such and kissed goodbye to the choir as many knew it.  Yet, in the home town of the denomination there is a church that promotes good music, well done, and the church is packed on Sundays. If your minister wants the good stuff and you are capable of delivering professional leadership, you will have a good choir, recognized as such.
So, my answer is simple; no matter what you sing, if it is good, really good, the people will like it. Quality..............and that's up to you!
on April 13, 2011 8:05pm
Hi, Skye.  I wanted to reply earlier, but yesterday ChoralNet was messed up and was not giving links in the messages to allow easy replies.
The replies so far have been excellent, but I have to point out that they are all modern interpretations of something that has been going on for at least the last six centuries, so it might be helpful to look at the history rather than just making a list of what today's church musicians think about anthems.
The word "anthem" came into use in England in the 16th century, after England broke away from the established church.  But the functional changes in the liturgy, aside from mandating that it be in English, were minimal, and the 16th century English anthem held the same place in the liturgy that the 15th century motet had held both in England and on the Continent, and continued to have on the Continent well into the 17th century.  (The earlier motet, although it was disignated by the same name, was quite a different thing, and in the 13th century was more of a secular musical play party.  But the growth of the motet in church use grew during the 15th century at about the same time that church choirs started singing part music rather than just chant.)
And the thing that distinguished the motet then, and still distinguishes the anthem today, is simple.  It is a sacred or spiritual text which is NOT liturgical.  It is always a text that is suitable for use during a service, but it is not one of the texts voted on and approved for inclusion in the missal or prayerbook.  Its use can and was therefore much more flexible than the liturgical elements and liturgical texts of the mass.
It shares that distinction with the hymn, which was originally imported into the Western Church from the Eastern Church, again as a suitably sacred or spiritual text that could be added to either the mass or the holy offices, but was not one of the required texts.  So from very early in church history there were such texts in use, no matter what term was used for them.  And like other texts considered suitable for service use, they could be Biblical or non-Biblical, poetry or prose (although hymns came to be rhymed poetry), and general or very specific texts (including both hymns and motets/anthems for weddings, funerals, baptisms, coronations, and important feast days or saints' days.  (Christmas and Easter are, of course, two of the most obvious!)
So we have churches that used fixed rituals (liturgies), along with others that are somewhat more freeform.  (It's easy to tell the difference:  if the prayers are read from a prayerbook they are liturgical; if they are ad libbed the term doesn't have the same meaning.)  Which means that ANY place in the service order can be conisdered appropriate for (to return to the modern terminology) an anthem, but I suspect that in most churches there are traditions that are almost as controling as the ancient liturgies.  And THAT means, in turn, that it is where they are placed in the service, rather than the simple fact that we call them anthems, that determines their function, their intent, or their purpose.
And I suggest that that is just fine, and gives a given church, a given pastor or priest, or a given choir director enough flexibility to not only choose texts that are appropriate to the message, lesson, and sermon of the day, but to choose where those texts are most appropriately placed in the service order.  Doesn't this make sense?
Unless, of course, they are simply used to fill time, and don't think that isn't important in the course of a service.  The offertory (in the sense of the collection rather than the offering of bread and wine) is one obvious place.  The housekeeping preceding communion is another.  And if a large number of congregants participate in communion, that is also time to fill (although it's often done with hymns rather than an anthem).  But they can do SO much more than that!
And with all respect, certainly all music should be done as beautifully as possible, but services are not concerts and any time either the choir director, the choir, or the clergy think of anthems as performances alone, something is badly out of kilter!
So as you reexamine your church's practices, I hope that this quick historical snapshot helps provide some suggestions for thought.
All the best,
on April 14, 2011 3:57am
John - Thanks for the history lesson, for me as much as for anyone else.  I have had further discussions on this issue (because of what I sense is an underlying tension in the question asked and the answers given) with one of the ordained deacons in our community (with whom I've had some contentions about musical issues in the past, but not on this) and with an acquaintance, a convert to Catholicism, with whom I had a very long discussion about things in the church last night.  I hope Skye's question makes us all want to re-examine and understand what we do, at the very least philosophically, spiritually, and liturgically.  It gets far too easy to go rumbling along, especially at this time of the year when we are so up-to-our-ears in preparing for what is one of the most exhausting, yet exhilirating, times of the liturgical year - Holy Week.  How appropriate to examine our musical consciences at the same time we're asked to examine our spiritual ones.  So to both of you, thanks.
on April 14, 2011 7:10am
Please re-read my last line above. I took your use of the word, "anthem," to be generic. Whatever it is, do it professionally and enjoy the results!
on April 14, 2011 10:24am
In our congreagtion, an ELCA Lutheran church, "Special" music, as in music that is presented by a soloist of groups of people (nearly always a group), comes at three points during the service:
1) Call to Worship, which begins the service, and I select music that is often a song of praise, or in some way related to the texts of the day or the seasonal theme, with the thought to preparing the hearts and minds of the congregation to participate in worship as they are centering themselves to be a part of the worship experience.
2) Anthem: Our anthem, which isn't always an "anthem" in the original sense, comes under the liturgical heading of "Word", just before the reading of the lessons.  As much as possible, I try to find works which either echo the texts, support the texts in some way, or represent a "response" to the hearing/reading of thsoe texts (yes, response, even though it comes seed the minds of the worshipers to hear the texts in another way...what someone heard in those texts and shares before they are read to us once more).
3) Offering: Often we use instrumental music during the offering, but usually it is an arrangement of a hymn used during the day, or a hymn that would otherwise be appropriate, something that once again centers the congregation for the remaing worship.  Our offering follows the prayers of the church and the sharing of the peace, and helps us to center our minds once again for the receiving of the Lord's supper.
I hope this is helpful!
on April 14, 2011 11:52pm
Thanks to EVERYONE for your comments and suggestions. I’m taking them all to heart, and I’ve made up some revised notes. My small group certainly never really sings anything remotely approaching 10 minutes long… I was just trying to come up with some kind of definition for an ‘anthem’. I mean, I could maybe see some larger congregation presenting something on the long-side (like Mendelssohn’s “Hear My Prayer”) for an anthem (maybe). My own little group tends to sing very short pieces: for some reason 2-part mix pieces are always very short!
Thanks especially to Ron. I am on a very delicate tight-rope – I was asked to take this choir-conduction job for a congregation in the denomination that I was trying to get away from at the same time that I was in RCIA. Just a few weeks ago, the parochial priest asked me if I would lead a ‘choir’ for the Saturday anticipation Mass, and I’ve pretty much avoided showing up at Mass since then because I don’t know how to approach the abysmal situation of music in our parish.
Edward – the congregation I work for has two worship services with two distinct styles and worship leaders. One is based off of the Willow Creek worship format, the other is fairly traditional for this particular denomination. The whole reason we’re going to be having this discussion about “What is worship?” and “Why do we do this in worship?” is because the earlier worship service continues to run late, causing significant stress for the next bunch of musicians that don’t have time to do warm-ups or sound checks in the sanctuary before the service. Rather than just assume that we need to abbreviate that service, we decided to look at the big picture and then look for a meaningful solution. While I’m totally game to swapping service times (so that the shorter service would be first), I doubt that is an ideal solution for the rest of the congregation, so we need to explore all options.
Occasionally, our group will present special music as a Call to Worship/Introit, the Offering, or during the distribution of the elements. The latter two are usually left to the organist or a soloist, and the Call to Worship is usually sung communally unless the ‘anthem’ I have chosen for the day is better suited to the beginning of the service as a way to ‘kick things off’.
Anyway, thanks again for all the comments. I feel fairly well equipped to “justify” this part of the worship service, if that is what I am called to do.
on April 15, 2011 6:29am
Skye -- 
This is an answer your clergy may not fully appreciate, but to me it's the most meaningful:  When words are put to music that effectively highlights their meaning, and the music is sung well, it illuminates the meaning and emotional impact of the words in a way that speaking them alone can't match.  (I think that's why a few clergy members are threatened by the music programs in their church, because they understand the power that music holds in conveying the text.)  I realize that if you stated this as a reason to keep the anthem in your service, it could upset your clergy a little bit (or at least unnerve them).  But I still believe it's true, and I imagine many of your congregants would agree.  
Chuck Livesay  
on April 15, 2011 2:35pm
Thankfully, the congregation I work for is blessed with a musical pastor: he plays guitar for the praise team at the other service (and sometimes for the choir, too). By no means is choral music intended to be the focus of our upcoming meeting, in fact the pastor even joked that it very well could turn out that we discouver no one finds his sermons worshipful.
on April 16, 2011 6:35am
That's good to hear, Skye.  Thankfully, there are pastors who aren't jealous of the powerful effect that music can have in a service, and that support the music program fully.  I'm glad you're blessed with one.
on April 21, 2011 4:47am
to underline the theme, reading for the day, action ( eg. Eucharist/Communion) or season
provide contrast of texture in the service...   spoken word, sung word (hymn), listening to the sung word (anthem)
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