Religion & Liberty Online

The world will be saved by beauty: Singing, worship, and COVID-19

“Singing? I’ve heard that’s even worse than coughing!” That remark, and the horrified tone of the well-intentioned woman from my local church who made it, echoes inside many congregations these days. In a world turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic, many parishes which have chosen to reopen their doors prohibit the congregation from singing together in public worship.

This infringement on worship is based in part on a government directive. On May 22, the CDC released its “Recommendations for Communities of Faith,” which included the following statement:

Consider suspending or at least decreasing use of a choir/musical ensembles and congregant singing, chanting, or reciting during services or other programming, if appropriate within the faith tradition. The act of singing may contribute to transmission of COVID-19, possibly through emission of aerosols.

The CDC later deleted the statement from its website, “apparently because the White House had not approved it,” according to NPR. While the revised recommendations do not officially advise churches against congregational music, many faith communities nevertheless continue to abide by this  precaution. This indefinite prohibition on singing affects countless churches of the Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox traditions, as well as other faiths.

The CDC’s regulation stemmed in part from an outbreak of coronavirus among choir members in a Presbyterian church in March. The CDC tracked the outbreak and issued a report saying, “The act of singing, itself, might have contributed to transmission through emission of aerosols, which is affected by loudness of vocalization.”

Not everyone is on board with these limitations. Tom Ascol, the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida, bemoaned “the speed with which so many [pastors] have acquiesced to draconian overreach of civil authorities.” He said, “It’s as if they have no regard for the F1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and, far worse, the Word of God – which instructs Christ’s church to gather regularly for worship.”

The practice of singing as a form of worship has always been a part of the Western, Judeo-Christian tradition. One must look only as far the Psalms of David to see the essential role that music plays in our relationship with God. Singing is a unique intersection of the human and the divine. It is a fully human activity, but it also mirrors and mixes with the celestial choirs. Other animals make sounds, and birds can be said to sing in their own way, but only human beings can join their voices to language and choose the words by which they praise their Creator.

The fact that singing is one of the forms of speech currently being restricted in our country is representative not only of the apparent discrimination toward faith-related activities and gatherings in the wake of the coronavirus, but also of what could be considered our culture’s increasing disregard for beauty.

Beauty is one of evil’s favorite victims — and small wonder: Beauty invites us to look upward, to contemplate the divine. The use of beautiful music in the liturgy invites us to marvel at the majesty of God. The congregation’s participation in worship through music is both unifying and edifying.

Evil attacks beauty in two ways. The first is by twisting and distorting something that is inherently beautiful for an evil purpose. Pornography is perhaps the most obvious example of this. The second, which we are currently experiencing, is a silencing of and utter disregard for beauty — as though, in the face of hardship, illness, and turbulence, beauty were something trivial and inconsequential. But this is a lie.

In times of crisis, people tend to focus on goodness and truth — doing what is right and discerning what is true — but overlook the beautiful. Gregory Wolfe, the author of Beauty Will Save the World and founding editor of Image Journal, says this is a mistake. He asserts that “of the three transcendentals” — goodness, truth, and beauty – “beauty is the one that is least troubled by our fallen condition.” Drawing upon the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, he explains:

In a world plagued by sin and error, [von Balthasar] says, truth and goodness are always hotly contested. How do you live righteously? What is the truth? As we debate these matters, we have axes to grind. But beauty, von Balthasar says, is disinterested. It has no agenda. Beauty can sail under the radar of our anxious contention over what is true and what is good, carrying along its beam a ray of the beatific vision. Beauty can pierce the heart, wounding us with the transcendent glory of God.

Amid the political, economic and social upheaval we face, beauty invites us to reflect with wonder upon a goodness more perfect, and a truth more profound, than anything we can attain as fallen human beings in this life.

The restrictions on congregational singing undermine one of the primary reasons for communal worship, which is to inspire hope through the beauty of music and liturgy, a hope that is desperately needed today.

This is not to say that church leaders do not have the right, even the responsibility, to protect their congregations and take the steps they deem necessary for the welfare of their flock. But as we contemplate the chasm that divides the world that is from the world that ought to be, beauty reminds us that our help comes from something beyond ourselves, something eternal.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Zsanna Bodor

Zsanna Bodor is part of the Acton Institute's Emerging Leaders Program. She is a senior at Hillsdale College, majoring in Music and German.