The English verb, ‘to chant’ derives from the Latin word, ‘cantare,’ which simply means to sing. Some form of singing or chanting existed in the Christian Church since its inception. Various forms of chanting in Christian worship evolved during the Middle Ages (c.600-c.1400). Gregorian chant became the most common form of plainchant in the medieval Christian church as it replaced or synthesized with early forms of chanting, such as, Roman chant or Gallican chant.
Unfortunately, chanting bothers many American Lutherans. The most common criticism is that chanting is “too Roman Catholic,” and therefore good Lutherans should not do it. First, I do not question anyone’s motivation for being wary of chanting in the Divine Service. Most have a genuine concern that worship services not contain faulty practice. However, their apprehension regarding chanting rests on a deficient knowledge of history. My hope is to correct this misunderstanding so that they can praise God through participating in and hearing a beautiful form of singing.
Dr. Martin Luther loved music. He marveled at music as God’s gift to humanity and exhorted Christians to ceaselessly praise the triune God in song. He believed that God had endowed creation with musical qualities. He wrote hymns and played the lute at home with his friends and family. Music played a role in Luther’s education and his life in the church both before and after the Reformation began. (For a short introduction see Carl F. Schalk, Luther on Music, St Louis: CPH, 1988, and the quotes at my blog.
When Dr. Luther initiated reform of the late medieval liturgy in the 1520s, he did not reject the church’s traditional services or music. He tried to retain songs, tunes, and practices from the early and medieval church that did not contradict Scripture or promote false teaching. While Luther and his colleagues did write new hymns and tunes they kept the basic form of the medieval liturgy. Even when Luther wrote new hymns, he based the tunes on the late medieval chants and other existing religious songs, not on tavern or secular songs (Joseph Herl, Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism, Oxford 2004, pp. 21-22.)
Although Luther retained the main elements of the medieval liturgy, he significantly changed how the Words of Institution were pronounced. When performing the medieval mass (and the Roman Catholic Mass until the 1960s) priests spoke the Words of Institution quietly over the bread and wine. The ringing of bells and the elevation of consecrated bread and wine indicated that the consecration had taken place. Luther believed that these sacred Words of Christ were a Gospel proclamation (Luther’s Works 36: 288-89). Therefore, when Dr. Luther introduced liturgical reform, he instructed that the Words of Institution should be chanted so that the entire congregation could hear them. For example, in 1523 he wrote, “I wish these words of Christ…to be recited in the same tone in which the Lord’s Prayer is chanted elsewhere in the canon so that those who are present may be able to hear them…” (Luther’s Work’s 53: 28. Emphasis added) When Luther translated the liturgy into German in 1526, he included tunes so that the readings and the Words of Institution could be chanted (Luther’s Works 53: 80-81).
Lutheran pastors and congregations are not obligated to chant or sing the Words of Institution. However, it is simply historically inaccurate to state that it is a Roman Catholic practice. Martin Luther specifically introduced the chanting or singing of the Words of Institutions. Congregations should rejoice in hearing Christ’s Words of Institution chanted loudly!