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 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.
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.
Although I have been writing psalm settings since the mid 1980s, this particular set (now numbering over 70 and growing) was started in 1996 for the Advent and Lent readings in the Church of England ASB. The Church has migrated from this to a three-year lectionary very similar to the Revised Common Lectionary; accordingly my writing is now addressing this, endeavouring especially to cover the seasons from Advent to Pentecost.