Music of Worship at Westminster Abbey

Dr. Zehring reminisces about his doctoral research in London in the early 1980s.

After arriving in London, I spent eight hours a day for six straight days in a small windowless room in the bowels of the old British Library, in self-imposed isolation, sifting through 300-500-year-old books – church registers, music manuscripts, Royal warrants, anything – looking for mention of Richard Minshall, Robert Devereaux, any evidence at all that I could use to connect either one of them with the other.

After all that time, I felt I really needed a break from the writer’s cramp and eyestrain I was having, so one afternoon I thought it’d be a good idea to come out into the light and visit Westminster Abbey. Annette and I arrived just as they were about to begin their daily evensong service.

Understand that in addition to being a major tourist attraction, the Abbey continues its daily functions as a working church. When there’s a service, the vergers shoo away the tourists from the chancel and altar areas, rope it off and seat those who wish to worship in the choir stalls. Then they proceed with the service while the non-worshipers continue their tours throughout the Abbey staying outside the roped-off enclosure. So there we were, sitting as close to the director of the Westminster Abbey choir as we are to each other in our choir loft on a Sunday morning.

When the organ prelude began, there was a sudden hush in all the babble of voices and a cessation of the popping of photo flashes from the crowds that filled the outer aisles and the nave of the Abbey. This hush continued as the choir processed singing the first hymn. Once the spoken portion of the service began – the scriptures and the prayers – the hubbub resumed and continued until the choir sang the Psalms and the anthem. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the extraneous noise of the crowds outside the chancel/altar area subsided until the anthem was over, then it ramped up again. It went on through the homily and only stopped when the recessional hymn was being sung and throughout the organ postlude. I remember saying to Annette, “That tells you something about the power of music in worship.”

The point I want to make is that whether we realize it or not, what we do as musicians in worship has a profound effect on people. Whether it’s in Westminster Abbey or the First United Methodist Church of Bella Vista, Arkansas, the music of worship has the capacity to transport people beyond the limits and confines of the ordinary and the routine and, while the music lasts, causes them to become focused on something greater than themselves, something richer and deeper than they can experience in any other circumstance.


“Music of worship has the capacity to transport people beyond the limits and confines of the ordinary and the routine.”


It also alters our perspectives as musicians. Idly humming a tuneless melody can subconsciously lighten the burden of an everyday chore, singing along with an earworm that gets stuck in our minds, working out a tricky passage in choir practice – going over it again and again – until it’s right or providing musical inspiration for our congregation as we sing our responses and anthems on a Sunday morning; it all works to lift our spirits, strengthen our faith and give glory to God. And if I might paraphrase the last word of a verse from a well-known hymn: “What a privilege to carry everything to God in song.”

I hope you’re all staying safe and happy; practicing social distancing, heeding the advice of the medical professionals and that you will, of course, keep on singing.

Dr. Lawrence (Larry) Zehring is the Music Director at First United Methodist Church of Bella Vista, Arkansas.

Photo by Σπάρτακος. Courtesy Wikimedia.
Posted 2020-04-23

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