Clothing in the Worship Assembly

People may come to the assembly wearing clothing that reflects their economic status, yet differences of wealth and poverty have no place in the Christian community.

The letter to James admonishes the Christian community: “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:1–5).[1] People may come to the assembly wearing clothing that reflects their economic status, yet differences of wealth and poverty have no place in the Christian community, says James, reflecting the reversal that is also proclaimed in the song of Mary, “he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 2:53).

The Radical Equality of Baptism

Presenting a vision of radical equality in Christ, in which distinctions are erased, the apostle Paul told the Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:27). While there is no indication that baptism in the apostolic age included a literal clothing with garments representing Christ, nor that baptized Christians wore special garb when they assembled, Paul’s assertion that in Christ “there is no longer slave or free” (Gal. 3:28) suggests that divisions arising from class, status, and wealth are overcome in resurrection life in Christ. Clothing serves as a metaphor for a new identity and unity in Christ.

By the fourth century, newly baptized Christians were literally clothed in new garments. At the beginning of the baptismal rite, the candidates stripped off their old clothes and entered the font naked, symbolically dying with Christ. Cyril of Jerusalem interpreted the nakedness of the candidates as an imitation of Christ’s nakedness on the cross.[2] When they came up from the water, resurrected with Christ, the neophytes were clothed in white robes. Cyril explained the symbolism by quoting Isaiah: “He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). Cyril urged the neophytes to keep their spiritual dress “truly white and shining,” even though they would not always wear white clothing on their bodies.[3] John Chrysostom interpreted the white robe as a sign of Christ, alluding to Galatians 3:27: “Now the neophytes carry Christ himself, not on their clothes, but dwelling in their souls with his Father, and the Holy Spirit has descended on them there.”[4]

During the fourth century, Christians were often baptized at the Easter Vigil, and it became customary for the neophytes to wear their garments throughout the octave of Easter, during which time they received additional teaching. After this first week of baptismal life, new Christians removed their baptismal robes and took their place among the faithful, as Augustine explained, “Today, as you see, our infants mingle with the faithful and fly as it were from the nest.”[5]

The interpretations of the baptismal garment emphasize salvation, resurrection, and new life, rather than signifying economic equality. Yet as a garment common to all newly baptized, the robe also points to unity in Christ in which there are no distinctions among the baptized.

The practice of clothing the newly baptized continued throughout the Middle Ages as infant baptism became normative. The Sarum rite stipulates that the “chrismal robe” is the property of the church and must be returned to the church after the baptism: “the cloth must not be put to common uses, but brought back to the church, and kept for the uses of the church.”[6] Requiring the baptismal garment to be maintained by the church may have served a practical purpose, providing a robe during an era when clothing was very expensive and most people had a very limited wardrobe.[7] Yet a common baptismal garment also reflects the Pauline vision of the unity and equality of Christians as baptized members of Christ.

The Emergence of Distinctive Clerical Vesture

Until the early fifth century, Christians did not adopt vesture that distinguished the presider from other members of the assembly. It is likely that all Christians, including the presider, wore their finest clothes for worship, reflecting both reverence and rejoicing.[8]

When differences in clergy and lay vesture began to emerge in Gaul, Celestine of Rome objected, “The true distinction between a bishop and his flock is to be found in his doctrine, not in his vesture.”[9] Eleven hundred years later, Martin Luther criticized clerical dress, emphasizing the common priesthood of baptism: “That a pope or a bishop . . . prescribes dress unlike that of the laity—this may make hypocrites and graven images, but it never makes a Christian or ‘spiritual’ man. Through baptism all of us are consecrated to the priesthood.”[10]

Despite Celestine’s disapproval of clerical vesture, distinctive liturgical garb for clergy gradually emerged during the early Middle Ages. The alb, a white linen tunic, became the basic liturgical garment for clergy. Both the alb and the chasuble worn over it were once common clothing in the Roman empire.[11] As fashions changed, clerical dress did not, though vestment design varied over the centuries.

The ancient Greco-Roman world distinguished rank in the civil hierarchy with particular insignia and forms of dress. As clergy came to be regarded as a distinctive class, or order, within civil society, they added signs of civil office to their liturgical dress.[12] Eventually the stole became customary liturgical vesture for deacons and presbyters at Rome, worn in different ways to differentiate the orders.[13]

Distinctive liturgical garb served not only to identify the ordained ministers presiding at liturgy but also to reinforce power and authority.

Distinctive liturgical garb served not only to identify the ordained ministers presiding at liturgy but also to reinforce power and authority. For centuries, ecclesiastical garb was markedly similar to imperial vesture.[14] The use of distinctive liturgical vesture thus served not only to reinforce clerical authority but also to ally ecclesiastical authority with the power of the emperor, thus supporting the class structure of medieval Europe. The radical equality of baptism did not eliminate distinctions in daily life.

By the twelfth century, both laity and clergy were critiquing clerical clothing. Clerical critiques were aimed at “the skewed distribution and uses of wealth within the church, particularly the making and use of ornate liturgical vestments when the poor went hungry and raggedly clothed.”[15] Wealthy laity, however, continued to donate resplendent liturgical vesture. Their critique of clergy dress focused on street attire, and ecclesiastical legislation required that street clothes were to be “modest and dark in color.”[16]

In the sixteenth century, Protestant reformers like Martin Luther rejected the ornate vesture of the medieval West. The black academic gown became customary in Reformed churches, while Anglicans eventually adopted the surplice, a variation of the alb, as the primary liturgical garment.[17]

Conclusions

Both baptismal garments and liturgical vesture serve symbolic functions in the liturgical assembly. Neither is essential to Christian worship, yet both have endured over many centuries, taking on different meanings in different times and places. What might Christian assemblies today consider as they discern whether and how to use these symbols?

Baptismal garments. In the Roman Catholic Church, the baptismal rites introduced after the Second Vatican Council include clothing with a baptismal garment as an “explanatory rite,” and some other churches have introduced this practice as an optional element of the celebration of baptism. The robe signifies not only the baptizand’s identification with Christ but also the radical equality and dignity of baptized Christians. Where the baptismal garment becomes a standard element of the baptismal rite, it can serve as visible sign of the new identity given in Christ. The use of the garment also offers a teaching opportunity, inviting members of the assembly to consider the implications of the proclamation, “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).

Liturgical vesture. In a recent study of clergy clothing, Maureen Miller observed, “at the very origins of Christian liturgical dress there were within the church those who embraced majesty and solemnity in the name of honoring God and those who found ornament offensive as a betrayal of Jesus’ message.”[18] This tension may remain for churches deciding whether and how clergy and other worship leaders will be vested. Yet vestments can not only enhance the dignity and festivity of the rite, they can also shift the focus from the individual presider to the shared action of the assembly, emphasizing “the primacy of the institutional role over the personality” of the worship leader.[19]

The admonition in the letter of James, warning against showing favoritism in the assembly, suggests the importance of radical hospitality, embodying Christ’s all-embracing love and welcoming all regardless of how well-dressed or wealthy they are. The choice of vesture for worship leaders is but one dimension of crafting worship that celebrates the reign of God, one that is of far less importance than the primary symbols of water, bread, wine, and the members of the assembly, the body of Christ.


Ruth Meyers is Dean of Academic Affairs and Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California, and an assisting priest at All Souls Episcopal Parish in Berkeley. Her recent publications include Missional Worship, Worshipful Mission: Gathering as God’s People, Going Out in God’s Name (Eerdman’s, 2014), which explores the dynamic interplay of worship and mission, and a revised and updated edition of Leonel Mitchell’s Praying Shapes Believing (Church Publishing, 2016).

[1] All citations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Edward Yarnold, S.J., The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: The Origins of the R.C.I.A., 2nd ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1994), 76.

[3] Cyril of Jerusalem, cited in Yarnold, Awe-Inspiring Rites, 89.

[4] John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions 4.17, cited in Yarnold, Awe-Inspiring Rites, 32.

[5] Augustine, Sermon 376, cited in Yarnold, Awe-Inspiring Rites, 33.

[6] “The Sarum Rite,” in Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy, ed. E. C. Whitaker and Maxwell E. Johnson, 3rd ed., Alcuin Club Collections 79 (London: SPCK, 2003), 301.

[7] See, for example, Maureen C. Miller, Clothing the Clergy: Virtue and Power in Medieval Europe, c. 800–1200 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2014), 21: “For the mass of the population in early medieval Europe, garments were too valuable to be thrown away. They were passed down, patched, and reused.”

[8] Christa C. Mayer-Thurman, “The Significance of Vestments,” in Raiment for the Lord’s Service: A Thousand Years of Western Vestments (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1975), 43.

[9] Celestine, Letter, 26 July 428, cited in David R. Holeton, “Vestments,” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, ed. Paul Bradshaw (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 466.

[10] Martin Luther, An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520), 66, accessed 12/1/17, http://bit.ly/2EcwLa5.

[11] Miller, Clothing the Clergy, 15; Pauline Johnstone, High Fashion in the Church: The Place of Church Vestments in the History of Art from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century (Leeds, UK: Maney Publishing, 2002), 7, 10.

[12] Karel C. Innemé, Ecclesiastical Dress in the Medieval Near East (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992), 6.

[13] Holeton, “Vestments,” 469.

[14] Mayer-Thurman, “The Significance of Vestments,” 43.

[15] Miller, Clothing the Clergy, 241.

[16] Miller, Clothing the Clergy, 37-38, 241–42; quotation on 241.

[17] Johnstone, High Fashion in the Church, 6, 18–19.

[18] Miller, Clothing the Clergy, 17.

[19] Holeton, “Vestments,” 464.

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Recommended Citation: Meyers, Ruth (2018) “Clothing in the Worship Assembly,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 4: No. 1, Article 9. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu

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“Tin Heaven”? Church Architecture and Poverty

Historic churches and cathedrals are both responses to and shapers of socio-economic circumstances. The glory of God and the pride of humanity can appear to be startlingly similar and even masquerade as one another in raising funds and establishing foundations for a major building project, whether this took place in the twelfth century or the twentieth. Buildings consecrated as holy places for the worship of God are, regardless of their style or period, beacons of counterculture that insist upon lives lived by the standards of the Beatitudes and good news for the poor, and a promise—no matter how often disregarded or broken—to follow Christ in humility and simplicity.

Poverty, in the sense of simplicity and freedom from the desire for material wealth, is an ancient virtue and a requirement for the religious life. Poverty, in the sense of deprivation and a depth of suffering inflicted on individuals and vast groups by the negligence and malice of those in positions of abusive power, however, is not to be confused with the understanding of poverty as freedom and simplicity. One form of poverty liberates. The other crushes.

The pain of poverty is the pain of exclusion, whether arbitrarily or systematically. In his influential book The Poetics of Space Gaston Bachelard writes, “Outside and inside form a division. . . . The dialectics of here and there has been promoted to the rank of an absolutism according to which these unfortunate adverbs of place are endowed with unsupervised powers of ontological determination.”[1] Bachelard speaks of architecture that reflects social thresholds and can contribute to the common good or reinforce division. He desired both inclusion and intimacy in meaningful architecture that can create community cohesion, tearing down what divides us by building spaces that encourage flourishing.

A church deliberately established in an area of profound urban poverty may be intricately ornate, offering a glimpse of radiant beauty in the midst of hardship. In contrast, some would suggest that simplicity and a more minimalist approach to beauty would breathe peace into the bodies of worshippers regardless of socio-economic circumstances. Still others would suggest that the way a church looks, its age, or its interior ornamentation and furnishings, have little if anything to do with the community that it houses. In this view, a building would be a mere envelope within which the riches of God’s grace are available to all, responding to profound economic injustice on a global scale with a resounding hospitality of fellowship that is not rooted or expressed in the architecture that merely surrounds it with a covering. The Bible offers multiple views on the relationship between sacred space, architecture, and simplicity (or ornate ostentation), from opulent temples and palaces to the Son of Man who has nowhere to lay his head.[2]

This article explores Christian architectural history in relation to poverty by considering a cluster of case studies in British contexts from the nineteenth century to the present, aware that the ideas presented here are a brief and focused interpretation of a theme that is as urgent as it is universal.

The “Tin Heaven,” Hadlow Down, East Sussex

In 1885 the Baptist minister Henry Donkin moved to the village of Hadlow Down in East Sussex and founded a new mission.[3]  With slow beginnings, it became a fully-fledged mission chapel in the early 1920s, with permission to officiate marriages and take a full and public part in local Nonconformist worship. The building that Donkin commissioned was one of the thousands of “tin tabernacles” that dotted the United Kingdom, the British Empire, and North America, purchased and erected by every type of Christian denomination, from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth.[4] Most of these affordable prefabricated corrugated-iron sacred spaces have long since been demolished or have rusted away, but the one in Hadlow Down survives. When he founded it in the 1880s, Donkin named his new mission chapel “The Tin Heaven.”

Donkin’s project, one tin tabernacle among many, was connected to the proliferation of cheaper industrially produced materials and, paradoxically, to a desire for social outreach and simplicity as a counterbalance to the oscillation between economic boom and bust. On July 10, 1857, John Ruskin delivered an explosive lecture at the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition. Britain, like much of the world, was gripped by an anxious mood brought on by a major economic crisis.[5] Ruskin turned his full attention to the relationship between art, religion, and the socio-economic issues of poverty in both general cultural and specific local terms. He argued that, when wealth was not fairly distributed, all suffered both culturally and spiritually, and he pointed out that the acquisitive and territorial attitude to wealth in the modern age could never be compatible with Christian ethics.

Modern socio-economic suffering was the outcome of a rampant greed that resulted in the double-impoverishment of the souls of the wealthy and lives of the poor. One response was to reconsider Christian forms of worship and architecture in light of economic justice and ethics.

With references to the Book of Proverbs, Ruskin claimed that “where there should have been providence, there has been waste; where there should have been labour, there has been lasciviousness; and wilfulness, when there should have been subordination.”[6] A decade later, Ruskin returned to Manchester and lectured again on the “Spirit of Poverty” and its positive medieval connotations, firmly connected with simplicity and Christ-like humility rather than with the deprivation, hunger, and suffering that he and his contemporaries saw around them.

Modern socio-economic suffering was the outcome of a rampant greed that resulted in the double-impoverishment of the souls of the wealthy and lives of the poor. One response was to reconsider Christian forms of worship and architecture in light of economic justice and ethics. Out of this debate, and not without Romanticism and idealism alongside depth of commitment to improving lives both spiritually and pragmatically, many advocated a return to medieval styles of architecture to signal a return to a mind-set in which medieval monastic simplicity (though perhaps not the stratification of the feudal system) could breathe new life into a gluttonous and greedy capitalism.[7] Ruskin was simply one voice, albeit an influential one, among many. In 1869, inspired by the Rule of St. Francis, Ruskin wrote to a friend that he wished to “form a society—no matter how small at first, which shall vow itself to simple life in what is called poverty, that it may clothe and cleanse, and teach habits of honour and justice—to as many as will receive its laws among the existing poor.”[8]

All Saints Church, Margaret Street, London

All Saints Church, Margaret Street, London – David Nicholls, 2015
All Saints Church, Margaret Street, London – David Nicholls, 2015

A short walk north from one of the world’s busiest and most lucrative shopping districts, Oxford Street in London, the spire of All Saints Margaret Street rises high above the buildings established for commerce and materialism. In 1849, the Gothic Revival architect William Butterfield set about designing All Saints in collaboration with the Ecclesiological Society, a group of Anglican clergy, historians, and architects who sought to revive architecture of the Middle Ages and a theology for the Church of England built afresh on the foundations of Christianity prior to the Reformation.[9] This Anglican church would become the seat of a new movement in the Church and in the arts, its strident polychromatic brick exterior giving way to a glittering and stirring interior iconographic program in marble, tiles, painting, and stained glass. Its monumental reredos, painted across the whole of the east wall, vividly tells the tale of Christ’s Nativity, Crucifixion, and reign in heaven. Originally designed by the artist and church historian William Dyce, it was repainted by the designer Ninian Comper in the early twentieth century, when the sanctuary’s vaulted ceiling was also repainted deep blue with glittering stars and shields featuring instruments of the Passion. At the same time, a frieze of child martyr saints of the Early Church was inserted on either side of the reredos. Taken together, this iconographical program weaves together the life of Christ and the witness of Christians to the reality of suffering and hope.

Directly opposite, on wooden chairs at the back of the nave, on any day of the week, groups of homeless people are asleep. Each day the clergy offer the Eucharist to the sound of rhythmic snoring. Some are awake and sit drowsily through the services. Other visitors wander in to take in the radiant narratives of symbol and figurative art in the glass and on the walls, taking a moment or two in their schedule of meetings and shopping to breathe peace. These lives lived in parallel worlds come together in an uneasy yet authentic way, day by day, adjacent to the vast strip of luxurious shops and seemingly endless cash flow.

The church was designed to bring the beauty of holiness to life in liturgy and in the human heart. For now, in the midst of cuts to social services and challenging economic circumstances for so many, exhausted homeless people stretch out along the chairs in the warm, golden glint from the colorful reredos, the manger, the cross, and the angels of heaven surrounding them.

St. Michael’s Ethiopian Church, Calais

St Michael's, Calais - Liam Stoopdice, 2016
St Michael’s, Calais – Liam Stoopdice, 2016

A few miles of land and ocean away, during the summer of 2015, the crew of a popular British Broadcasting Corporation television programme was filming in France. Specifically, they arrived at a church in the refugee camp in Calais to film a Christian music program titled Songs of Praise.[10] The episode drew controversy and raised awareness of living conditions in this in-between place, filled with people—many of them children—hoping to make their way from France to Britain.

St. Michael’s is—or was, as it has since been demolished—an Ethiopian Orthodox makeshift church constructed from any materials that were available: scrap wood, duct tape, plastic cladding, fragments of carpet. The Anglican priest Giles Fraser described it as “a place of raw prayer and defiant hope.”[11] He spoke with one of the refugees, who grinned when he told him that the people who originally built St. Michael’s had made it to England.

The contrast was stark, and it remains so, a deliberately piercing monument to the power of the cross and the urgency of the global refugee crisis.

There is a parallel with the arrival of a Lampedusa Cross to the chapel of Pembroke College, Cambridge, one of the many crosses made in Sicily from the wreckage of migrant boats overflowing with people desperate to make their way across treacherous waters to Europe. The chapel was designed by the renowned Baroque architect Christopher Wren, and its noble Classical interior features finely veined marble columns. When the migrants’ cross first arrived, the Dean and Chaplain, James Gardom, lashed it to one of Wren’s marble columns with bright blue rope designed for marine use. The contrast was stark, and it remains so, a deliberately piercing monument to the power of the cross and the urgency of the global refugee crisis.

Another report from Calais explained that the priest at St. Michael’s was fearful that the BBC programme could draw both positive and negative attention, and did not want to risk giving his name or the names of others to the broadcasters. The church, with its A-frame roof and defiant little wooden cross, looked remarkably like a Victorian tin tabernacle: a symbol of the Church’s quest for simplicity as much as the crushing reality of poverty and its desperate outcomes. A symbol of hope and sign of God’s compassion, it is also a symbol of the socio-economic inequality that continues to ravage our world, “rich and poor, one with another.”[12]


Ayla Lepine is a Fellow in Art History at the University of Essex and is training for the Anglican priesthood at Westcott House in Cambridge, England. Following her PhD in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, she was an ISM Fellow (2013) and has lectured and published widely. Her publications include books on revivalism in the arts and articles on Kenneth Clark and the Gothic Revival, modern monasticism, and music in Victorian visual culture. Her research focuses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century modern Christian art and architecture.

[1] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1969), 211–12.

[2] Matthew 8:58.

[3] “Gate House Baptist Chapel,” The London Gazette, 17 December 1918, p. 14844.

[4] Nick Thompson, Corrugated Iron Buildings (London: Bloomsbury, 2011).

[5] Charles W. Calomiris and Larry Schweikart, “The Panic of 1857: Origins, Transmission, and Containment,” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Dec. 1991),  807–834.

[6] John Ruskin, “The Political Economy of Art,” Manchester, 1857, quoted in Michael Wheeler, Ruskin’s God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 163.

[7] See Michael J. Lewis, The Gothic Revival (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000); Tim Barringer, Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

[8] Letter to Susan Scott, Verona, May 14, 1869, Ruskin Library and Archives, Lancaster University.

[9] Paul Thompson, William Butterfield (London: Routledge, 1971).

[10] Giles Fraser, “Songs of Praise Shows the Calais Migrants Do Not Sing Alone,” The Guardian, 16 August 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/16/songs-of-praise-calais-migrants-common-link-christianity [accessed November 25, 2017].

[11] Giles Fraser, “The Migrants’ Church in Calais,” The Guardian, 7 August 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2015/aug/07/migrants-church-in-calais-place-of-raw-prayer-and-defiant-hope [accessed November 25, 2017].

[12] Psalm 49:2.

This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Recommended Citation: Lepine, Ayla (2018) “‘Tin Heaven’? Church Architecture and Poverty,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 4: No. 1, Article 8. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu

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The Psalms and Human Poverty

Poverty is endemic in a world that hordes wealth and exults in it. Many of us have come to understand that poverty and the problems associated with it are astoundingly persistent. We so easily make peace with the sharp co-existence of utter wealth with utter poverty. In the United States, this contrast has become a cliché of everyday news and political analysis. Some who are well-trained in economics and social history say that such human disparity is simply the way it is. At the same time, those who stand in the religious tradition of the Hebrew prophets are continually struggling with this humanly destructive reality in our social/political world. The enormous gap between the rich and the poor is not what “ought to be.” This conviction is deeply written in both the prophetic and the wisdom literatures of the Bible. When the church and Christian theology turn our attention to the enormity of the problem, we need look no further than the Psalms for sources of insight. There is, of course, much more than economic disparity at stake.

In his seminal 1971 work, A Theology of Liberation, the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez  used the expression “preferential option for the poor” to describe the radical idea that God, as described in the scriptures, chooses to take the side of the marginalized and the oppressed. Since that time, this idea of a “preferential option” has become central to liberation theology and has found its way into the moral and ethical teachings of the Christian churches–in the United States most notably through the writings of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.[1] My question is: What can be discerned of God’s preferential option for the poor in the Psalms, which play such a central role in Christian liturgy and prayer?

Much of the Psalter, I contend, is born of the gap between what ought to be and what actually results from our habitual arrangements of power and possession.

Much of the Psalter, I contend, is born of the gap between what ought to be and what actually results from our habitual arrangements of power and possession. This essay explores some of the deep questions about human poverty that emerge in the poetic prayers of the Psalms, and in certain texts from the book of Proverbs.

There are several distinct ways in which poverty appears in the Psalms:

1) the voice of the suffering poor in laments
2) judgment on those who oppress the poor
3) the righteous who consider and aid the poor
4) the divine hesed (the foundational loving-kindness and justice of God toward all creation) and the way poverty in all its forms is to be addressed.

These are linked together through the rhythms of the entire Psalter. Each mode is intertwined with the others.

The plight of the poor is right on the surface of many Psalms. Take, for example, the first lines of Psalm 41 that concludes Book I of the Psalter: “Happy are those who consider the poor; the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble. The Lord protects them and keeps them alive; they are called happy in the land.” Those who care for the weak and poverty-stricken are blessed. By contrast the wicked are those who oppress the poor: “The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy. . . ” (Psalm 37:14). It is notable that the great motif announced in Psalm 1—the contrast between the ways of the wicked and the ways of the righteous—so often refers to the treatment of the poor and oppressed. How those who are impoverished, materially or spiritually, are treated becomes a key index of the difference between those who delight in Torah and those who stand in God’s judgment.

When the Psalmist laments the arrogance of the wicked who persecute the poor (as in Psalm 10), God is called upon to “arise” to do justice. God is expected to answer. The divine response to this plea is made clear in Psalm 12. “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the Lord. . . (v.5). God consistently promises to come to the defense of the poor and needy. The primal contrast between the wicked and the righteous continues throughout the entire collection of psalms. In the lengthy Psalm 37, God provides both rescue and refuge against the plots and violence of the wicked. Again the voice of the poor is given a prominent place: “The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy, to kill those who walk uprightly. . .” (v.14). Yet there is social realism here; this is not a sentimental prayer simply for material riches to be given to the poor. “Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked” (v.16). The spiritual gift of divine safe-keeping is itself a release from captivity and from the devices and desires of those who would oppress the poor.

Some Psalms celebrate the ways in which the righteous (who may indeed possess some wealth) come to the aid of the poor. Psalm 112 contrasts them with the wicked who are angry at such generosity given to those whom the wicked think unworthy. The righteous are described as “gracious and merciful” and as those “who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice” (vv.6–7); “They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor” (v.9).

At the same time, it is clear that it is God’s compassion that works in and through such generosity. Psalm 113 claims that God “raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap. . . .”

Some forms of poverty are discovered only by paying attention to cries of desolation and despair.

Some forms of poverty are discovered only by paying attention to cries of desolation and despair. Some of these are etched in the laments that are most difficult to hear, as in Psalm 88. We hear the voice of a deeply troubled soul, “I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead” (vv.4–5). Unlike most of the lament Psalms, this one does not turn to praise at the end. “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness” (v.18). This, too, must be understood as a severe form of poverty—the experience of the absence of divine and human assistance. While this Psalm has traditionally been interpreted as the expression of deep sickness, it is also a cry of loss, of diminishment. We do well to read and pray this Psalm on behalf of those in exile, in desperate conditions. This form of human impoverishment demands the compassion of God as well. The church must learn to cry out for those who have no social or political voice.

At the same time God’s pronouncements characteristically contain a reply to poverty in all its forms. Psalm 132, for example, speaks of God inhabiting Zion: “I will abundantly bless its provisions; I will satisfy its poor with bread” (v.15). This is contrasted with those who have no bread and who are subject to social conditions that have taken their bread! The Psalms are not shy in speaking of human poverty and of the plight of the poor under the image of bread. Material poverty is clearly in the mind of the Psalmist, but so is the plight of those who are broken in spirit and under the oppressive hand of the wicked. The appearance of phrases about those who “eat my people as they eat bread” (cf. Ps. 14:4, 53:4 and elsewhere) reveal overtones of consumption on the part of those who practice exploitation of the poor.Such exploitation is a violation of the divine covenant.   In this sense, the Psalms present us with a set of permanent tensions placing the hesed of God  in relation to the demand for human justice for the poor and marginalized.

Psalm 109 is one of the most challenging and disturbing psalms relevant to our theme. It has been treated as an angry, cursing prayer. But Walter Bruggemann has given it a startling fresh interpretation. It contains a passionate plea for actual justice under the sovereignty of God’s reign of justice. The figure who accuses the righteous is the one who “did not remember to show kindness, but pursued the poor and needy and the brokenhearted to their death” (v. 16). While we may not find the strict retributive justice fully satisfying, the Psalmist dares speak the angry hope that many in our world have. This is the voice of the poor that we must hear. Not vengeance, but justice in and through social processes—both judicial and political. “The truth is that the God of the Bible is committed to a public justice that is not sentimental. . . . The voice of this psalm is the voice of the poor who insist that human solidarity (hesed) matters to the quality of our common life.” His conclusion strikes at the heart of our theme. “When that voice is absent from our conversations, we likely will end with a protected religion and with a God who is not pressed enough about abiding commitments to the poor.”[2]

A Concluding reflection

The Psalms contain both the prophetic critique of the conditions of human degradation and elements of wisdom found in the explicitly moral instruction of Proverbs and the wisdom literature more generally. The human heart cries out to God to come to the rescue of the poor. To pray the Psalms is thus to participate in the cry against injustice and to the continuing supplication for the orphan and the widow who represent all who are relegated to poverty and neglect. The fact that the Psalms also speak of abundance and material blessing as gifts (as in Psalms 66, 67, and 147) throws into bold relief the social reality of those deprived of the good things of creation. Poverty, both spiritual and material, is not what God wills for the children of earth.

Lament, complaint, and supplication all lead both to and from doxology. That is the profound rhythm of the Psalms. Thus, it is no accident that even in the midst of great doxological praise, the poor are not forgotten. In the Hallel Psalms we hear that the Lord God “raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes. . .” (113:7–8). The whole of the Psalter concludes with breathless praise (Psalms 146–150). In the midst of doxology we hear Psalm 146 sing of the God “who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry (v.7). “The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. . . watches over the strangers; upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked is brought to ruin” (vv.8–9).  Thus, when we sing and pray Psalm 146 (and the great Hallel) in the liturgy the Christian assembly echoes Isaiah 61, and recognizes the theme of justice for the poor proclaimed by Jesus in his inaugural sermon (Luke 4).

The Psalms sing of a justice which is the heart of God’s covenant with God’s people, the compassionate commitment (hesed) of God to the poor. God responds to the cry of the oppressed. The lyrical mode of the Psalter is firmly rooted in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 22). There God speaks: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan, if you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry. . . . If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor. . . . If your neighbor cries out to me I will listen, for I am compassionate.”  This is the great theme of God’s preferential option for the poor. From our brief sampling, here we can conclude that the Psalms continue to sing and pray these things in our time and place. This is why, for the Christian communities, these Psalms are essential to our prayer, “Your kingdom come.”


Don E. SaliersDon E. Saliers is Cannon Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology and Liturgy at Emory University.  He has served as president of the North American Academy of Liturgy and the Society for Christian Spirituality. Among his many publications are Worship As Theology and A Song to Sing; with his daughter Emily Saliers he coauthored A Life to Live.  An active musician, he is organist/choirmaster at Emory’s Cannon Chapel, and teaches in the summer sessions at the Yale Institute for Sacred Music, as well as leading seminars and retreats.

[1] “The obligation to provide justice for all means that the poor have the single most urgent economic claim on the conscience of the nation.” Economic Justice for All, paragraph 86 (The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1986).

[2] Walter Bruggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 281.

This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Recommended Citation: Saliers, Don (2018) “The Psalms and Human Poverty,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 4: No. 1, Article 7. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu

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What about the Woes?

On a recent Sunday I was leading singing for my small congregation, Faith Mennonite Church, in Goshen, Indiana. We were introducing several new songs for a denomination-wide “Great Day of Singing.” As part of the Worship and Song Committee preparing our new hymnal, I helped to prepare the materials, from gathering hymns right down to engraving the music for the brochure.

As text editor and a hymn writer, I tend carefully to the words of our songs. And yet, once those words are voiced by a community of faith they can take on a more profound meaning. My congregation includes a significant proportion of people on the economic and social margins of our community. When we sang “Sing a new world into being / where the homeless find a home,”[1] I was facing people who could not take shelter for granted. Some lived in transitional housing owned by the church; some were very recently homeless. Mary Louise Bringle’s text was not an abstraction for our congregation.

Too often churches sing about the poor or to the poor as objects of external ministry. What might it look like instead to sing with the poor?

Too often churches sing about the poor or to the poor as objects of external ministry. What might it look like instead to sing with the poor? In the words of Gustavo Gutierrez, “So you say you love the poor. Name them.” To take this challenge seriously, we must consider not only how we sing about poverty, but also how we sing about wealth. In the language of our hymnody, who are the poor and who are the rich?

Jesus’s economic teaching, and particularly the Beatitudes, can be quite disturbing to the wealthy. One of my seminary professors pointed out that if we look to Luke’s version of that text we cannot simply spiritualize Jesus’s blessings. Luke follows the blessings with corresponding “woe” statements. While it might make sense to promise blessings to the poor “in spirit,” it would be strange to pronounce woe on those who are rich “in spirit.” Instead, in Luke, Jesus is clearly speaking in economic terms—blessing the poor, and warning the rich. The one who came to “preach good news to the poor” also brought some bad news. Can we dare to echo that in our singing?

A quick search of the scriptural indices of some recent hymnals reveals a dearth of hymnody dealing with the “woes.” Settings of the Beatitudes tend to work from Matthew’s version rather than Luke’s. Few hymnals list anything for Luke 6:24-26.

One exception is Graham Maule and John Bell’s “Heaven shall not wait.”[2] The hymn appears in the Church of Scotland’s Church Hymnary (2005) and in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (2013), among others. While Bell and Maule do not directly paraphrase the “woes,” they offer a present-tense vision of the inverse blessings of Jesus. In this text, the statement “Jesus is Lord” defines the work of heaven on earth, whether or not humans are on board with the program. Thus it is not up to the poor to “lose their patience” or “the rich to share their fortunes, the proud to fall, the elite to tend the least” in order to bring heaven to humanity. Instead, Jesus has done that work already: “he has championed the unwanted,” and we have seen him “kneel and wash his servants’ feet.”

Heaven Shall Not Wait

 

In “Woes and blessings,”[3] Bringle reverses the scriptural order and opens each stanza with the bad news: “Woe to you,” addressing the rich, well-fed, those who laugh, and the proud. In the refrain the passage is described as “a judgment upon us all.” She wrote the text for a tune by Sally Ann Morris, which the two agreed “is forceful and rather commanding.”[4] It is worth noting that Bringle embellishes the category of “the rich” as those “who show no grace or pity.”

Woes and Blessings

 

In my text “Blessed are you,”[5] the second stanza reflects the “woes,” recasting the phrase as “Ruin awaits the wealthy,” the gluttons, the laughers, and the haughty. Benjamin Brody’s driving tune captures the strident feeling of the text, and then leaps into a swinging refrain on “The doors of heaven are open / and glory is shining through.”

Blessed Are You

I qualified “the wealthy” with “who live to serve their greed.” This was something of a capitulation to my fear that the text would be dismissed as too radical if it simply pronounced ruin on the rich without pointing to a related negative attribute deserving of rebuke. Popular writer Rachel Held Evans recently paraphrased the beatitudes in a tweet, including the phrase “cursed are the rich.”[6] The post generated so much negative response that she posted the same day, “Turns out, a lot of Christians are offended by the Beatitudes. (Especially Luke’s version.)”[7] Do the embellishments that Bringle and I add to the text have the effect of softening Jesus’ pronouncement when a little offense might be in order?

In one of my earliest texts, “God, your knowing eye can see,”[8] I was less equivocating in my approach. While the hymns above are voiced in the second person, in this one the congregation sings explicitly to itself: “Woe to us with earthly wealth, / wasting money, land and food.” Chris Ángel’s melody invites a reflective approach appropriate to a confession. Though the text appears in GIA’s Worship (Third Edition), 2011, it has not received widespread use. I suspect that its somewhat scolding, didactic tone diminishes its appeal.

God Your Knowing Eye

 

Shirley Erena Murray’s “Forgive us, God, for all the things we waste”[9] uses a similar approach, casting the singers as the rich in need of forgiveness. With her customary vivid language Murray invites us to confess the wastefulness that defines much of western society. She asks God to “convert our currency to care” and to “shake our shallow, plastic ways of thought.” In this text (as with “God, your knowing eye can see”), the first person plural voice introduces the possibility of dissonance if the hymn is sung by people experiencing economic hardship or homelessness. Should “the poor” be expected to confess the very societal sins that contribute to their suffering?

hs_4954

 

The question of who can honestly sing what words points to an essential challenge of living as the Body of Christ.

The question of who can honestly sing what words points to an essential challenge of living as the Body of Christ. Voicing praise, lament, and confession together in song viscerally enacts the unity of the Body. We literally breath and move as one.[10] That Body holds within it the entire range of experience of its constituent parts—wealth and poverty, power and disempowerment, security and instability. In the context of corporate song individuals are invited to sing on behalf of the Body as a whole.

While preparing this article I wrote a new text. It is not a paraphrase of the Beatitudes, but the middle stanza references their economic themes: “Peace confounds the wealthy, / peace lifts up the poor.” Sally Ann Morris happened to be working on a tune in the same meter at the same time that she sent me for comment. I realized that the tune would be a compelling vehicle for my text, offering the right kind of harmonic struggle for these difficult themes. Her progressions are rich and warm, but they are not simplistic.

peace-to-you

The texts discussed here do not provide a uniform approach to singing about wealth and poverty. As with all congregational song, context dictates selection. What congregations needs to sing on a given Sunday will vary from church to church. Words of woe and words of blessing are needed to echo the scope of Jesus’s teaching, and those who write congregational song should find ways to give voice to both.


Adam M.L. Tice

Adam M. L. Tice is a widely published writer of hymn and song texts, with four collections available from GIA Publications. He is editor of The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song for The Hymn Society, and text editor for the forthcoming Mennonite hymnal.

[1]   “Sing a new world into being,” Mary Louise Bringle, 2005; © 2006 GIA Publications, Inc.

[2]   “Heaven shall not wait,” John L. Bell and Graham Maule, 1987; © 1987 WGRG, Iona Community (admin. GIA Publications, Inc.)

[3]   “Woes and blessings,” Mary Louise Bringle, 2006; © 2009 GIA Publications, Inc.

[4]   Sally Ann Morris, To Sing the Artist’s Praise: Hymn Tunes of Sally Ann Morris, GIA Publications, Inc., 2009, 109.

[5]   “Blessed are you,” Adam M. L. Tice, 2013; © 2015 GIA Publications, Inc.

[6]   Rachel Held Evans, tweeted on November 26, 2017, https://twitter.com/rachelheldevans/status/934787395689598981

[7]   Rachel Held Evans, tweeted on November 26, 2017, https://twitter.com/rachelheldevans/status/934930943986499584

[8]   “God, your knowing eye can see,” Adam M. L. Tice, 2004; © 2009 GIA Publications, Inc.

[9]   “Forgive us, God, for all the things we waste! (Hymn for a dollar-rich society),” Shirley Erena Murray, © 2010 Hope Publishing Company.

[10] See Nathan Myrick’s 2017 article for a discussion of the power of music to join bodies into one body: “Relational Power, Music, and Identity: The Emotional Efficacy of Congregational Song,” Yale Journal of Music & Religion: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 5. DOI: https://doi.org/10.17132/2377-231X.1060

This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Recommended Citation: Tice, Adam (2018) “What about the woes? Singing with the poor (and wealthy),” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 4: No. 1, Article 6. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu

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