Singing the Psalms: (Metrical) Psalms for the Common Era, Adam Carlill

Psalms for the Common Era

Adam Carlill, 2008

See the website here.


I love my copy of the 1929 edition of the Scottish Psalter. The split pages so that a text can be sung to a variety of tunes reminds me of those childhood books where heads and bodies could be interchanged to create interesting effects.

“Singing the Psalms” writes Rowan Williams in On Augustine, “becomes a means of learning what it is to inhabit the Body of Christ and to be caught up in Christ’s prayer.”

And later, “the singing of the Psalms becomes the most immediate routine means of identifying with the voice of Christ.”

Williams goes on to say

The Christian life that functions as a signum is fractured by the awareness of sin (and sorrow for sin). But it is also a life consciously identified with the signum of Christ’s fractured and suffering life, culminating on the cross. Such identification is enacted not only through sacramental practice but also through the recitation of the classic texts of frustration and hope, the Psalms, in which the divine adoption of the human voice is so keenly expressed.

As these texts are recited, the profundum of the human heart, never known to us in fullness, is opened up by God. What we do not and cannot know about our past, present and future is given over to God, who will draw out of us cries and aspirations that more and more clearly give voice to what is hidden in us, knowing that all this elusive human agenda unrecognized within us is embraced in the incarnation and may be employed by Christ in his work.”

Praying the psalms is not an optional extra for Christians. It is at the heart of our tradition. It is fundamental to our praying as those who pray as Christ.

Praying must mean singing the psalms:

Singing is as much the proper use of a psalm as devout supplication is the proper use of a form of prayer; and a psalm only read is very much like a prayer that is only looked over. Consider this chanting of a psalm as a necessary beginning of your devotions, as something that is to awaken all that is good and holy within you, that is to call your spirits to their proper duty, to set you in your best posture towards heaven, and tune all the powers of your soul to worship and adoration.

William Law (see more here).

The best available history of how Christians have sung the psalms is Reginald Box SSF’s Make Music To Our God SPCK 1996. (Reginald was my Theological College chaplain at Chichester in the early 90s).

Reginald devotes a whole chapter to the history of metrical psalms. Texts of the psalms written in regular metric form so that they can be sung to metric ‘hymn’ tunes. It is fascinating to see how this metric psalmody has been a part of Anglican tradition from the very earliest years of the Reformation. Myles Coverdale, best known for his translation of the psalms as the liturgical psalter of the Book of Common Prayer, produced a metrical psalter in 1535. Other versions soon followed. It is important to remember that hymns didn’t become a staple of Anglican worship until the 18th century.

Reginald shows how metrical psalmody was performed in a number of different ways, often very slowly; for many years ‘lined out’ with the parish clerk reading or singing a line that the people then repeated. It is also important to remember that for the liturgy psalmody was the essential text with hymns (and songs) having no place in the western rite until the late twentieth century.

The Episcopal Church in the United States published a metrical psalter some years ago (pictured above) which is very good. It is however, just a selection of texts.

As I travel around parishes I am struck by how rare (almost never) it is to pray the psalms. In the quote from Rowan Williams above it is interesting that praying the psalms is equivalent to the sacraments.

There are two issues for me here. One is the reliance in our parishes on the exclusive use of the Mass/Eucharist. I think we have to face the fact that the Parish Communion movement failed. The Eucharist is simply not missional worship. We also have to be real about the future of the church. The single vicar with a single church is a myth for most of the country outside of London and has been for decades. The Staffordshire village I live in hasn’t had a resident priest in living memory.

So, we need to rediscover the importance of the psalms. In the Eucharist, and as the raw material of non-Eucharistic worship led by lay people. And this is not some esoteric Anglo-Catholic viewpoint. Read NT Wright’s The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential. “To neglect the church’s original hymnbook is,” he writes, “to put it bluntly, crazy.”

Adam Carlill is a priest in the diocese of Oxford. He is a theological educator and has done the church a great service in producing an entire metrical psalter together with metrical versions of the canticles for Morning and Evening Prayer. This is an extraordinary achievement and I am in awe of Adam’s work. It is a unique collection. The entire psalter rendered in metrical form.

What is even more significant is the quality of the verse that Adam has written. Adam is a parish priest and has tried out these texts in his churches. They are easily singable, a well known tune is suggested for each text, and very accessible.

There are several stand out features of this collection for me. The first is that the whole psalter is provided. The psalms of anger, of violence, which are so often excised in worship are included. One of my favourites, Psalm 94, Unde et memores as the suggested tune:

O God of vengeance, Father of the Years,

O God of anger, shine upon the earth.

Be lifted up, O Lord, to judge our tears,

bring back upon the proud as they deserve.

How long, O Lord, shall wicked folk insult?

How long, O Lord, shall wickedness exult?

The variety of metres and the imaginative tunes suggested for them is breathtaking. Psalm 127 to Ode to Joy:

If the Lord were not the builder

then the builders work in vain.

If he did not keep the city,

then the keepers watch in vain,

vain to wake and rise so early,

working hard and late to rest,

for to those whom love and serve him

he gives sleep, in peace possessed.

I love Londonderry Air, here used for psalms 41 and 138. It is the latter which I think works best:

Although my troubles press and make me cower,

you will preserve me, you restore my life.

Before my enemies you send your power,

your mighty arm, to save me in my strife.

The Lord will act for me with full endeavour,

fulfilling all his will upon the earth.

O Lord, your loving kindness is forever,

do not abandon us, the folk you bring to birth.

One of the many remarkable features of the book is the alphabetical psalms a structure which Carlill reproduces in the English. Even in the longest psalm, 119. This is a unique achievement.

Psalm 110, a royal psalm traditionally used at Sunday Vespers is imaginatively set to Gonfalon Royal, the third stanza is especially splendid

With holy splendour of the dawn,

your reign is like the new-born sun;

your kingdom shines in endless power

and glistening youth, to run and run.

There are, of course, passages that don’t work so well. I am not particularly keen on the versions of the Benedictus, which is in a strange and rare metre (87 87 337), or the Magnificat with the clumsy line “I will be blessed from pole to pole”. But the Benedicite is marvellous and in 10 10 10 10 can be sung to many great tunes.


The book promises that there will be three volumes arranged for the Principal Service Lectionary and its three year cycle. I hope that these will be much used. I would also be interested to know if a daily people’s Office could be celebrated using these texts. There is nothing gimmicky about them so I don’t think they would tire quickly. I suspect that some of the subtler, modal, hymn melodies or even tones for hymn texts such as are found in Hymns for Prayer and Praise, would be needed for that. But for a Sunday non-Eucharistic service I have no doubt they would work well with the tunes suggested.

Let me end with Psalm 23, set to the lovely Song 46 (Drop, drop slow tears) in 10 10 metre:

God is my shepherd, nothing shall I need,

in grassy fields he lays me down to feed.


By restful waters he directs my soul,

and gently brings me back to make me whole.

This is a marvellous resource to help us rediscover the psalter, the essential source of Christian prayer. Drawing from the richness of our Anglican tradition it should be widely used.



  1. I sometimes wonder why more parishes are not like St Thomas’, Huron Street, Toronto, in that parishioners long ago learned to chant the psalms to plainsong tones. They use a version or adaptation of the Canadian Psalter, Plainsong Edition and psalms are lightly and beautifully accompanied according to Healey Willan’s method described in that psalter. Psalms are sung at the introit and gradual of the main Sunday Eucharist, and at more length at the weekly Sunday Evensong and Devotions. Cantor and congregation alternate by verse. Parishioners typically just use the BCP without special pointing — the cantor and choir provide good leadership for the tones. I think in many parishes it wouldn’t take a long time to develop a group of parishioners whose voices can support those unfamiliar with the practice or still learning. An example from St Thomas’ is linked below.


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