May I Precent?

 precentor's chair

Recently I visited again, a lovely little Church of Scotland in an idyllic part of Argyll, which has all the hallmarks of a conventional Highland Presbyterian Church.

It had a pefectly-preserved Precentor’s chair, just below the pulpit. The one shown above is from the Glasite Church in Dundee in use in the 1700’s.

The name Precentor goes back as far as the 4th Century and means literally ‘First Singer’. He, for it was always ‘he’, was an important official in a church, monastic community, or Cathedral where he sat opposite the Dean. Hence we have the two sides of the Choir, Decani (of the Dean) and Cantoria (of the Precentor).

In the days and places  such as the Scottish Presbyterian Churches, where there was no choir or organ, (at least before the end of the 1800s) there was still a wish to sing. The metrical psalms were highly-regarded and so were very important in the worship of the day. Paraphrases and hymns were just starting to be used (not without some local objections!) .

So someone who had an ear for a tune could be useful and might be appointed to start and lead the singing. It was at this time he might have been allowed a pitch-pipe, especially if his inherent pitch were not perfect.

So whilst we sometimes see and hear a Precenter in Songs of Praise from one of the islands, the Precenter’s chair is now a seat rarely occupied.

However…..I saw recently at a Roman Catholic funeral service, this very office being fulfilled by a very-competent singer, who was able to lead a rather-recalcitrant congregation along……..so maybe the hands of the clock have been turned back!

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