Worship vs performance

On 21 September, Anglicans Online posed the question “[w]hen is a service worship and when is it performance? This was prompted by a concert based on Compline at which there was an information sheet containing the names of soloists and biographical sketch of the conductor but no mention of the history or nature of the Compline service. The issue was also addressed in Thinking Liturgy where one response suggested that the real dichotomy is not between worship or performance, but worship or entertainment, which the writer considered to be an issue for the CofE: for others, the word “performance” suggested actor(s) and an audience for whom there was little participation.

These exchanges prompt two thoughts: one relating to legislation, and the other to participation. Concerts held in churches require a Performing Rights Society (PRS) licence, in addition to the appropriate permissions &c covering other aspects of a church’s activities, such as photocopying and projection of the words of hymns, playing recorded music at events and services, and reproduction of music. Christian Copyright Licensing International, (CCLI), publishes guidance on the performance of music in which it states:

“Technically, all music performance in the UK requires a licence, including singing hymns and worship songs during Sunday services. However, PRS for Music has agreed to waive the requirement for music performance licences during acts of divine worship. This is a concession.  If the only times that your church ever performs live music and/or sound recordings are during acts of divine worship then it does not require a PRS for Music Church Licence.

This conveniently separates the generic issues associated with “performance” from those represented by “acts of divine worship”. The guidance continues:

“NB: By an ‘act of divine worship’, we generally mean Sunday and mid-week congregational services, plus any other occasion, such as study groups or prayer meetings, where hymns and worship songs are sung. However, having a hymn at the start of a social event, film night or youth club does not make that event an act of divine worship and a music performance licence may still be required if other music is performed,”

suggesting that it is not the execution of a single item that classifies the event as “an act of divine worship”, but the raison d’être of the event as a whole. Whilst the existence of performer(s) and an audience is essential in a performance, neither the presence of a congregation nor their participation is necessary for an act of divine worship.  In the Book of Common Prayer, Concerning the Service of the Church requires that:

“ . . . all Priests and Deacons are to say daily the Morning and Evening Prayer either privately or openly, not being let by sickness, or some other urgent cause,”

but makes no mention of a congregation. Nevertheless, it is not unknown for Office to be sung, whether a congregation is present or not.  Choral Evensong provides an example in which there is relatively little participation by the congregation, as does Benediction which sometimes follows.  In his post on Evensong, Gareth Hughes cites the service booklet at King’s College, Cambridge, which states:

“Some, finding limited opportunities for organised congregational participation, imagine these are not so much services as liturgical concerts. But each service is an act of worship addressed, as worship must be, not to you but to God, the Father of Christ and our Father; an act of thanksgiving for the love He has shown towards man, an act of intercession for all men. As Henry VI intended when he established the Chapel and the Choir, this worship goes on daily, whether people come or not, because the love of God is a continuing, living and unconditional reality.”

When it follows the cathedral/college pattern, Choral Evensong is essentially a non-participative service led by the choir, with the congregation taking no part in the preces and responses, canticles, psalm(s) or motet.  From the point of view of the congregation, it has been described as “a perfect sort of pause or caesura that creates a break at the end of the work day—a moment to stop, reflect, listen, meditate, and to gather oneself and (for believers) to draw close to God at the close of the day”.

It is useful to consider the “raison d’être argument” in relation to two other circumstances: the rehearsal of music in a church or cathedral; and the service as “tourist attraction”, particularly in the more popular cathedrals and the Oxbridge colleges. With regard to the former, not all the preparation for a service may be undertaken in the song school, and time in the cathedral may be necessary to optimise the registration of the organ, balance of the voices &c. This could not be considered as “an act of divine worship”; but neither is it a concert since the presence of any listeners is likely to be incidental, although the numbers there might be greater than those attending the subsequent service.

It is evident from various threads on TripAdvisor and elsewhere that UK visitors are encouraged to include Choral Evensong as part of their “tourist experience”, drawn by the combination of the high quality music and historic architecture. Whilst a number of these tourists will attend all or part of a service as though it were a free concert, this is not the purpose of the service and such passing interest does not detract from its conduct as an act of worship.


Although the CCLI Guidance is non-statutory, it relates directly to the terms and conditions of the PRS for Music Church Licence held by the church or cathedral which, in turn, engage intellectual property law. Importantly, it only covers six concerts per year, otherwise the specified location is considered to be a “concert venue” and other arrangements apply. Such a figure can easily be exceeded; and churches need to cautious as to which events are badged as “concerts”, e.g. “Carol Concerts”. External organizations using churches &c as a concert venues – orchestras, choirs &c – need to be encouraged to make their own arrangements regarding copyright issues, and the hosting body should ensure that written confirmation is given that this is in place.

9 thoughts on “Worship vs performance

  1. Interesting?

    If we play music in our Church Hall during a lunch organised as part of a mission plan to draw in vulnerable and lone people in the community, we might not have a prayer, or choral music, but popular music that suits the occasion.

    The event’s intention is pastoral, seeking to serve others using the gifts that are within the congregation. It seems to me that offering this service is an act of worship in it’s own right as it seeks to Glorify God and to bring the living Gospel into peoples lives. So, the music that we play is part of an act of worship, rather than a performance.

    • Yes, very interesting, thank you.

      Since becoming involved in copyright issues for our PCC, the more I know about it, the more of a can of worms it appears to be. Furthermore, the cost of the appropriate licences from CCLI (in our case) is not insignificant, especially since each of the churches is required to have its own licences and is based upon the size of the congregation.

      When you say that you “play music”, is this live music or recorded music, since each is subject to separate copyright arrangements? The criterion of “an act of divine worship” does not apply to the playing of recorded music, but the appropriate licences should be held.

      The FAQs on the CCLI web site state respond to the question “Can we play CDs during our children’s work?” – the closest example I could find to your situation – by stating

      “You will probably require a PRS for Music Church Licence and PPL Church Licence to play CDs in church activities, but not within acts of worship (regular services).”

      However, neither Frank nor I are experts in this complex area, although some general guidance is available from CCLI and others.


  2. Of course, one does not need a PRS for Music Church Licence if you are holding concerts containing solely music in the public domain (in very simple terms, composers who died prior to 1944) or where specific permission from the composers has been obtained. However, what nobody can tell me (even PRS…) is whether holding one such concert counts towards your six concerts per year under the Music for Church Licence!

    • It’s even more complicated than that. If I arrange a Brahms chorale prelude for sax quartet (which I once did), Brahms’s music is in the public domain but my arrangement of it is my copyright…

    • I suspect that PRS’s uncertainty regarding the six concert threshold might be associated with the overlap, or not, between the legal requirements of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, and the commercial terms and conditions of the PRS for Music Licence.

  3. David Luther Woodward

    David Luther Woodward

    Lawyer/Owner at The Law Offices of David Luther Woodward, P. A./Pensacola, Florida

    Let me give you two examples.

    Fifteen years ago I organized a volunteer men’s choir at COTI/Dallas for the sole purpose of singing Evensong. It was a struggle at first, but attendance picked up, other choirs some of which were volunteer were involved and now that church is one of a handful in the country that offers Evensong as a regular service of worship during the academic year.

    I have moved and live in a different community and attend a church with a talented, well-disciplined volunteer choir and a talented musical staff. But that extra service on Sunday is “just more than you can ask of a volunteer choir”. So when they do Evensong, it is a concert: the congregation hasn’t the foggiest notion on what is going on, much less when to sit or stand, or what to sing or what not to sing. That “performance” that on a haughty ethos that does little to, as they say evoke the feeling that “[w]hen you come to Evensong it is as if you were dropping in on a conversation already in progress-a conversation between God and his people that began long before you were born and will go on long after you are dead”. Hence, it is a concert!

    • It’s rather different for us. The law of the Church of England – it being the Established Church – is part of the general law of England and in that sense is sui generis; so, by definition, any religious service conducted in a C of E church must be a service rather than a concert.

      When I was an Anglican, except in the depth of winter and choir holidays we used to sing Sunday Evensong as a matter of course. And we used to do the full works: Preces & Responses, extended setting of the Mag & Nunc and an anthem. The congregation hardly ever reach double figures; but the members of the choir were in no doubt that what they were doing was worship rather than a cosy Sunday concert. I guess it’s a matter of perception.

      PS: How nice to hear from someone as far away as Florida!

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