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You may know what the Latin phrase a cappella signifies—but do you know what it really means?

Yes, we know it refers to music sung without instrumental accompaniment. Literally translated, though, it means “of the chapel.” There’s a reason for that—instruments didn’t really start to work their way into church worship until after a thousand years of Christian history, and it took them another 500 years to gain wide acceptance (most Eastern traditions still don’t use them at all). From there, it was basically a hop, skip and a jump to fog machines and laser light shows.

Of course, it would be easy to get cynical about this apparent slippery slope. So I will.

I count myself lucky to attend church at a local congregation that’s about as traditional as churches in the Western world get: every Sunday morning, it’s the traditional Latin rite, complete with chanted Psalms. And yet, even my church features loud organ blasts throughout nearly every service. The only major exception to this is our chrism mass, which takes place on the Wednesday of Holy Week. “It’s traditional,” our pastor tells us, “for the organ to be silenced from Palm Sunday till Maundy Thursday.”

That Chrism Wednesday service is always beautiful, but also predictably shaky, unsure of itself. When you only have to sing a cappella one day a year, you never really learn how to truly sing. It almost makes me jealous of my friends in the Church of Christ and other instrument-free traditions who sing unaccompanied every day, who really learn to blend, to harmonize, to worship.

The Church Fathers regarded ...

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