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As I noted in my previous blog, I finished reading the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. 731) this past summer. There was much to note, but one thing that caught my attention were his comments on the making of a worship leader.
Surprisingly, the metaphor used for drawing on one’s theological training in ministry was “chewing the cud.”
A number of times Bede makes it clear that church music was critical for the life, vitality, and mission of the church. It was used for worship in churches and monasteries, and it was a primary form of education for congregants (many illiterate). And for those very reasons expectations for those who led in music were exceedingly high.
In one account, Bede tells of “a certain brother who was especially marked by the grace of God, so that he used to compose godly and religious songs.” His gift was considered to be more than a natural talent, it was deemed to be a gift from God: “For he did not learn the art of poetry from men nor through a man but he received the gift of song freely by the grace of God.”
But just having a gift was not enough. He was called before a community of leaders, who, after listening and examining the young man, discerned that “the Lord had granted him heavenly grace.”
But that was still not enough. He was then instructed to renounce his secular life and join a monastery.
But even that was not enough. He was instructed to begin a process of theological education, or what Bede calls “instructed in the whole course of sacred history.” Bede states that he diligently “learned all he could by listening to them and then, memorizing it and ruminating over it, like some clean animal chewing the cud, he turned it into the most melodious verse and it sounded so sweet as he recited it that his teachers became in turn his audience.”
The curriculum he chewed on must have been extensive, for listen to the description of the subjects of his music: “He sang about the creation of the world, the origin of the human race, and the whole history of Genesis, of the departure of Israel from Egypt and the entry into the promised land and many other of the stories taken from the sacred Scriptures of the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of the Lord, of His ascension into heaven, of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the teaching of the apostles. He also made songs about the terrors of future judgment, the horrors of the pains of hell, and the joys of the heavenly kingdom. In addition he composed many other songs about the divine mercies and judgments.”
There is wisdom for today in Bede's ancient description. A temptation for today’s worship leaders is to think that they have no need for anything but a gift – but Bede would disagree. Bede’s account shows us what happens when gifted people apply themselves diligently to theological education. To use Bede’s expression, they can “chew the cud” in order to educate their listeners in the central truths of the faith, as well as turn their “hearers away from the delight in sin and arise in them the love and practice of good works.”
 For instance, see Ecclesiastical History, Book 4, Chapters 12, 18; Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, Chapter 20.
 Ecclesiastical History, Book 4, Chapter 24.