Over at Soho the Dog, a jeremiad on the lamentable state of congregational singing. A look at the performance practice of hymns over the past hundred years or so will reveal two opposing trends: on the one hand, a steady lowering of pitch (hymns that once went up to high E or F are now transposed to top out at a D), and on the other, a steady increase in tempo. As editor of the English Hymnal, Ralph Vaughan Williams added glacial metronome markings throughout the book - 40 beats per minute for Ein feste' Burg, for example, where I would probably take it at about 66. If you went to an Anglican church around 1910, therefore, you would be expected not only to sing higher notes, but to hold them for longer. It's worth pointing out, too, that RVW was a staunch advocate of unison singing, and a number of his own tunes (Salve, festa dies, King's Weston, and Sine nomine, for example) can only be sung in unison. No refuge in a harmony part for the altos and basses - they have to shoot for the high Fs along with everyone else.
Matthew Guerrieri is almost certainly correct in attributing this to the decline of the choral tradition in churches and schools - if you never use your high register as a child, it's very difficult to develop it as an adult. The broader problem, though, is a widespread reluctance to sing at all, a lack of confidence in producing any vocal sound whatsoever. If the loudest you're willing to sing is a mezzo piano (any louder, and the person next to you might hear you!), it will be difficult to sing a range of more than an octave. Even at the best of times, congregational singing has a slightly embarrassed, reticent quality to it - no-one wants to sing until they're quite sure that their individual voice will be lost in a wave of sound, and so it usually takes a few verses for the singers to really get going. These days, I always set a piston with a solo reed in the right hand and accompaniment in the left, as an emergency measure - when the congregation is sounding particularly querulous, this is the only way to shake them from their stupor.
An anecdote. At a diocesan festival service I attended last year, the printed bulletin gave the texts for a number of hymns to be sung during the adminstration of the Eucharist, with an instruction to the congregation to join in. Having become separated from my church's contingent, I found myself the only person singing the hymns amid a crowd of stony-faced strangers. Finally a woman in front of me turned around and glared at me: "I don't think you're supposed to be singing," she said.
I'm confident that we can turn the tide on this stupefying trend - but we have a lot of work to do first.