Enjoying the choir

I realise that I never posted this last May, but as it has had quite a wide circulation in Mersea I don’t think there’s an issue with putting it up (despite what subsequently happened).

It’s long, so click ‘full post’ for text.

For the meeting on May 10 at 3pm in the Church Hall

To: members of Worship Committee and Choir
CC: other members of PCC and ministry team who are welcome to attend

Dear friends,

Enjoying the choir

“Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is seemly.” (Ps 147)

I have been praying and reflecting much about the choir in recent weeks, partly as a result of the on-going conversations about Evensong in the Worship Committee, but also in the light of our worship through this last Holy Week and Easter Sunday. I would like with this paper to set out some of my thoughts as preparation for a wide discussion on May 10. Although ____ is unable to be with us on May 10 he and I have scheduled a separate meeting between us a few days before.

Why sing in worship?
I want to begin by going back to the fundamentals, partly because it is good to do so every so often, to remind ourselves of why we are doing things, but also because it will clarify what we agree on and what we disagree on. In other words, the question to begin with is: why have a choir at all? It seems to me that there are several important reasons why it is good to have a choir:

1. As I believe I may have mentioned before, the Church Fathers believed that to sing a prayer was to pray twice. This was simply because singing involves the whole body; it isn’t purely a mental act. It is therefore appropriate to sing in Christian worship because we worship the Word made flesh – we are called to worship with our bodies. Singing a prayer is therefore a more fully Christian form of worship than simply saying.
2. A choir can function in a way that enables the wider congregation to sing themselves, either by supporting the wider congregation in what they are singing or by expressing something on their behalf.
3. Some elements of worship are best sung by specialists – this has always been the case, as can be seen by the practice of Temple worship in Old Testament times, and by looking at the Psalms.
4. The corollary of this is that some people have the vocation from God to be such specialists – God has called them to offer up their particular talents in this form, and without the possibility of that expression they are prevented from being fully human. (I spoke about this in my sermon on Maundy Thursday.)
5. Ultimately, the point about singing in worship is that this is what the angels do, and the purpose of our singing in worship is to share with the singing of the angels. I believe that sometimes we achieve that.

In other words, if we accept that the chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, singing is an essential part of this.

The musical mountain
So what are my concerns? They can be summed up by the word joy. I don’t believe that we are enjoying the choir in the way that we are called to, either choristers or congregation. More specifically I am concerned about i) the workload being placed upon the choir; ii) the choice of music; and iii) the relationship between the choir and the wider congregation. These are the principal themes that I would like to discuss on May 10 and what I would most like to glean from the choir is a sense of whether I am perceiving the situation accurately.

I must confess to being heartbroken by the Good Friday liturgy this year (not an inappropriate experience for the day, admittedly). With the benefit of hindsight I can see that it was a mistake to include the Tallis litany in the service. This is not because of any inherent fault in the Tallis, it is because it a) destroyed any sense of musical unity in the service; b) was far too long and dislocated the liturgy; but especially c) meant that the Fauré was not rehearsed to the extent that it needed to be. I tried to explain my reaction to [my wife], and the best analogy that I could come up with was an artistic one: imagine that someone had taken Seurat’s ‘Grand Jatte’ and blended in a portrait of a man on one side of the canvas – except that the man was painted in the style of Rembrandt.

If we think of our musical offerings as being like a mountain, what I am wanting to pursue is a mountain that is both broader at its base and which reaches higher in its attainment of excellence. I would like the mountain to be one that is visible from a long way away, and which draws pilgrims to it as a place of worship, where people of all diverse sorts can find a spiritual home and come closer to God.

The height of the mountain
So the first aspect I would like to raise for discussion is about the workload on the choir. My worry is that one possible best is becoming the enemy of the good; in other words, I feel that the choir needs to concentrate on doing fewer pieces at a higher level of excellence. I have raised these concerns before but they have become more acute over time, and, indeed, they have become not just concerns about the effect upon our worship but also, to some extent, a pastoral and spiritual concern about the choristers. If it is true (as I would insist IS true) that some people have a vocation to sing in worship, that does not mean that there are no limits to that vocation; the singing needs to be pursued in balance with the wider needs of worship, and I believe it would give greater joy to choir and congregation if there were fewer choral pieces but that those pieces came closer to sharing in the heavenly chorus. Essentially, in order for the singing to be properly worship, rather than simply a performance, the piece needs to be known well enough by each choir member, and the choir as a whole needs to be comfortable enough with each other and with the piece, to be able to sing it so confidently that the whole congregation – including the choir! – are able to worship through it.

The breadth of the mountain
The Fauré is a good example of the standard of music that I would want to deploy in our worship, and I have no doubt that, given sufficient rehearsal time, we have the capacity to do such pieces justice. However, I am not persuaded that every choral occasion needs to aim so high and, for two reasons, I think that the choir needs to add more ‘lollipops’ to the repertoire (to use _____’s felicitous phrasing). By ‘lollipops’ I mean material which is more accessible for both choir and congregation, and this includes material which is more contemporary and vernacular. This does not at all equate to ‘dumbing down’, which for me is rather a red herring. The point is that there are different forms and styles of music and worshipful excellence can be sought and attained in each of them. Whilst I am sure the heavenly choir is most often to be found singing some of Mozart’s compositions I would also like to believe that they sing gospel choruses and even – on rare occasions! – rock anthems like U2’s ‘Magnificent’.

More than this, however, is the point that seeking a higher musical standard is, in the end, only one part of the purpose of the choir. Most important, for me, is that there is joy – joy in the singing and joy in the hearing. This joy is something that can be heard by the congregation and it is contagious, and so the first reason for wanting to include more lollipops is simply because they are in themselves enjoyable. In addition to this, the second reason for having more lollipops is that it will enable the choir to renew itself over time. If someone is experiencing a sense of vocation towards singing, we have a duty to ensure that such a vocation is nurtured and encouraged. If there is a varied repertoire, both thematically and in terms of the difficulty of the music, such a person is more likely to be able to find their feet, and be encouraged, and be allowed to discover the joy that comes with singing in worship.

Choir and congregation
Whilst it is true, as I said above, that the choir can serve to support a congregation in their singing there are times when the opposite can happen, and a choir can in fact undermine congregational participation in the worship. I believe that this has happened, particularly in our normal 11am Sung Eucharists. I see this principally as a physical phenomenon – there is a great distance between the choir and congregation, and this is having consequences for our worship. Whilst this has been exacerbated by the re-ordering of the sanctuary area I don’t believe that this is the fundamental cause as the issue was present even before there was any re-ordering. To address this I would like to experiment with relocating the choir to the back of the church for normal 11am services (not for the major feasts like Easter, and exactly where to we need to discuss). As well as physically uniting the choir with the congregation, which I believe will help the congregation themselves to sing, this will also emphasise the table as the central element in the service, which I think will help us to keep a proper spiritual focus.

What to do with the evening pattern?
“The theology of Anglican Evensong is not that everyone is expected to do it but that, particularly in cathedrals, a practiced song will be offered to God because God is worth the time and the effort and the money for this practiced song to be given.” (John Bell)

Which brings me to the question of our Sunday evening pattern. This has been a vexed question for some time, and in the Worship Committee we have been discussing it explicitly for at least eighteen months – which was when I first circulated a discussion paper setting out the options. Option one I called the ‘variety pack’ approach, which involved a different style of service on each Sunday of the month; option two was a ‘twin track’ approach, which envisaged a 5pm BCP Evensong every week, and a 6.30pm Common Worship service of different sorts. After that initial discussion we agreed to run with the variety pack approach, not least because it was emphasised to me that the choir did not wish to come out for an earlier service on Sunday afternoons. I have been encouraged by what has happened with the Sunday evening services since we have made the changes, and the Songs of Praise and Learning Suppers appear to have been successful in attracting a wider congregation and offering an enjoyable form of worship. However, the question has now been raised as to whether we could revert to a ‘twin track’ approach, and have a BCP Evensong every Sunday night at 5pm.

I think that there are arguments on both sides here. In favour of having a 5pm Evensong every week are that it would be consistent; worshippers would know what was going on reliably; it would preserve that particular form of worship; it might function to plant a ‘new congregation’ which I see as desirable in principle. On the other hand it will involve a greater strain on the resources of the church community (ministers, readers, welcomers etc); it would mean that the contribution of the choir to the 6.30pm slot is minimised if not rendered entirely absent; and, most of all, it runs the risk of collapsing, thereby meaning that this form of worship ceases in Mersea.

The more I have reflected on this question, the more I have come to believe that the initial decision of the worship committee and PCC was the right one, and that we should stick to the ‘variety pack’ approach for Sunday Evening worship. More than this, in the light of what I have said above, I believe that the BCP Evensong slot should be restricted to the first Sunday of the month, and be ‘cathedral’ style, ie the choir alone sing introit, psalm, mag, nunc and anthem. At least one advantage of restricting this to one Sunday a month is that it will give sufficient time to rehearse each item. It may seem paradoxical, but I believe that restricting choral Evensong to one Sunday a month is more likely to preserve that pattern of worship as a living entity for the long term.

For the other Sundays I see week 2 as being Songs of Praise for the foreseeable future and week 4 as being a Learning Supper. This leaves week 3, and the occasional week 5, plus any occasions when there is no Learning Supper or Songs of Praise, to be determined. I would see this slot as in itself more variable. In the normal course of events I think we have room for it to be a communion service. It has been on my mind for some time that regular Sunday Evening worshippers don’t presently have access to the Eucharist, and this needs to change, and so I would see this slot as normally being a Common Worship service (along the lines of the 11am) but it could occasionally be a BCP communion. In addition I think we need to revisit the question of a Common Worship Evensong. This has been tried, but the balance didn’t work, and so we need to look again at the reasons for that failure and see if we can do better. Finally I see this slot as occasionally being used for special one-off services, eg a formal healing service.

This means that the Sunday Evening pattern would become: Week 1 Full Choral Evensong; Week 2 Songs of Praise; Week 3 Sung Holy Communion; Week 4 Learning Supper – with variations over time.

The style of the choir
One thing that I would wish to emphasise is that restricting the BCP Evensong to one Sunday a month does NOT mean that the choir is only deployed once a month. There is no reason why there should not be a choral contribution to every Sunday evening service, and I would expect that, in order to achieve what needs to be achieved in the monthly choral Evensong, the choir will need to rehearse that material for each of the several Sundays prior to the service. However, for the choir to be involved directly in the new services, it would necessitate the choir itself becoming more than the formal/ robed/ processional institution that we have at the moment. The essential thing about the choir is what I began with, that it shares in the joy of singing praise to God; in contrast to Victorian children, the perfect choir is heard but not seen. This can be done in various different ways, and one theme that I would like to discuss further with the choir on May 10 is how to explore different styles of being a choir, so that the church body as a whole can enjoy the choir more widely. To make this specific I would like to invite the choir to join in with the Learning Supper at the end of July by singing, as an anthem, Swiggum’s ‘How can I keep from singing’.

Finally, I would like to say something about our festivals, not least because we have just reached the summit of the Christian year. I see the most important opportunities for the choir – ie those occasions when the choir has to most actively seek the angelic heights – as being the great feasts, especially the Midnight Mass and the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter morning). In particular, the most important service of the year is the Easter dawn service – and this service is crying out for a choral contribution. If the choir is to be itself in offering up enjoyable praise to God then it has to make this service a priority. To that end two requests: at next year’s Good Friday service, please could we have the Allegri Miserere (which is at the top of my own personal musical mountain), and for the dawn service, please could we have John Tavener’s ‘Alleluia (As one who has slept)’.

I look forward to our discussion on Sunday.