Saturday, 23 September 2017

To Soothe the Savage Breast

The coat-of-arms of the Royal School of Church Music is fairly normal apart from the little bishop perched on top of the helm: he seems to be holding a small woolsack, for reasons best known to himself and the College of Heralds, presumably.

This occurred to me last week while I was looking at the medal I was about to hand over to one of our choristers marking his fifty years’ service with the Choir. During the notices after Mass I brought Nigel forward and he described how he’d arrived at the then thriving choir of Swanvale Halt church as a probationer, was then given his surplice a little while later, and the choirmasters-cum-organists he’d known in his earlier years and the influence they’d had on him (positive, as it turned out).

Church choirs can be a pain in the neck, frankly, as they have a habit – especially when they are in decline – of assuming they are rather better than they are. When they work well, though, they can be a force for definite spiritual good, not merely in what they may contribute to the worship, but providing an arena for spiritual development and companionship among their members.

There seems to be a proper affinity between churches and music of all kinds. At Lamford we had an enormous choir, nurtured over decades, which provided a musical training-ground for young people from across the town regardless of whether they remained within a Christian milieu or what kind of music they pursued. I remember once attending a concert in the church hall there which included a heavy-metal band of late teens all of whom had passed through the church choir at one time or another (the singer had learned how to do that growly voice metal vocalists often adopt and which can wreck your vocal chords if you don’t do it properly). We have a new organist on the rota at Swanvale Halt, a 17-year-old from the village who hardly had to do more than turn up and hit a note to make the congregation adore him but who is seriously good as well. We also host regular concerts staged by a local music promoter which tend to be in the folk-rock genre (‘old blokes with guitars’, I have occasionally teased, unfairly as sometimes a woman finds her way onto the schedule). The connection between church and music surely arises partly because churches are simply a space to be used, sometimes the biggest space in their vicinity, but it’s more than that. It reflects the lingering sense that a church is ‘owned’ by the whole of the community, even those who profess different religious beliefs or none at all; and because of that it stands dimly for the community’s own identity. We know that ‘communities’ comprise any number of different sorts of people with different and sometimes conflicting tastes, beliefs and experiences, but the church building speaks to the common humanity of all. Music does the same, and this is the link. You may not like organ recitals or folk rock or heavy metal, but there’s nothing stopping you doing so whoever you happen to be. Music of all kinds is made and sent out by its makers to the whole human race. They can’t control whose heart will reverberate to its particular sound. Music is, in that sense, neutral, in the same way a church is. It makes sense for one to shelter the other.

It was a friend of mine who pointed me towards the recent furore at St-Sepulchre-without-Newgate in London, where the leadership has decided to stop non-religious music from being performed in the building. For a church long nicknamed ‘the musicians’ church’ this is quite some decision, justified by pressures on the use of the building, ‘an increasingly busy programme of worship and church activities’, so the website states. As worship seems to take place on only three occasions in the week (Sunday morning, Tuesday lunchtime and Tuesday evening), as there are only a couple of other regular bookings, and as very few people actually live in this part of London, this seems on the face of it an unconvincing explanation. The politics here relates to the approach of the vicar who was parachuted in from the great evangelical hothouse down the road, Holy Trinity Brompton, in 2013, and who clearly finds marrying his own priorities with those he’s inherited at St Sepulchre less than easy. The church has been stung by the reaction to its proposal and is ‘praying and reflecting’ (although given the way these things usually work I’d be astonished if prayer resulted in anything changing, it very rarely does). Most church communities are anxious to find ways to connect with the world around them, and music provides one; but if you come from the rarefied context of a self-confident ecclesiastical corporation like HTB, you see things differently, and policing the boundaries between Christ and the world becomes more of a priority.

One of my spiritual director’s favourite stories concerns the first occasion he opened up his cathedral to the evangelical church in town with whose vicar he had struck up an unlikely friendship. They were preparing for a special celebration service in the cathedral, and S.D. was picking his way through the speakers and cables when he met a stern elderly lady who was part of the cathedral congregation. ‘Mr Dean, what’s going on?’ she asked, tapping her stick on the paving, ‘is there going to be a rock concert in the cathedral?’ S.D. shuddered inwardly and thought he was about to have his ear bent. ‘Oh no, Mrs Simms, it’s just those dreadful evangelicals from Christ Church, they’re having a service here this evening.’ ‘Oh,’ said Mrs Simms, pursing her lips, ‘What a shame. I would quite have enjoyed a rock concert.’

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