Friday, 10 May 2013

We don't need a choir!

'Or the organ:

Or any of the 'old stuff that no one really likes these days!'

With these words, all of English Traditional Church Music's heritage was flushed down the proverbial toilet!

What I don't understand is the fact that the person who uttered those words was the self same person who had waxed lyrical at BBC Television's offering 'The Choir' and had told others about experience of choirs in other places had been a triumph and a joy. Of course, when they spoke of 'choir' they meant groups of people in robes doing 'Gospel' or communities who had been brought together in the same way as Gareth Malone did in the BBC series; and yet this is exactly what Church (and the choir and the organ) offer - along with a rich tradition and the warrant of history too!

The old (and rather hackneyed) joke asks this question:

'What's the difference between a terrorist and church organist/choir master* ?'

and of course the answer is (drum roll):

'Terrorists are willing to negotiate!'

All too often I hear of how choirs or organists or choir masters are 'holding the church to ransom' and how 'everyone' would be so much better off without them. The reality is that this is not the truth.

Who will be out of bed to make the am service in a church and be back again for the evening service?

Is it the rank and file members? I think not, for generally it seems we are a nation of 'oncers'!

Is it the clergy? Quite likely!

So who else is there? The answer is the organist and the choir members, for they can often be found doing the morning service and then returning for the evensong of Sung Eucharist too!

Psychologists tell us that singing in a choir is one of the best ways of ensuring our mental well-being. The joy of making music and being in harmony and belonging is worth it's weight in banana chips.

For those learning to play instruments, the church choir offers the opportunity for the tyro musical type to learn to sight-read, develop pitch awareness and make some beautiful music on the way. It also pays dividends when the practical exam's are upon them because they can do the aural tests with their eyes closed and their mouths open.

For the churches themselves, it provides a source of great music, vocal support for the congregation and something that draws us back to God, for isn't that what music, art and all the other 'soft academic subjects are really all about - being creative is recognising the Creator in us!

So a plea to those who long for the day when we all have worship bands and the organ and the choristers are relegated to the museums that are cathedrals and the like.


Our churches, our children, the adults and God all deserve and demand that the diversity of worship and the richness of the English Church Music tradition bring.

Applaud, encourage, retain and recruit for without it our worship becomes limited and lacklustre.

* delete as applicable

'oncer' - someone who makes one service on a Sunday and knows you should be grateful!


UKViewer said...

I love Choirs and Choral Music, albeit, I have a singing voice like a buzz saw and couldn't hold a note to save my life.

But, worship with music is lovely, uplifting, and we're always being introduced to new (to me) hymns (my Catholic history only held a limited list that I knew or was familiar with)

Since becoming an Anglican I've learned of the joys of choral worship, particularly Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral and in our own benefice.

Our Choir is tiny and rapidly depleting, we need new blood, and our School Choir might be the source. Last year they sang in Canterbury Cathedral, so they are no slouches.

I'd love to see more people taking part. My spouse says one of the joys for her of worship is a good 'sing song' vernacular for she loves hymns and organ music as well.

Ray Barnes said...

Having just a couple of hours ago returned from the Friday evening choir rehearsal at St. Mary's I can state in no uncertain terms that the choir plays an enormous role in every sung eucharist.
We have a huge repertoire of well and less-well-known music, ranging from Taize, modern classical (Rutter etc), to Tallis, Farrant, Orlando Gibbons and even some plain-song.
This in addition to the enormouse range of hymns and service settings makes for a lot of hard work.
All this is undertaken gladly by a dedicated handful of willing volunteers.
For me, a service without a choir would be a very dull affair, and if the comments we receive from the congregation are anything to go by,
they feel the same.

DrJ said...

Oh dear, time for one of my soap-box episodes.

TO start with, I personally don't mind choral music and organ accompaniment to my hymns. I sang in the school choir, once at Chichester Cathedral, and as I used to play Cello in the school orchestra, I still remember many of the bass parts. My father used to listen to the Welsh hymn singing on long wave on radio 4, with accompanied hiss and whistles.

But I was aware as a choolkid that I was unusual in this, and that most of my contemporaries simply could not relate to that sort of music. My own musicl taste is far more towards Classic Rock music, and I have long agreed with Larry Norman's rhetorical question "why should the devil have all the good music"? That is not to say that the two cannot be combined - one of the most uplifting moments of my life so far was experiencing Iona's version of "When I survey the wondrous cross" in Manchester Arena.

Despite my own churchy upbringing, I have always been very conscious of how easy it is to make those without that background feel very uncomfortable if they dare to step inside our doors. My own church is currently meeting in the local school whilst the bricks and mortar are heavily refurbished, so the Traditional the Modern services have been combined. This means that I have sung a few hymns for the first time since those far-off school days. One or two were great to sing, but I struggled with others as I realised that many of those singing with me understood the words barely better than my fellow pupils had done 35 or 40 years ago - and these were hymns thought suitable for children, never mind some of the more verbose ones. Even some of the words to a favourite like the aforementioned "When I Survey" could probably do with some updating to make the meaning clearer for the modern listener.
I also get a little miffed with the attitude that says that the "music group", with an acoustic guitar or two and maybe even a bass and a drummer, is "my" music and I should be happy with that, whilst the traditionalists have "their" hymns. No, "my" music is Iona, Terl Bryant, DC Talk, Bride, and even One Bad Pig, the Swirling Eddies, or No Longer Music. For me, if I wanted to see it in those terms, the standard music group is already a heavy compromise, though I would not, in most church situations, feel it appropriate to impose my musical tastes on the whole congregation. But don't expect the average non-churched enquirer to find the traditional music in any way relevent to them.

I am aware of the difficulties we face. Church has many conflicting requirements, to meet the needs of the current members, but also not to put irrelevant (and I am afraid that I regard the cultural aspects of musical taste as irrelevant) obstacles in the way of genuine enquirers. ALso, although my own musical tastes are far more modern that most in the curch, many of my daughter's friends ( I am pleased to say that my daughters have quite eclectic tastes for teenagers) would regard my own classic rock as hopelessly outdated.

(to be continued)

DrJ said...


I recently read Peter Hitchens' book "The Rage Against God". It is in many ways a very honest book, describing hs onw rebellion and later return to the fold, but I could not sympathise with his guilt that he now struggles to find the traditional worship whilst recognising that much of that was changed in response to those who rebelled like him. I suspect that C.S. Lewis would have talked about the dangers of "Christianity Plus" - in Hitchens' case Christianity Plus the Traditional Liturgy, when eventually Christianity becomes mainly valued for the support it can give to the maintainance of the Traditional Liturgy. On a similar note I suspect that Screwtape could write with gleeful pride about how they have in the past had the same archetypes in the church attacking the sinful newfangled organ (the Devil's Bagpipes, I think, is one genuine phrase) and decrying the loss of plainsong or the minstrel gallery, who now decry the loss of the organ and attack the use of sacriligious guitars and drums. It so easily makes us look foolish and keeps us 150 years behind the times.
Oh, and those who despise the "throwaway" nature of much modern church music conveniently forget how few of Wesley's 3000 - odd hymns we remember nowadays.

I suspect that I may have offended some people here, and I've tried to make it clear that to some extent I have a foot in both camps. But, to quote Rev Richard Coles on a completely different topic, "It's not about Me, is it?" it is about how the church best acts as salt and light. Yes we are called to be different, but that difference is meant to be about what really matters, not about what boils down to the cultural tastes of fairly recent history. And I regard our instruction to be "in" the world as meaning that we should be "Culturally Engaged", which I interpret to me engaged with the culture of those we are called to serve, not to mean that we should be trying to impose on them or lead them to what some of us happen to regard as higher, or better, culture, all the more so if that actually alienates many. So I get offended when the church wastes breath on such "Us and Them" matters.

DrJ said...

Ah, sorry Vic. Been catching up in reverse chronological order, so see that it your ealier post, you do touch on some of what worries me so much about how we conduct our worship. Still think that what I have already said stands, though, apart from the many typos...