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Dean's Chorister Sermon on Cathedral Day, Sunday 18 May 2014

The first girl choristers at Salisbury Cathedral in October 1991
Posted By : Guest Preacher Sunday 18th May 2014

This sermon was written and delivered by Verity Peterken, the Dean's Chorister (head girl chorister) at Salisbury Cathedral on Cathedral Day, 18 May 2014

Alleluia, Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed, Alleluia.)

 

Imagine, if you will, a cold winter’s evening in late 1990. As darkness was falling a

group of beings ambled through ancient buildings, their black cloaks gripped tightly

around them in the chilling wind. As they gathered the air was serious, brows were

furrowed. They had a proper decision to make that evening, a decision that would be of

national importance, a decision that many others of their type would later follow.

Those beings, that winter’s night, were the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury Cathedral.

Their decision? Whether to allow Richard Seal to set about recruiting for the first ever

cathedral girls' choir- and much success has come out of it. Not only have past girl

choristers and the current choir made several recordings, performed on many broadcasts

and been on a recent successful choir tour, we have also made cathedral girls' choirs an

accepted establishment and have embedded in those lives dedicated to choral music a

reputation for being nearly as good as boy choristers, if not as good!

A girls' choir is important because it reminds us of the importance of women in God's

family; a similar fashion to the way in which Mary does. It is also important because it

mirrors the significance of women in the bible, namely Mary. Mary was a figure of

responsibility and this is something the girl choristers are required to take on, particularly

as they advance further up the choir. Mary was seen as a woman of equal importance to

Joseph and carried the biggest responsibility of all; carrying God's son into the world,

carrying his holiness, and allowing God's son to transform so many lives. She relied on

the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but did not need to rely on anything more, for example

wealth - her significance in God's eyes was due to her selfless statement - she was the

Lord's servant - and this was more valuable than any material sacrifice. Mary the maiden

is a symbol of care, of responsibility, of embracing difficulties, all of which are valuable

skills, and can be learnt from years as choristers. In fact, they must be learnt, in order to

work as a team and perform to the standard we do in the run of the everyday liturgy.

***

Here I am as the 24th Dean’s Chorister- and acknowledging my mathematical abilities it

took me a while to work that out- the Dean's Chorister's position of responsibility reflects

that of the Dean's position, the first female dean to serve at any of England's medieval

cathedrals. Over 100 girls have now left the choir and had the honour and benefit of

serving as choristers in this cathedral and so, perhaps unsurprisingly, women taking a full

part in Christian worship and ministry is an important concept for me. A few months ago

I wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury about the issue of women bishops. I haven’t

received a reply yet – I’m sure the Archbishop’s office is terribly busy at the moment –

but in my letter, I outlined the benefit which the admission of female choristers have

added to worship, and suggested that female bishops could provide similar assets. As an

example, I drew on the Salisbury experience of pioneering the first girls choir, of having

a different approach with which to portray choral music, of refuting those who said it

couldn’t be done and were opposed to change, who said the funds would never be raised,

or who said only boys could sing or sing appropriately for God. I was asking the Church

of England to show the same courage and vision as these brave pioneers here at

Salisbury.

And this sentiment echoes through the Christian gospel itself. 2000 years ago women had

little status in 1st Century Palestine, for the most part, they were limited to the domestic

roles of wife and mother. Women were considered to be responsible for most male sin.

The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that the Law considered women to be inferior in all

matters, and that their women should be submissive. Lucky I wasn’t around in those

days!

Yet the Paschal story is one where women take centre stage. Only a few weeks ago in the

cathedral we celebrated the great news of the resurrection on Easter Day. ‘This joyful Eastertide’ we celebrated in song, ‘Haec dies quam fecit Dominus, exultemus et laetemur

in ea – This is the day the Lord made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!’

But who were the first witnesses to this most glorious of days? Who first saw the empty

tomb? Who first saw the resurrected Christ? Who wept at the feet of our Lord? It was

women who were chosen to embody these crucial roles. And according to Luke, the men

didn’t even believe what the women reported to them about the risen Christ! Luke reads

'And it seemed to them as an idle tale'. It was Mary Magdalene that Jesus first appeared

to and, of course, Mary the mother of Jesus who had such an important role in the birth

narratives and in witnessing the events of Jesus’s trial and crucifixion.

Jesus’ inclusion and respect for women as disciples and proclaimers of his good news

provides the foundation for the positive place of women within the churches today. In

addition to the 12 disciples, it is remarkable that 8 women are known by name in the

Gospels; and the prelude to Jesus’ work of accepting and affirming women as persons of

worth throughout his teachings and miracles is the importance given at the start of his life

to his mother Mary. So in this respect, as in so many others, we have important lessons to

learn today from that story of 2000 years ago.

And finally I’d like to leave you with a quotation from the famous actress Elizabeth

Taylor – perhaps not a well known theological authority, but a powerful thought that

might ring true for those women who are waiting to serve in their church today:

It is very strange that the years teach us patience – that the shorter the time, the greater

our capacity for waiting.

Amen