Twenty-nine years ago I went to be vicar of a church in south London. It was a big building - though nothing like as big as this; and while its architecture and fittings couldn’t compete with this place, it was quite attractive in its way. At its west end it had two big doors, as we do here. And just outside those doors were the pavement and the high street and the shops, and thousands of people walking past every day.
If you stood outside those doors on the pavement side, what you saw was a pair of iron gates a metre or so in front. The gates were always shut, and so were the doors. And above the doors, in beautiful gold lettering around the Gothic arch, was the text we heard in this service: ‘This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’. It seemed not to have occurred to anyone at the church that there was a bit of a problem involving that message above those shut gates and locked doors. There is a gap between everyday life and heaven; and we need things to bridge that gap; we need a way through to heaven; we do not want to find the gates closed and the doors locked.
Now I want to say a word to the adults present. Spare a thought for the children in our choir. They have to sit in services for hours every week, stretching through several years, and listen to people like me going on like this in sermons. These are tough and resilient young people; they have steel in their souls. And now I am going to talk mainly to them, our choristers whose year’s work comes to an end with this service - and especially to the ten who leave the choir today to move on to the next stage of their lives.
In your time in this choir you have had to work very hard; you have had to learn a huge amount; you have had to sing morning by morning, evening by evening, weekend by weekend. You - and your families - have given up a lot: you have not had Christmas or Easter at home, because you’ve been working here. You’ve had to submit to the way things are organised here, you’ve had to behave well, in fact you’ve had to do everything to the highest possible standard.
I expect there have been times when you’ve found being in the choir annoying, when you’ve been dead tired or feel that you’ve missed out on something you might have been doing elsewhere. So the first thing I want to say to you, on behalf of this whole Cathedral, is thank you. Thank you for everything you have given up to be in our choir, and for all you have done.
It is possible that just occasionally you have fallen asleep, or maybe just daydreamed, during a service. If you have, I hope your dreams were as memorable as the one Jacob had, with its ladder reaching from earth to heaven, its angels going up and down that ladder, and with the voice of God talking directly to him.
Which leads me to the second thing I want to say to you: the purpose of what you’ve done here at each service is to help us all to know and worship God. What you have been part of doing in this cathedral day after day has helped push open the gate to heaven, has helped everyone who hears you to catch glimpses of that place of the presence of God, where all things are caught up in worship. What you do helps us to imagine that.
Whatever your dreams are, I hope you can be like Jacob, in these ways at least. That you have experienced the Lord God in this place, as you have helped other people to know him through your music. That like Jacob you will hear God saying ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go’. And that you go from this place with a song in your heart and a vision of heaven before your eyes and its sounds in your ears. We all look forward to the day when it won’t only be the angels going up and down that way to heaven, but that, in the words of Revelation ‘every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea’ will be singing God’s praises along with you, our choir. Until that day, may God bless you, and long may you hear our thanks ringing in your ears. And may you grow in the knowledge and love of God; and in John Milton’s words ‘live with him and sing in endless morn of light’.