A sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor
Evensong Sunday 24th July 2016
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be now and always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
“What do you want to say about God?” That was the question that one of my crueller colleagues in my last job in the cathedral Close in Gloucester used to ask prospective new appointees for various jobs. It was his task to give them a theological ‘going over’ if you like, and he used to open with that question: “what do you want to say about God?”
It’s a terrifying question to be asked in an interview. And of course there are a whole realm of possible answers containing greater or lesser portions of heresy and self-contradiction. There’s a strong and respected strain of theology which says that actually you shouldn’t really say anything at all about God, because almost anything you say will be inaccurate. You may have in your mind an image of old, beard-wearing men with alarming looking books in their arms saying "ooh, I wouldn't try to say anything about God if I were you." And that's probably a fair image!
But actually most of us who encounter God in one way or another do want to say something about him. And that feels absolutely natural to me. We want to be able to express something about why it is that it makes a difference to us to associate ourselves with the divine, perhaps with Christianity, perhaps in the case of those of us gathered here this afternoon the Church of England, or even cathedrals and the choral tradition. For those chorister parents in the congregation today, you might want to be able to say something to your friends about why you supported your son or daughter in attending a school with the Christian foundation, and why you’ve given up your family Christmas and Easter for the past five years. There must be a reason for that, and you probably want some words for it. For Clara, Lingling, Victoria, Marney, Maddie, William, Jake, William, Alex, and Jonathan, you might want some words to describe why what you’ve been doing for the past few years is important, why it’s changed you, if it has, and why the same thing wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t been in a cathedral, in this context, offering worship to God every day as part of your life and your work.
I think we need some words. Even if the alarming-looking, book carrying, beard-wearing old men have a theological point, I still think we need some words to talk about this.
Now, being my father’s son and therefore always very early for everything, Emma and I were early for almost everything at the Southern Cathedrals Festival over these past few days as well. So we had a lot of time to scrutinise the programme and one of the things that I noticed was the adjectives, the describing words, that were used in a lot of the programme notes. And what I find intriguing and quite helpful is that the words used to describe a lot of the music in the Festival are very similar to a lot of the words we use to describe God. And a lot of the words we use to describe how the music makes us feel are similar to the words we use to describe how being a Christian makes us feel. Let me give you some examples.
Variously in the programme the experience of hearing the choral music of the Festival is described as ‘lifting up our hearts’, ‘transforming’, ‘humbling’, ‘peaceful’.
Other words used from just a brief scan of the programme include Mysterious, enduringly special, good, evil, humble, restful, serene, gladsome, impassioned, agitated, penitential, heartfelt, tender.
Some of the words describe the experience of hearing music, and some of them describe the music itself. So hearing music can be transforming, and the music itself can feel mysterious, or tender.
And this is of course exactly what we do when we talk about God. You and I tend to talk about God, when we do it at all, in terms of how it is that we are made different by our experience of being near to, close to him, in a situation where we can encounter the things of God. So we might talk about going to church as being comforting, challenging, mysterious. And we might talk about God himself as being good, tender, loving and so on. Sometimes when we struggle with our faith we might also talk about going to church of course as troubling, agitating (that was one of the words used in the SCF programme as well), and when we’re very angry or disappointed, or feel let down by God because life has gone wrong or someone we love is hurting, we might want to talk about God as distant, cold, uncaring or even silent.
And in a few places, and an English cathedral is one of them, those two threads, talking about music and talking about God seem to come together and intertwine. Because what all of you in the choir do is use words and music to describe the divine, and what happens to us when we come into contact with that divine. Worship, liturgical worship in church, which is the primary and essential purpose of a cathedral choir, any church choir actually, is about doing two things: it is about telling God how we feel, and it is about telling each other how we feel. “Please notice who we really are”, as we sang with Exeter House two weeks ago. And more than that, the word ‘feel’ is inadequate, it is about crying, shouting, straining upwards to God with that mixture of love and confusion and devotion and praise and agitation sometimes; and it is about expressing all of that together as a congregation, as a family, so that we know that we’re not alone. To carry this big bundle of stuff into a cathedral church and to be lead in worship by musicians of the calibre of our Lay Vicars and deputies, of our boys and girls, is to be gifted with language and harmony and cadence that help us get all of that stuff straight in our heads and lay it before God. And it ought to pull us all over the place. As Geoffrey Simmons’ programme notes for the SCF this year make clear, in a lot of our music, in a lot of our choral worship, there are not just one or two themes, there are overlapping, complex and multiple themes, and very often, as Simmons wrote in his commentary for Walton’s The Twelve, “the contrast between dark and light is depicted quite graphically.”
William, Jake, Clara, Marney, Maddie, William, Alex, Jonathan, Lingling, and Victoria leave this Cathedral choir today, and over the time you have been here you have sung in huge concerts, some of you in foreign countries on Tours, at grand liturgies like Darkness to Light, but I think more importantly you have sung the daily round of prayer and praise, you have sung Evensong on a wet Tuesday in February with just a dozen people in the congregation. Girls, you sang the ordinations this year which I know you might not have found musically the most rewarding service, but your ministry helped to quite literally transform the lives of those who were gathered. The priests who were ordained on the Saturday night were instructed by the Bishop: “with all God’s people you are to tell the story of God’s love.” I think that is a perfect definition of what a chorister does, what a cathedral choir does. With all God’s people, you are to tell the story of God’s love. In hymnody, in motets and anthems, in the settings of the Eucharist, and most of all in the psalmody and the great Canticles of morning and evening prayer, you tell the story of God’s love. What is that story? Well the choristers who sang the baptism service about a month ago at Evensong, or last week in the Eucharist may remember, he says hopefully!, Canon Ian, or the Dean, saying to the families of the babies, “faith is the gift of God to his people.”
We tell the story of God’s love, and that story is that he gives us faith. We are given the potential, the promise, the possibility of reaching out and touching the divine. Thank you, Jake, William, Alex, and Jonathan, Clara, Lingling, Victoria, Marney, Maddie, and William, together with your fellow choristers and lay Vicars, for helping us to do that. Guided by you, lifted up on the wings of your harmony, we all together as a community as a congregation, whether we personally ever sing a note or not, find that in the music are indeed some of the adjectives we have been reaching for, we find that the music is itself a metaphor, in fact indeed we find that it is more than that, it is very nearly a sacrament, because on the wings of the music we find what life is like, and we see where to go to search for God. And every now and then we see clearly enough into the truth to find that, as next year’s choir will sing at the very end of this service, “O God, in thee have I trusted: let me never be confounded.”