In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We live in a world which, by and large, tends to value things in proportion to the amount of activity or action which is associated with producing them. You know, so something is good if you had to really sweat to produce it. A three or five set Wimbledon final is better than a win in straight sets because there’s more combat, more engagement, and literally more sweat. We live in a world which tends to value activity and be rather more suspicious of stillness.
But do you know what, when I talk to people at the end of Evensong about what their experience has been here, it is extraordinary how many of them say words to the effect of “it was wonderful to be still and to let that music and those prayers wash over me. It was a gift.”
From time to time the cathedral toys with trying to produce sets of KPIs, or key performance indicators. Now this is not going to be a rant against management or bureaucracy, and nor is it going to be an argument that the quality and conduct of worship should not be scrutinised and held to account. But I wonder what you would tell me if I asked you what the key performance indicator for Evensong should be? I mean, I guess we could say that the choir singing roughly in tune, the Cantor similarly not growling his or her way through their parts, and I guess the majority of the content being broadly Christian and the intercessor not insulting everyone in the building with their prayers might be reasonable ones. But beyond that, how do you assess the performance of Evensong? How do you assess the performance of worship? What other things can you take hold of, and stick in a folder to be appraised and signed off?
I want to say maybe in particular to Tom, Beatrice, George, Imogen, Luke and Katie who leave this Cathedral choir today, but I want to say to Claudia our organ scholar who also finishes with us today, I want to say to all of you other choristers, you who will, in just a few moments, become next year’s choir as you sing the Te Deum, I want to say to our Lay Vicars, and actually to everyone gathered here: What we aim for when we gather together for worship is that we are transformed. When we consciously move ourselves into the presence of God, whether that is in a glorious surrounding like this, whether it is in our own homes in our private prayers, in a parish church, on the train or in one thousand other places, the aim of the enterprise is to be made different. The hope as we enter into this time, is that we might be transformed by encountering God.
And actually that shouldn’t take effort. Of course it takes some sort of willingness to be open. I guess people who come to Evensong on spec, as it were, want to be there. We don’t, very often, force people to come to church around here. You don’t see the Canon Treasurer prowling round the High Street Gate with a whip thrashing people into Choral Matins! Although I guess, choristers, you don’t have that much choice do you! But you chose to be choristers, you chose to enter this peculiar and distinctive life. But worship is being with our father, or our mother, however you look at God. Worship is being with our best friend. Worship is being in the presence of the person who we trust the most in the whole world, and that, most of the time, shouldn’t take effort and probably shouldn’t feel like an activity at all, it should feel like the most natural place in the world, and the most intuitive thing we can do.
I chose this evening’s first reading because it is one of the rare moments in the Bible where the major protagonist in the story is asleep almost the entire time! Jacob has this extraordinary vision of what the relationship between Earth and heaven might be, and he is asleep the whole time. There is very little effort or activity going on in this story, and the product of it is that Jacob realises that he’s in the presence of the divine. He realises that God is here, and that although he cannot see it once he has woken up, there is a ladder set up between earth and heaven, and there are angels ascending and descending upon it. There is two way traffic between here and there, between this physical, corporeal, bounded, limited and often unkind world, and the place where sorrow and sadness and crying will be no more.
We are very close indeed to heaven. And actually sometimes when people shake my hand after Evensong those are the sorts of words they use. “That brought me closer to heaven than I have ever been”, or, “I thought I was in heaven when I heard that music.”
I don’t know how music works. I am not a musician, and I told that to Mr Halls at my interview for this job. I am terrified by key signatures and circles of fifths. But I know what music does. And I know that some of the music that moves me the most is not technically the most competent in the world, and I know that some of the cleverest music in the world I think is absolute garbage. I know that Stanford’s Beati quorum via is in my opinion the very finest in the repertoire. And that might be because it’s clever and competent and all the rest of that, but mostly for me it’s because when I hear it, it helps me to pray. And there are other pieces like that.
Luke, Tom, Imogen, Katie, George and Beatrice, you will all have particular pieces of music that you have sung here over your time as choristers which I guess you will carry with you. Pieces where you can remember where you were, what you were doing, maybe it was here in the cathedral, or at the Southern Cathedrals Festival, or at a diocesan concert, or up in London or on a cruise ship or wherever you might be. You will remember the notes and the words and you will remember the feeling, the instinct, what it did to you, how it made connections between here and there, between earth and heaven.
And Paul, grumpy Paul, who was so often so very angry about everything in his life, recognised the importance of the head and the heart being connected. He said “I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, and I will sing praise with the mind also.” Paul is often accused of really not being very keen on the body, and the life of this world, but that’s really not true. And that really comes out in what he has to say about music. He uses music as a metaphor for the way in which society ought to work together. He uses music as a metaphor for the church, and of course other biblical writers do the same. Remember that wonderful vision, that picture painted at the end of the Bible in the Revelation, of the company of heaven gathered around God, and the image that the author uses is of choir: myriads and myriads, and thousands and thousands, singing “great and wonderful your deeds, Lord God the Almighty…”
When we worship, yes of course it’s sometimes inadequate. Yes of course sometimes our heart isn’t in it, and we’re tired and lacklustre. You know, this is my first service back in this building after two months of illness. Quite a lot of that time I couldn’t pray at all, and then when I started it felt stilted and awkward and inadequate. I don’t imagine that experience is alien to you. But worship is corporate. We do this thing together. You pray on my behalf, and I on yours. When I can’t pray your prayers hold me up, and when you can’t pray, there is a whole cathedral full of people to do it for you. Prayer is a plural activity. Quite apart from the fact of course that God is always there, even if we can’t hear him and we’re not sure, the Angels are there, the saints are there, that great host of heaven is there, the faithful gone before us, and if you believe the words of the Benedicite, the wind, the rain, frost, snow, and the stars of heaven join in this great hymn of praise which it is the duty and the joy of the choirs, the clergy, and the congregations of this ancient house of prayer to maintain, day after day, year after year, holding before God, and holding before all those who enter these doors that vision of a ladder connecting earth and heaven.
Katie, Beatrice, George, Luke, Tom and Imogen, when you remember your days in the choir of this Cathedral, picture your voice mingling and blending and joining with all the other voices, your fellow choristers, and those around you, and rising up and forming a ladder upon which the prayers and hopes and dreams and fears of everyone who enters this place may dare to ascend to God: a ladder so wonderful and mysterious that it may be climbed by the Angels themselves.