For the Admission and Promotion of Girl Choristers, Evensong, Sunday 8th September 2019. Preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer.
Dear Mary, Alice, Rosie, Tilly, Annabel, Caroline, Isadora, Eva and Emma, congratulations on becoming choristers or senior choristers in our Choir.
You are doing this at an interesting time in our national life: mass demonstrations, dramatic resignations, and a suggestion that may be possible to be bound to obey a law only ‘in theory’. (This is an idea you might like to explore, say, in relation to the school rules. Let us know how you get on.) Meanwhile, ordinary people are angry, anxious, frustrated, confused, fed up. If they – by which I mean we – come to this place in which you sing, what do they need to hear?
When things are bad, you may just want to escape. Nothing wrong with that, and there are many worse places to escape to than this, but escaping only gets you so far, as it doesn’t make the bad stuff go away; and, when you listen to a reading like the second one today, in which Jesus speaks very sharply to some of his fellow Jews, that sounds like the stuff you are trying to escape from. What is much better is to come to a place like this and go away in better shape to deal with life than when you came in. And that is where you come in.
On YouTube you’ll find our choir singing today’s anthem [‘Even such is time’, by Bob Chilcot]. Underneath is this comment, by one Carlo Oro:
Great words, great music, great choir... I love English boys and girls choirs! [No mention of the grown-ups, I'm afraid.] Thank you, when I listen to your music I immediately feel better.
Our choir is here in the first place to worship God, and that would be an important thing to do even if the rest us weren’t here. But we hope that what we do – and what you sing – here might not only praise God but also be useful to the human beings God loves.
And what do you sing? Most of it comes from the book you new choristers just received from the Dean. In this service we hear two readings from the Bible, but the responses, the psalms, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, they come from the Bible too. Even the anthem is soaked in the Bible’s words and images.
When things are confusing, it’s good to be reminded of fundamentals, of where the things you care about come from, and it is in these ancient words from the Middle East, translated from the Hebrew and the Greek in which they were written up to two thousand or more years ago, that we find the roots of so much that we take for granted.
Think of the things that are getting us so worked up: the will of the majority, doing the right thing for the weakest and poorest, handing on a planet with a liveable climate for those who come after us – all these assume that every human being matters. Really? Who says so? This idea isn’t natural, it hasn’t bubbled up by accident. It comes from the biblical belief that all human beings – all of us, not just the rich or the clever or the powerful or the healthy or the good looking – all human beings are made in the image of God, and matter enough for Jesus to die for them. These ideas – these ideals – have their origins in the story God’s love for the world that we tell here.
You don’t have to be Christian to believe these things – many people who believe them who don’t believe in God at all – and you don’t have to be at choral evensong in a cathedral to be told all this (I got the idea for this sermon from a very non-religious magazine) but hearing all this in here is different: this place offers not just information but a relationship. Here we don’t just discover that these ideas came from belief in God long ago, but we are invited to believe that God is here now, giving us strength and wisdom to live up to these ideals, and (as Isaiah tells us in the first reading) forgiving us when we don’t; and that sometimes, when we have run out of ideas, God will say, I am going to do a new thing.
We can’t prove any of this, any more than you can prove to someone that you love them, but we can tell the story of God’s love for the world in ways that give it authority, that make it something people feel they should take seriously. And here, again, is where you come in, because one way of telling the story with authority is in music, music that is practiced with care and devotion then sung with conviction and delight, so that the people who hear it say not only, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful,’ but also, ‘These people really take this stuff seriously. Perhaps I should too. It may just be that they are testifying to the truth.’