A sermon by Canon Jeremy Davies
Choral Evensong marking the 25th Anniversary of the Girls Choir
July 9 2016
Every day will I give thanks unto thee : and praise thy name for ever and ever
with these words from Psalm 145 Dora Robertson began her magisterial history of the
choristers of Sarum in her book Sarum Close.
“Any one who comes to Salisbury Close” she wrote “may see just before 10 o’clock in
the morning a crocodile of small black figures marching sedately across the green lawns
to disappear inside the west doors of the cathedral. And if that visitor should wait
another hour the little procession would pass once more, completing this time the third
side of a triangle. If they were of an enquiring mind our visitor might ask ‘Who are
these children? Why are they here? For how long has this been going on? What is this
eternal triangle?’ Briefly they are the Choristers of Sarum; they are here to sing praises to
God, every day, week after week, year after year, for almost eight hundred years, they
have been doing it”.
And Dora Robertson continues: “This community of Sarum of which the choristers are
a part, lives inside a wall and the gates are locked at night. Its seclusion has in some sense
cut it off from the outside world, but the hard facts of that world have at all times
beaten upon it from without, hammering it to new shapes, bending it to fresh paths. It
has always resisted change but it has changed again and again, reflecting down the years
the passing spirit of each age”.
Sarum Close was published in 1938, more than fifty years before the events we celebrate
today came to pass. But Dora Robertson’s prophetic words, written before the Second
World War, while the world was still reeling from the trauma of the Great War, may well
have had this latest chapter in the history of the choristers of Sarum in her mind. For
over the centuries for all their seeming fixity, this cathedral, its Close, its community and
its choristers, have endured because they have changed: ‘hammered to new shapes, bent
to fresh paths: they have changed again and again reflecting down the years the passing
spirit of each age’.
Today we give thanks for the twenty five years in which the girl choristers of Sarum have
deepened and developed the tradition of praising God in music and, whatever the
vicissitudes which have beset this cathedral and its community over the centuries, this
tradition of praise through music has been the enduring character of its life. We give
thanks for this place, for this sacred space, and for its tradition of music in praise of
God; for the vision of Richard Seal who encouraged us to see that tradition has a future
as well as a past; for the courage of the Dean and Chapter who supported and sustained
that vision; for the cathedral musicians - Directors of Music, organists, lay vicars and
organ scholars - who daily craft this world of the imagination where the encounter with
the divine becomes a present reality. We give thanks for the cathedral congregation, and
for benefactors whose generosity turned a dream into a reality; for theTrustees and their
redoubtable chair (wo)men and financial advisors who turned their secular know-how
of investments and markets to the sacred cause of music in worship. And we give
thanks, above all, for the choristers, girls and boys whose lives have been shaped by the
time they have spent singing here, and whose ministry of leading worship has enabled
others to pray and to worship and to enter into the beauty of holiness that is is so
central to a cathedral’s ministry.
As we gather to give thanks for these last twenty five years in which music has not only
adorned but enabled the worship of God there will be lot of reminiscences, memories
shared of past triumphs, occasional regrets, a few disasters, and most of all firm
friendships as choristers past meet with the present choir to do what they all do best -
make music in God’s name and to his glory.
Among the reminiscences of past and present choristers will be memories of special
services - Christmas and easter of course, but especially the Advent Procession From
Darkness to Light to which former choristers often return. I have no doubt they will recall
the Shrove Tuesday gathering when boy and girl probationers would gather in the
Hungerford Chantry to make and consume pancakes before going into the Precentor’s
garden to burn the previous year’s palm crosses to make the ash for the following day’s
ceremony of ashing on Ash Wednesday..
Maybe they will remember not only Shrove Tuesday but those regular Tuesday mornings
when the probationer choristers would meet with the Precentor to explore the cathedral
- climb the steps to the tower or discover the library - and reflect on the seasons of the
church’s year, and how these were marked and celebrated with particular music, a change
of colour, and a different pace and tone. Questions abounded amidst the the chatter of
the probationers’ curious and enquiring minds.
‘Why did Jesus die?‘ was one penetrating question from one Tuesday morning. It was
reported back to the Precentor later by the girl probationer’s parents that their daughter
hadn’t found his answer particularly convincing!
Part of the probationers Tuesday morning induction involved meeting here in the Quire.
How many angels could dance on the head of a pin may have been a philosophical
conundrum that exercised our medieval forebears, but for us the question was ‘How
many angels are there in the Quire.’ The probationers ran off to count the carved
wooden angels that adorn the stalls in the Quire. ‘Fourteen’, ‘Sixteen’, Eighteen’ rang out
the chorus of young voices anxious to claim the prize that had been promised for the
first correct answer. ‘Actually it’s eighteen . And what are the angels doing?’
More scampering; more returning answers:
‘They are singing’; ‘Clanging cymbals’; ‘Blowing recorders’.
‘Exactly! Remind you of anything?’
Probationers are never lost for an answer (as well as asking penetrating questions)
‘It’s a psalm’ says one bright spark.
‘Very good! Which one?’
‘Let’s start with the last psalm in the psalter - written maybe a thousand years before
Jesus was born, probably the most ancient poetry you will ever read’
We get out our psalters and turn to Psalm 150 - the last psalm. We read it through in
Coverdale’s peerless translation:
O praise God in his holiness … praise him in the sound of the trumpet… the lute and harp… the
cymbals and dances...the strings and pipe… the well-tuned and the loud cymbals.
Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord
The angels in the Quire are graphically dramatising this psalm 150. They are
encompassing us eloquently with the sounds of prayer and praise - even though we
cannot hear their music with our everyday ears. The angels in the Quire, wooden though
they are, are inviting us to raise our hearts, our hands and our voices to heaven, to join
the angelic throng they represent, whose ceaseless Holy, Holy, Holy becomes our cantus
firmus . The wooden statues that surround us are blowing their trumpets, raising their
voices, beating their drum, whistling their tune in order to encourage us, with whatever
music we have at our disposal, to lift up our hearts in praise of God. ‘Make Psalm 150
come alive’ they sing to us, ‘So that everything that has breath may praise our God’.
Choristers are not angels - as they would be the first to agree. Well. maybe not the first :
parents, teachers and friends of choristers would be first in the queue I am sure to make
that point : Choristers are not angels. And we thank God that our boy and girl choristers
are normal boys and girls - multi-talented, high achieving, sometimes awkward, even
difficult and occasionally up-to-no-good. And yet they enter into the ministry of angels.
If an angel’s first and last duty is the unceasing worship of the divine; if Holy, Holy,
Holy is their unending song, then choristers enter into that vocation. They come to
understand and make their own that verse from a poem of one of Salisbury’s greatest
sons, George Herbert
Seven whole days, not one in seven,
I will praise thee;
In my heart, though not in heaven,
I can raise thee.
Every day whatever the political situation, whatever the weather, whether there are many
attending or few, the worship of God continues here and in all our other cathedrals, led
day in day out by singers, most often the cathedral choristers. No wonder that George
Herbert when he made his twice-weekly sojourn from his parsonage in nearby Bemerton
to the cathedral for evensong, described the experience as ‘his heaven on earth’.
That above all is what we give thanks for today : twenty five years in which young
women musicians have added angelic lustre to a tradition honed over the centuries,
which has its origins in the song of the angels. That song will continue in this place as
the next generation of girl and boy choristers create ‘heaven on earth’ for others who
seek to discern God’s way in our disordered world, and to thank him for his love and
mercy which endure for ever.
I began by quoting Dora Robertson’s history of the choristers of Sarum and I return to
the words with which she ends her book:
Above the welter of the centuries; beyond the rise and fall of the tides of shifting fortune; constant in the
face of change; stable amid the mortality of men, three things have endured ; the spire of Sarum
pointing the way to God; the voices of the choristers raising a ladder of praise by which the soul may
climb; and the waters of Avon hurrying to the sea.
Dora Robertson might well have ended her book with the words of another Wiltshire
poet, Siegfried Sassoon who a hundred years ago was trying to make sense of life’s
horror and found music to give him hope - music not of choristers in a cathedral it is
true, but the sonorous hymn singing of Welshmen in the trenches of Flanders. And that
music then, like the music we celebrate today, lifted the poet’s heart as it lifts ours to the
contemplation of a better world.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away...O but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
How right the poet was.
The singing will never be done.