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What is a choir for?

A Sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor Farewell to Choristers - Sunday 20 July 2014

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What is a choir for?

Posted By : Tom Clammer Sunday 20th July 2014

A Sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor

Farewell to Choristers - Sunday 20 July 2014

Zephaniah 3:14 – end 

Acts 4:1-22


In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I don’t know how many of you remember the children’s television series, “Maid Marian and her Merry Men.” I guess that fact that I remember it reveals precisely the time at which I was watching children’s telly. It was a wonderful comedy series, a spoof on the Robin Hood story where Robin was a blithering idiot and Maid Marian was the driving force behind all the successes of the Merry Men. It has fabulous people in it: Danny John Jules, who played the Cat in Red Dwarf, and of course Tony Robinson, who played the cunning Sheriff of Nottingham, who served, with huge frustration, an imbecilic King John. There was a lovely scene where King John wanted the Sheriff of Nottingham to invent something for him. He wanted to be famous for inventing something and so he orders the Sherriff to invent something on the spot. The sheriff dithers, and then, struck with inspiration he announces, “I’ve got it! I shall invent…the automatic foot!” King John says, “What’s it for?” “For, sire?”, replies the sheriff. “Well it’s got to be for something. Everything has to be for something.”

What is a cathedral choir for? What is its purpose? Why bother? What are all of you for? And I’m not just looking at the year 8s here, but all of you choristers, and the chaps as well. What are you for? Let’s get a bit existential on this final service of the chorister year.

An easy answer is that you are here to safeguard the English choral tradition. And there’s a lot of truth in that, but it doesn’t really get the work done because then you have to get behind that question and say, “well what is the English choral tradition here for?” We’ll come back to that. The choir are certainly not here primarily to raise money for the cathedral. Sometimes that happens, and Alleluia for that, but anyone who has looked at my budget knows that the Choirs of this cathedral are one of our greatest expenses. So again, why bother? You’re not here primarily to attract tourists to this place either, though that happens too, and praise God that people come here from all over the country, and far beyond it, to hear the most exquisite singing and music. The Southern Cathedrals Festival these last four days proved that. But that’s not what you are for either.

In our second lesson this afternoon we hear of Peter and John witnessing before the high priests and the elders of the Jewish community as to why they are proclaiming the word of God. Look again at what Peter says towards the end of that reading: “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather that to God you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

“We cannot keep from speaking.”

When men and women, and children, encounter the divine, when we meet face to face with God, when we find ourselves as it were banging up against holiness, we cannot keep from speaking, from singing, from proclaiming. Our lives are overwhelmed with the need to pray and praise, to lament and cry out, to protest and to question and to adore. And the word we use to describe all of that, is worship. Worship is why you are here. Worship is what cathedral choirs are for. Worship is what Christians do, and we need help and inspiration and the words to say when no words will come, and the harmonies that will lift us up or console us, or help us to deal with all the anger and frustration, all the adoration and wonder and all the bits in between – everything that bubbles up from the heart in that great outpouring of whatever it is that outpours when we recognise that God is here and we are here, and that we need to do something about it.

And as I have said before, the natural unit of Christianity is not the Christian, it is the congregation, the ekklesia, and we do it together, and when I don’t have the words, that’s ok because praise God that you do. The choir of this cathedral church, in their devotion and dedication to praying and praising in season and out of season, just as crucial, just as important and just as effective as a means of reacting to and interpreting grace on a rainy bleak January evening as on Easter Day, give us words and music, and a way in to the divine.

Thank you, George, Nico, Alex, Suzanna, Verity, Henry, Georgia, Sumei, and Megan, for helping me to pray. Thank you for helping us all to pray, and thank you too to those of you who are not leaving, to the boys, the girls and the men.

This is really important stuff, because it is about how the Church prays. Yes, of course we can pray alone, and there are enough holy hermits and ascetics around still to prove that this is true. But most of us don’t do that. Most of us need help. Help from our friends, our colleagues, our fellow Christians, as well as from God. I need help. I’m rubbish at praying. I get distracted and I think about dinner, or Doctor Who. I get upset by things and I don’t want to pray. I get cross with God and I don’t want to talk to him, or I get obsessed with a little bit of the story and focus on that, and I need reminding of the bigger picture.

Liturgical prayer, liturgical worship, the precious, wonderful, God given gift which we cherish here, which we treasure and which we invest in here, is the life blood of the Church. It keeps the story pumping through the veins. Every confident Magnificat, every gut-wrenching In Paradisum, that terrifying Kyrie from the Langlais Mass which forces us to our knees in awe, the weekly reminder in the Te Deum that even when I can’t be bothered, or I can’t find the words, or I am too cross with God to even try, yet even so “the glorious company of the apostles praise thee, the noble army of the martyrs praise thee, the holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge thee”, and suddenly almost without knowing it we are caught back up in a Sanctus which surrounds and blesses and reminds us that we are loved and held in the embrace of God and almost without knowing how it happens we are lifted up into the company of angels and archangels.

That is worship. That is what cathedral choirs are for. The English choral tradition is a response to that yearning in the human soul for communion with God, and that is its value, that is why we treasure and protect and resource it, and that is why it works. So I need Georgia, Sumei, Megan, George, Henry, Verity, Suzanna, Alex and Nico, and all of you. Because you give me the words I need. You give me the notes. The dots. I need the words and the dots, in the same way as I need the text of scripture and the prayers of the faithful and the inspiration of the saints. We do this together. We are a family.

And because the church is Catholic, which is a churchy way of saying, because people pray everywhere, the family exists everywhere. You year 8s will discover parts of the world you don’t even know exist now. And I don’t just mean geographically. There is challenge waiting for you. There is politics and the nuance of global trade and justice. There is trial and complication and deep, deep beauty waiting out there just around the corner. Actually that is true of each of us here, and of every Christian across the world. We live in times and situations which demand robust, thoughtful, Spirit-inspired interaction – they require prayer, and worship. Just think back over the last week – the Malaysian airline, Gaza, a cabinet reshuffle. Factor in your family situation, the things challenging your friends, your education or work. All of this needs prayer. It needs to be held in the context of worship. That’s not an afterthought – it’s the thing that makes the difference. So praise God that the voice of prayer is never silent, the strain of prayer never dies away.

Today our choir changes. Today some of our lives change. But the job doesn’t, the work, as St Benedict called it. The work of praying, of worshipping, because that it what changes the world.

The Dean preached this morning about suffering and glory. Do you remember what she said at the end? In the darkest and the brightest moments, the proper response of the Christian is, “Thanks be to God”. To recognise everything, in the end, is held in God’s hand. Carry with you, Henry, Verity, Suzanna, Alex, Nico, George, Megan, Sumei and Georgia, through every day, the words you have sung daily in this place and those words will transform the world.

O God, make speed to save us,

O Lord, make haste to help us.

Praise ye the Lord,

The Lord’s name be praised.