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The role of music in worship


Preached on 19 July 2015
Matins: The Seventh Sunday after Trinity
by James Lancelot

From this morning’s Second Lesson, Hebrews Chapter 2 verse 12 (quoting Psalm 22), in the Authorised Version:  I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.  (This is not the version you heard read; the New Revised Standard Version translates it differently.  But the Greek is quite clear; hymneso se – I will hymn you.  We are clearly talking about singing here.)
 
A few weeks ago the Boy Choristers visited Fountains Abbey.  As we wandered through the church, a victim of the religious divisions of Tudor times, stripped of its roofs and left to fall into ruin, a few of us found ourselves standing at the point of intersection between the Presbytery and the Chapel of the Nine Altars, a spot eerily reminiscent of the same location in this building.  I said to the Choristers “This is what Durham Cathedral would look like if people had not and did not continue to care for it”.  You are playing your part in caring for it through your singing.
 
One of my fellow cathedral organists told me that when he was a cathedral assistant, his own cathedral organist had reminded him that however much he valued the tradition of cathedral music it was nevertheless only a narrow furrow, a niche, if you like.  I have thought often of this, not least because surrounded by the majesty of this great building, aware of a noble history, and comfortable in the embrace of a church by law established, it is perhaps easy to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think.  In saying that I do not accuse our choir members, who mean so very much to me, of thinking that; but for my own part I am aware of the temptation.  Certainly, too, it would be grossly presumptuous to think that everybody wishes to worship God to the music of Parry, Stanford, Howells or even William Byrd.  There is rightly room for a much greater variety of musical styles of worship than would necessarily work well in this particular acoustic.  And yet, I have gradually come to the conclusion that the suggestion that we are ploughing a narrow furrow, while timely, is nevertheless not the whole truth.  Let me try to explain:
 
Is it not strange and sad that whereas thirty years ago the place of matters of faith in public affairs seemed in the eyes of many to be less and less relevant, matters of faith are now a pressing topic, less alas because of the good news faith brings to the world but more and more as the result of fundamentalism and fanaticism – a fanaticism which can lead people to think that they have the right to treat others’ lives as cheap?  The world stands in great peril; the need is as urgent as ever for the gospel of the Prince of Peace to be preached, in Word, in Sacrament and in song.  And if song is the last item on that list, it is nevertheless a vital one.  Surely, if we did not fill this church with song, the very stones would cry out loud?  We all know how music enhances our worship, giving wings to the words and letting our spirits soar.  But, equally important, it can speak to people who are on the edge of faith; people perhaps who long to believe, who feel that there is more to life than time and space, but who find it difficult to sign on the dotted line, as it were.  When I asked the Choristers once if they could imagine a world without music, one of them replied “it would have no meaning”.  Perhaps the fact that music is considered idolatrous in certain religious traditions speaks as strongly as anything of its spiritual power.  I ought to add that Christianity has not always been an exception to such a belief.
 
Further than simply the music they make, the choir bears witness even before anyone opens their mouth – by their deportment, concentration and commitment, by their inclusivity of gender, because we are not prepared to sacrifice our belief in the pressing need for this on the altar of so-called musical authenticity; and by the fact that on five days a week at least half of its members are children.  This in itself speaks volumes of our belief in the future and in the value we place on children’s ability to be ministers – an ability perhaps never more movingly portrayed than at their singing in funerals, singing which simultaneously both rends and consoles the heart.
 
Such worship, such music, does not come to be without great expense of cost, time, commitment, loyalty and love.  We saw at Fountains what happens when iconoclasm and neglect take hold; may it never happen here as long as God wills this place to be holy unto himself.
 
Today we bid farewell to sixteen members of the choir who have spent themselves generously in the service of our music here.  To the Choristers I shall have an opportunity later today to offer words of farewell; for now, from the pulpit, I just want to remind all our leavers that the music they have sung and played here and which they will sing and play later on will not be the most important music they make in their lives.  No; the most important music they will make is music that is not written on five lines and four spaces; it is the music they make as they pass through life itself – music unheard but not unfelt which expresses itself in their relationships with those they love and who love them, and in the good they do in seeking to leave the world a better place for their presence.  “His stretchèd sinews taught all limbs what key is best to celebrate this most high day” wrote George Herbert, of Christ on the cross.  To understand this fully you have to be aware that there were two systems of musical pitch in use in England during his time; a chord of A major in domestic pitch would have sounded lower than a chord of A major in church pitch.  So the violinist who played country dances on a Saturday night would have to tune up his violin strings before playing metrical psalms on Sunday morning in church in the west gallery band.  Herbert makes the analogy between the added strain the tighter strings impose on the body of the violin – without which tautness music cannot be made – and the agonising strain placed on Jesus as he hung on the cross, his overwhelming suffering love for us being likened to sweet music.  (When Jesus cried “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” on the cross, was he casting his mind forward, I wonder, to that later verse in the psalm “I will declare thy Name unto my brethren” – showing through his extreme agony and sacrifice how great God’s love is for us? )
 
R S Thomas, the Welsh poet, put it even more poignantly in his poem Kreisler – Kreisler was a famous violinist, and here he is giving a concert to a full house, so full that the poet finds himself having to sit close to the violinist on the stage; close enough, indeed, to sense the toil and indeed the pain involved in the music he is making.  Thomas draws an analogy with the scene of Calvary and Christ’s suffering, “because it was himself that he played”.
 
The most important music we make in our lives is the music we make as we strive to walk in the way of God.  In making it, we take up the angels’ cry; we echo the young creation, when the morning stars sang together, and all the children of God shouted for joy; we seek, however unworthily, to join our music to the music of Christ, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all honour and glory, majesty, dominion and might, as is most justly due, both now and for ever.