Giles Fraser: Finding the numinous in music

20 December 2010

ONE of the highlights of the year at St Paul’s is the choristers’ Christmas party. Two dozen boys come round to our house, have sausages and chips, then a bit of a magic show or a film. They are just normal young kids, hanging out in jeans and trainers.

Then they do a turn themselves. For a few minutes, they sing the rest of us a couple of carols. Normal, boisterous children suddenly trans­form themselves into this extra­ordinary singing machine, their dis­cipline and talent sculpting enormous beauty from the very same voices that have just been shouting to each other in the playground.

Last week, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, came to St Paul’s to kick off a joint venture between the newspaper and the cath­edral. The aim is to try to model a more nuanced conversation between belief and unbelief, one that is not dominated by the shrill binary cer­tainties of so much public religious debate.

Mr Rusbridger spoke of having been a chorister himself at Guild-ford Cathedral, of having a child­hood dominated by the rhythm of that was singing the Offices six days a week. Even then, he felt unsure about faith — leaving out the first three words as he sang the creed.

Today he remains equally scept­ical, preferring to sit in silence with the Quakers rather than hear another bad sermon from an Anglican cleric. There is, none the less, some part of him that still holds on to a sense of the numinous. And it is the part of him that remains committed to music. He plays the piano every day.

In all of this, I am reminded once again of Wallace Stevens’s memor­able advice that “play you must a tune beyond us, yet ourselves.” Part of the accusation of atheists against believers — and this is certainly Nietzsche’s complaint — is that we somehow betray our humanity.

The thing about music, however, is that it is able to take us out of our­selves, away from the nagging de­mands of the ego, at the same time as being something supremely human. For those thousands of people who queue up for services over Christ­mas, here and throughout the country — and the choir is obviously a huge part of the draw — the language of God is experienced as music.

For a great many people, both believers and unbelievers, this is where God makes most sense. Those of us who want to build a new public conversation about faith need to take this as a vital clue to how best to proceed. They say the devil has all the best tunes. I don’t think so.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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