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Interview: Andrew Reid, director of the RSCM

26 October 2012

'Why do we think that God is happy with the offering of our shabby second best in anything?'

I have been directing the activities of the Royal School of Church Music [RSCM] since 1 October. It is a charity founded as the School of English Church Music, 85 years ago, by Sir Sydney Nicholson. The work involves setting policies, and making things happen within the organisation.

I was director of music at Peterborough Cathedral for eight years, running its choir and music programme. Before that, I was assistant director of music, and organist, at Westminster Abbey and, previously, Westminster Cathedral.

Yes, Roman Catholic church music is bit different. I'm hoping that's something I can bring to the RSCM. We've appointed two deputy directors at the same time, and the one who is a musician, Rosemary Field, is a Catholic - I'm not - so there's a chance for a little bit more emphasis on that, and to bring in new members.

We're here to promote good church music, and to help realise it as widely as possible among both members and not-yet-members. This involves encouraging and providing a critique. Although founded for the Anglican Church, and with a majority of UK Anglican members, it tries to work across the denominations and internationally.

I believe the RSCM should also help to set the agenda for church music, and raise the quality of debate about church music at all levels.

Common Worship has so much more of a Catholic flavour than the previous liturgies. The Anglican Church tended to be influenced by Nonconformism and "hymn sandwiches". The point of the new rite is to have many more participatory bits in the eucharistic prayer and Liturgy of the Word.

The way forward is for the congregation to integrate musically with the eucharistic prayer. When that happens, it feels more participatory, more engaged. It works on every level, because, from the '70s and '80s, more lay people became involved in the liturgy.

I want to help the RSCM act as a family: capable of sharing problems, challenging each other, finding solutions, and encouraging and celebrating successes.

Cathedral organists are asked to do a lot more these days, and church musicians are having to be more adaptable about the styles of music required, becoming experts in more areas. If you go back 80 years, it was very clear: you were an organist, played the organ, and might rehearse the choir once a week. The repertoire was reasonably small, and kept coming round in a predictable way.

There's a danger that we are jacks of all trades now; but it's an extremely exhilarating profession to be in, because there's so much variety: fund-raising, health and safety, child protection, parents, pointing the psalms, and so on.

There are plenty of churches that have both robed choirs and singing groups, sometimes with the same people in each. Let churches find their own best means of expression in worship without closing off possibilities artificially. Good congregational singing with organ is one possibility. Cantor-led liturgical music is another, more common in the Roman Catholic Church. Unaccompanied congregational singing is a third. All these modes of music-making stand outside either of the categories you mention.

I'd rather see church music as a spectrum of possibilities rather than as two separate camps.

Most conflict is ultimately about trust and understanding, and the value we give to each other. Many of the answers are common sense: opening channels of communication, trusting others in decision-making, articulating good grounds for change, recognising different possible styles of participation in worship, prioritising quality in worship, understanding the other person's perspective. Incidentally, one of the RSCM's roles is as a mediator in case of conflict. Archdeacons and churchwardens, please note.

Plumbers don't charge any less when they visit the houses of church musicians. Of course, pay and working conditions are important. All parts of the church community need to view this issue maturely.

Value is shown in more than simply salaries, though. Clergy and musicians need to value each other, so that the Church models good relationships to its own members and to the world.

I'd like to see church music reach new standards as a means of expressing the worship of God's people, whatever the musical style. Why do we think that God is happy with the offering of our shabby second best in anything, if we are capable of more? Look at Malachi 1.8. I'm not talking of the idolatry that makes music more important than the God we worship. Rather, I'm rejecting the idea that "anything goes" in public worship.

I'm married to Louise, who is also a church musician, and we have four children. We live in Peterborough, though I come originally from near Sevenoaks, in Kent. Although the RSCM's office is in Salisbury, and I need to be there some of the time, the RSCM is wherever its members are, and Peterborough is a good place from which to access much of the UK.

Since about the age of nine, I've wanted to make music, but I didn't even know there was daily choral worship in cathedrals until I did work experience with Paul Hale at Rochester Cathedral, aged 16.

I've tended to follow paths open to me when they have felt right, and resisted them when they haven't. My life is littered with wrong decisions - but I hope to bring to the RSCM only those that are helpful in illuminating the best way forward.

So many people have influenced me, priests and musicians, I would lose count; but Peter le Huray, in Cambridge, has a special place, though I didn't know him very long; and James O'Donnell, organist of Westminster Abbey, was a hugely inspiring person to work for, for over eight years. And Martin How, of the RSCM, opened a range of opportun-ities for me - and my agnostic English teacher taught me much about critical thinking.

Bach is very important to me, as to many musicians.

I read the Metaphysical poets, especially Donne; Spenser's hymns. I'm very fond of the strivings of John le Carré's characters in an espionage world of grey areas. So little of our existence is black and white.

I remember a sermon by a lay Reader when I was 11. As a boy, he had put a great effort into making a cake for the church fête, and was pleased with the result. The elegant ladies running the stall were less convinced, however, and put it discreetly behind the other cakes. In the hot sun, the icing ran and it started to look a bit of a mess. He kept going back during the day to see if it had gone, but as the other cakes were taken, his was still left. At the end of the day, his cake remained alone; so to save it from the bin, he went and paid with all his money to buy it back for himself. God so loved the world that he not only created us but also redeemed us at great price, however unlovely we may appear to others.

I also remember a wonderful sermon by Fr Philip Whitmore at Westminster Cathedral, on Peter leaving the boat, illustrating the faith we should have in Christ's steadying hand keeping us from drowning as we cross the waters of death. Many others have made an impact on me, too: "Serendipity" on Easter morning by Wesley Carr, Tom Wright on almost anything, Charles Taylor recently on the loaves and the fishes and avoiding church bigotry, effortlessly linked.

For pure natural beauty, it has to be Swiss mountains, or autumn leaves on the east coast of the US. For art, the Fra Angelico frescoes in San Marco in Florence, and the west front of Amiens Cathedral.

If I'd been alive in the Middle Ages, I'd like to have been a monk at Whitby. Perhaps its present ruined state makes it even more evocative.

I love the vision of the new creation in Revelation 19-22, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, and, above all, in the light of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene's first recognising Jesus; the Emmaus road story, and 1 Corinthians 15. As I'm a cathedral musician, you'd naturally understand my loving the Psalms, especially those I remember from church-chorister days, such as 65 and 137. I also admire the gall of Amos, the ridiculous extremes to which Hosea was called to make his point, and the beautiful trusting simplicity of Ruth and Mary.

Contented silence at the family dinner table, and the music before the late-night Shipping Forecast on the car radio are my favourite sounds.

Lack of engagement makes me angry. Here we are in this amazing world: how dare we ignore possibilities? And how dare we contribute to getting others to the stage where they don't care or don't have any hope?

I'm happiest with inspiring worship, music, words, art, architecture, food, discussions, or people.

Whatever the subject, the best prayer is for God's will to be done. Ultimately, I believe our most natural calling is praise.

I'd most like to get locked in a church with someone who saw the humour and possibilities of the situation rather than someone who saw the problems. And perhaps someone who would make music with me, for fun.

Andrew Reid was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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